As pandemic restrictions lift, some Hawaii residents are using the opportunity to help the environment, and beach cleanup groups are welcoming waves of eager volunteers.

“Everything from the start of the pandemic to the Black Lives Matter movement has people wondering how do I help? What can I do? How can I give my time to make the world a better place?” said Rafael Bergstrom, Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii’s executive director.

“And then of course with COVID many people are feeling cooped up,” he added.

Registration for Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii’s first beach cleanup event since the start of the pandemic drew 150 people in less than a day.

Cleanup groups say trash cans at recently opened parks have been overwhelmed, and trash is blowing onto the beach and into the water. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought more single use plastics into people’s lives and many Hawaii residents aren’t disposing of them properly, leading to an increase in takeout containers, single-use cutlery, plastic bags and disposable masks on the beaches. But others are stepping up to the challenge.

“We’re averaging about six cleanups a day,” said Michael Loftin, executive director of 808 Cleanups.

Coordinating a large number of volunteers while adhering to social distancing guidelines and state restrictions on gatherings is a difficult feat.

808 Cleanups is focusing on its adopt-a-site program where households identify a beach, waterway or trail they’d like to regularly clean up and 808 Cleanups provides gloves, buckets and information about where to properly dispose of the collected trash.

Over 150 people have pledged to participate in the island-wide cleanup Saturday. Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii

For Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii’s Saturday event, it’s limiting each location to 10 people. A volunteer from the group or from one of the 19 organizations partnering on the event will meet participants at the cleanup site with reusable bags, disposable gloves and hand sanitizer.

“We’re asking everyone to bring their own masks and will be enforcing social distancing,” Bergstrom said.

Surprised by the increased interest, Bergstrom said he’s scaling up the Saturday event from 15 sites to 30 and hopes to organize cleanup days on other islands as well.

For those who can’t attend an event — either because they don’t feel comfortable or there aren’t enough open spots — Bergstrom said families can donate money or just go out to their favorite beach and send in photos of the trash they collected.

But even more important is addressing the systemic reasons why trash is on the beach in the first place.

“The plastics industry is pushing plastics upon us unnecessarily, and we need to stop the stream of trash off at the source,” Bergstrom said.

He said conducting an in-home audit of your waste, advocating for policies that support reusable systems or supporting zero waste companies are more efficient than participating in a single beach cleanup.

“The real idea is that the more and more people we get out to do the work of cleaning the beaches, the more people have an understanding of what needs to be done to stop beaches from ever getting dirty,” he said.

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