While Arjun Sharma, 16, has enjoyed swimming in Waikiki in the past couple months without tourists, he’s noticed a disturbing increase in ocean trash.

“I actually feel like Waikiki Beach and the water there seems dirtier relative to what it was like prior to the pandemic,” he said. “Plastic straws and bags floating around in the water next to me and I saw similar objects on the beach.”

Cleanup groups have noticed an increase as well. Michael Loftin, Executive Director of 808 Cleanups said there’s been a “surge” of plastic and other trash since parks and beaches opened up, and many people are ordering takeout and delivery.

While napkins, plastic forks and styrofoam containers on our beaches are a short-term problem, experts warn about an increase in pandemic-related marine debris that could travel to Hawaii’s waters.

Cleanup groups are noting an increase in trash on Hawaii’s beaches. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2019

It’s becoming a global concern as societies confront the legacy of the coronavirus pandemic. In the nearshore waters of the Mediterranean, one environmental group is finding more disposal masks than jellyfish, and recycling companies across Asia already have tons of plastic waste piling up.

The latest episode of Civil Beat’s environmental podcast looks at the future of the zero waste movement in Hawaii after the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the pandemic started and scientists didn’t know exactly how the disease spread, Nicole Chatterson said it made sense to use more single-use plastics, masks and gloves.

“I don’t fault anyone for wanting to put health and safety first,” she said. But as the director of Zero Waste Oahu, she’s also looking to the future and thinks it’s time to start reducing waste and worrying about the impacts of Hawaii’s trash again.

“For the average person who’s not an essential worker there’s not much reason to have a single-use mask for going into the grocery store,” she said, adding that gloves won’t protect from the virus if you touch your phone or your facemask with them on.

Scientists have also learned that the virus survives longer on plastic than on paper, and although it’s possible to catch COVID-19 after touching an infected surface and then touching your face, “aerosolized droplets are the only documented method of COVID-19 transmission to date.

Trusting Reusables Again

While the pandemic has caused many municipalities — including Hawaii County — to suspend plastic bag bans, and some oil companies are pivoting to plastic manufacturing amid low fuel prices, Chatterson is trying to stay optimistic.

“What we do know is COVID-19 is responsive to hot water and soap and washing, and the great news about reusables is that’s what they’re designed for,” she said.

Zero Waste Oahu is continuing its plan to pilot a reusable takeout container program with restaurants in Honolulu.

“It is clear that reusable systems can be used safely by employing basic hygiene.” – Open letter from more than 100 health experts

If everything goes according to plan, this fall diners can pick up reusable takeout containers at participating restaurants, drop the container off when they’re done and get a clean one next time they want a quick bite to eat.

“We now have this opportunity to remember how important cleanliness is and how brilliantly reusables can offer that,” she said. “We’re washing them in Department of Health certified facilities with certified protocol.”

Last week more than 100 health experts, virologists and epidemiologists from 18 countries released a statement pushing back against the idea that single-use plastics are safer than reusables.

“Washing at high temperatures with additional sanitizing procedures are standard in the industry and provide more than adequate protection against virus transmission,” read the statement.  “It is clear that reusable systems can be used safely by employing basic hygiene.”

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

If there was any silver lining to the disastrous shortage of protective equipment in many hospitals, it’s that scientists found new ways to sanitize equipment.

Chatterson thinks some of those innovations could be applied to restaurants and coffee shops to let customers bring cups and food containers from home again.


“What if you put your Pyrex in a little sanitizing container on the counter and it comes out the other end totally ready for handling by food service professionals?” Chatterson said.

The pandemic has also inspired Sharma to innovate as well.


Sharma won Congressman Ed Case’s app challenge last year with the “Clean My Beach” app. Now he’s turning his attention to the COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy: Arjun Sharma

Last year, he created an app called Clean My Beach which allows people to plan beach cleanups and find events near them. Now he’s partnered with a data team at Harvard University to make an app to help 13- to 24-year-olds take more responsibility during the pandemic.

“Essentially, what I’m trying to do with it is make young people realize that even though they may be at a lower risk of facing serious effects of the virus, they’re still very capable of asymptomatically spreading it to their peers or their families or their communities,” he said.

Sharma says this new app, tentatively titled Youth COVID-19 Awareness, is a natural next step after creating the beach clean up app; both are about protecting the islands he loves.

“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
Are We Doomed?! And Other Burning Environmental Questions

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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