Hawaii’s unique position in the Pacific Ocean provides warm waters, unique wildlife and luscious greenery. It’s also a central reason thousands of pounds of microplastics wash up on our beaches every year.

Hawaii sits in the middle of a system of circulating ocean currents that funnels floating marine debris to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

“The Hawaiian Islands are acting like a comb, accumulating these plastics on her windward beaches,” said Jennifer Lynch, co-director of Hawaii Pacific University’s Center for Marine Debris Research and research biologist with the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Civil Beat reader Paul Goo has seen the amount of plastic waste on his favorite beaches increase dramatically over the years.

“I grew up on those beaches and now it’s just so bad — it’s a crisis,” he said.

His wife has even stopped eating certain fish, like mahi mahi, over concerns about microplastics in the ocean. Goo asked about the impact of microplastics in Hawaii, and the latest episode of Civil Beat’s “Are We Doomed?” podcast is all about the human health and environmental impact of tiny plastics.

A turtle rests on Kahuku beach on Oahu’s north shore, known as the island’s dirtiest beach. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2019

Microplastics can range from the size of a pencil eraser to thinner than a stand of hair. Plastic, by design, doesn’t decompose so most of the microplastics you can see on Hawaii’s beaches started out as bigger items that have been ground up by the rough ocean waves.

In addition to coating beaches with a fine layer of plastic waste — angering local residents and affecting tourism — microplastics are also hurting Hawaii’s wildlife.

“Larval fish are eating the plastics, which means they’re taking in non-nutritious particles that give them no benefit at all,” Lynch said.

Microplastics on Oahu’s north shore. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2019

She worked on a recent study analyzing larval nurseries, protected areas of the ocean where recently-hatched fish live, off the Big Island’s Kona Coast.

It found microplastics outnumbered baby fish 7 to 1.

“That has to be not a good thing for the larval fish,” Lynch said.

But the full ecological impacts of all this plastic hasn’t been determined. Global research on microplastics is in the early stages, and scientists are just beginning the long process of studying and verifying health impacts.

“There are so many questions that haven’t been answered,” Lynch said.

What we do know is that fish aren’t the only creatures in Hawaii eating microplastics. The average human ingests a credit-card size worth of plastic every week.

“You can imagine gulping a credit card — that that feels pretty gross, right?” she said.

Microplastics have been found in bottled drinking water, beer, table salt, food packed in plastic and seafood. And right now you’re probably touching one of the biggest sources of microplastics in your life: polyester, nylon or rayon clothing.

“These are plastic polymers and in the laundry they shed those little micro fibers,” Lynch said. “It’s fluffing through the air. You breathe some into your nose.”

Lynch’s study also looked at the type of microplastics baby fish were eating and found 93% were microfibers from synthetic textiles.

Educating people about the microplastics present in their daily lives is an important part of the conversation, Lynch said, because it’s easy to blame other countries for the problem.

It’s a philosophy shared by 808 Cleanups, a local nonprofit that leads volunteer groups on litter cleanup events around Hawaii.

Kane sifts sand through a net to collect microplastics. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2019

“We have a play in this, too,” said Kimeona Kane, the community outreach director.

Once a month he leads a cleanup at Kahuku beach on Oahu’s north shore. It’s known as the island’s dirtiest beach due to the extreme amount of microplastics mixed in with the sand.

The 10 volunteers who attended the early Saturday morning event sift sand through purple nets to collect small pieces of trash.

Seventeen-year-old volunteer Izumi Watt’s first scoop revealed dozens of small plastic pieces.

“There’s some pieces of like fishing nets,” she said, using a gloved hand to poke at the trash she deposited in an orange Home Depot bucket. “There are lots of different colors. It’s like bright blue and green.”

Although volunteers often find bits of plastic labeled with Japanese and Chinese writing, Kane finds plenty of trash in the water from local sources: beach toys, car parts, bags from local businesses, sports equipment and plastic utensils.

“A lot of this comes from commercial fishing, our local population,” said Kane.

Kane and 808 Cleanups volunteers often drag in plastic netting, ropes, barrels, baskets and other gear used by fishermen around the islands. Experts say anywhere from 20% to 80% of marine debris on Hawaii’s beaches could be traced back to commercial fishing.

Kane said in his experience, it’s closer to 60% or 70%.

“They need to have a lot more accountability,” Kane said.

On the Saturday morning cleanup, long-time volunteer D.J. Cabalo found a 70-pound wad of plastic netting and rope nestled in a rock formation on the far end of Kahuku beach.

A volunteer and Michael Loftin (right) take a break from dragging the 70-pound wad of netting and ropes across the beach. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2019

Cabalo and Michael Loftin, the co-founder of 808 Cleanups, dragged the netting almost a mile across the beach and up a hill to a waiting truck. Although the two were sweating and panting by the end, they said they were thrilled to catch the netting before it breaks into thousands of tiny, microplastic pieces.

Loftin calls the scattered volunteers to circle up, and surveys everyone’s buckets. They’re filled to the brim with microplastics.

“Awesome, awesome job today everyone,” he said, doling out fist bumps and high fives.

Kane grabs a scale from the truck and weighs all the buckets. The 10-person group collected 129 pound of microplastics in just under 2 hours. That, plus the 70-pound net, brings their total to 199 pounds.

“Dang it! Let’s go get one more pound of trash,” a volunteer calls out and everyone laughs.

808 Cleanups has collected over 500,000 pounds of trash this year, and Kane and Loftin said their organization is expanding to include more neighbor island cleanups. It’s just in time, as the amount of microplastics washing up on Hawaiian beaches is expected to double by 2030.


“Are We Doomed And Other Burning Environmental Questions” is funded in part by grants from the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

Want to hear more? Check out Civil Beat's other podcasts.

Are We Doomed?! And Other Burning Environmental Questions
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What the heck is reef-safe sunscreen? Where does all the trash go? Why is it so hot? Join Civil Beat as we tackle your questions about Hawaii's environment. Smart. Irreverent. Never boring. This is not your grandma's science podcast.

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