Naka Nathaniel: Big Plastic Has Left The Next Generation With A Big Problem - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

The beach and the valley floor of Pololu are speckled with plastic that has washed ashore. If only a valley could sue those responsible.

POLOLU VALLEY, Hawaii Island — I’ve followed my son down the precarious trail into the northernmost of Hawaii island’s famed valleys many times. This time it’s the first full day of his spring break and he’s earnestly hunting his bête noire, his white whale, his pilikia nui.

He was back to resume the chase he began months ago. His quarry? A fishing net made of synthetic fibers sunk into the mud sands of the valley floor.

My son knows that Pololu Valley is a wahi pana, a sacred place. He feels especially drawn because of the moʻolelo, or legend, set here of our ancestor, Naeʻole, who helped carry a newborn child who would become Kamehameha from the clutches of rival chiefs who wanted to kill the child and upend the prophecy that the baby would unite the Hawaiian Islands.

Almost three centuries later, the beach and the valley floor of Pololu is speckled with a layer of plastic that has washed ashore. As part of his kuleana, my son loves to see how much plastic he can gather and hike out of the valley. It’s an endless process and there’s no good way to get ahead of this problem.

Growing up in the Marshall Islands, any time we’d find a piece of trash on the beach it’d be a treasure. We’d marvel at how the object had floated at least 3,000 miles to be washed ashore in the middle of the Pacific.

Sadly, that’s not the case for my son and his generation. We can’t escape the trash we’ve created in the last four decades. We are familiar with the stories: The Great Pacific Gyre, the plastics found in the bellies of ocean-going creatures and the microplastics floating in our water.

Plastic fiber netting Naka Nathaniel column
The tangle of synthetic fiber netting that became the bane of the author’s son. (Naka Nathaniel/Civil Beat/2023)

Big Plastic — which comprises industries ranging from oil, gas and chemical companies to the purveyors of goods that use plastic for packaging — has successfully put the onus on the consumers to help them solve their problem.

We’re supposed to feel bad about not recycling instead of challenging major corporations to deal with the problems they have created.

Children Leading The Fight

Therefore, the generations that have seen this problem become overwhelming in our lifetimes face a challenge: Do we capitulate, accept and adapt to what has happened? Or, do we struggle? 

I think my son and his generation have an inspiring answer. The keiki are not conceding. 

Earlier this year, a group of 17 children sued the Hawaii Department of Transportation to force the government to enforce the clean-air legislation and the section of the state constitution that says the state has the power to promote and maintain a healthful environment.

Leināʻala Ley, the Earthjustice attorney representing the keiki, said those who criticize the case saying the children are being manipulated are just wrong.

“A lot of people are confused. They think it’s a money case. So they’re saying these kids are being used for money, but actually it’s the opposite,” she said.

“The kids are so clear-eyed about the problems they see and their concern and their desire to live in a different system where this isn’t just an accepted fact. It’s really inspiring to work with and to see just how committed they are to a better future. So it keeps you hopeful, because, to be honest, these are overwhelming problems,” she added.

And how do we deal with overwhelming problems? This fishing net seems to be a good place to start.

My son first tried to dislodge the net on Christmas Eve, but he settled for carrying out 20 pounds of trash instead of the net. 

Yet, he was determined to return for the net. When he finally popped it out of the mud-sand on Friday and started to celebrate, I accused him of performative trash cleanup. 

He wanted to carry the heap out to the trash cans at the top of the valley, but the bulk was over 100 pounds.

He wasn’t going to give in. He lashed a stretcher like he had practiced in Scouts earlier in the week, but the load was just as heavy and bulky as a person. We got it across the rocky stream and to the cusp of the first switchback when a key support gave way. The bulk won the day.

Instead, we hauled out another 20-liter bag of plastic. That was just another small dent in an overwhelming problem that Big Plastic has no answers for. When the Pearl XPress sank off the coast of Sri Lanka in 2021 and released billions of plastic pellets called nurdles, the industry’s response to what the U.N. called the largest plastic spill in history was to send vacuums called Sweepy Hydros to collect the spillage. The machines were quickly abandoned due to ineffectiveness. Now Sri Lankans workers sift out the nurdles by hand.

There doesn’t seem to be a practical solution: The most hopeful scenario is that nature finds its way to help humanity out of this mess. Scientists are closely studying organisms that can consume plastic.

plastic Naka Nathaniel column
The floor of the valley is speckled with small pieces of plastic that have washed ashore. (Naka Nathaniel/Civil Beat/2023)

When I hear those stories, I think about how hundreds of millions of year ago, trees once grew without organisms like bacteria and fungi to decompose them. Trees would fall over and then pile up. Eventually these trees compressed into the coal we’re now burning. So plastic-eating organisms seems like a possible solution until you learn that it took more than 40 million years for bacteria and fungi to be able to break down those trees. We don’t have that kind of time.

Time Is Running Out

My generation knows from the Big Tobacco lawsuit that litigation works. Therefore, would suing Big Plastic make a difference? And who should be the plaintiffs? The valley?

Maybe? A lake in Florida recently sued developers, but a judge tossed its case.

But boundaries have been pushed. Here in Hawaii, the Palila, a honeycreeper, successfully sued the DLNR in 1981.

Bill Hunt, who represented the bird (and the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society) said, “The standing of the bird never got really challenged much at all. An animal can never appear in court on its own, but no one challenged it. And it’s there.”

But, Hunt said, suing an industry is difficult because of international agreements and treaties. It’s easier to sue the Department of Transportation or the Department of Land and Natural Resources to get them to enforce the laws that already exist. Could the valley get standing?

“That gets a little weird,” he said. “You need a living thing.”

Last Sunday, we returned with better tools and a better plan to conquer my son’s pilikia nui. He’d cut the muddy lumpy net into pieces and fill contractor bags with little loads. Afterall, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

We asked hikers headed back up if they could carry a bag up a stretch. Any little bit would help. Even 20 feet. When we got down to the last nub of the net, we tied it to a pole and we yoked it on our shoulders. 

As we climbed, we were amazed not to see any black bags on the trail. My wife was nearly moved to tears as she’d round a switchback and not see an abandoned load. The families from Austin, Portland and Kansas City successfully carried out the loads.

Working in Pololu made me contemplate how to best help the children. Going back to the moʻolelo of Nae’ole, we should support these keiki and deliver them to a place where they can become the heroic leaders we desperately need. We can become Generation Nae’ole.

Facebook page Palolo Valley Naka Nathaniel column
This kind of encouragement and support goes a long way to finding solutions to overwhelming problems like plastic pollution. (Facebook/2023)

When I shared the beginnings of the Generation Naeʻole idea with Alapaki Nahale-a, the head of the Iole Stewardship Center not far from Pololu, he immediately responded with “yes, and …” we need to create more Naeʻoles (helpers) not Kamehamehas (conquerors).

What does Generation Naeʻole look like in action? The Pololu trail stewards, Aunty Sarah and Uncle Paul, demonstrated it perfectly when they warmly thanked the families, and later our son, for carrying up the trash.

Sarah Pule-Fujii and Paul Ishikuro took photos to share positive messages on social media. The stewards have been encouraging and positive and their attitude has spurred my son to keep coming back for more cleaning. 

As anyone with a teenager knows, it’s a challenge to make kids clean up after themselves. Sadly, the fate of their generation is to clean up after us. The least we can do is encourage them and warmly thank them for the hard work.

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About the Author

Naka Nathaniel

Naka Nathaniel spent much of his career as a journalist with The New York Times, helping launch, covering war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of the second tower on 9/11. He lives in Waimea on the Big Island. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

Mahalo nui e Kai.

MamaIpo · 6 months ago

bottled water is a recent need in Hawaii because I experienced Hurricane Iniki in 1992 on Kauai and there were no big box stores or proliferation of bottled water ,but we all had coolers and trash cans and we were instructed by the County on how to fill our containers with water ratio/Clorox -we had bars of soap and not body wash in plastic containers-eliminating body wash in plastic containers and individual bottled water is a good start for Hawaii -many countries like Italy are only selling bottled water in plastic containers in the liter size

Swimmerjean · 6 months ago

I think the root of the problem is our societies economics in general. Let's be honest. The majority have wanted cheaper, easily available and convenient products. Plastics were one way producing in quantity and lower cost. To do things right may cost more and be more inconvenient. We don't think far enough ahead and scramble for solutions that are not necessarily good when the issue comes to a head. Do you really think that all biodegradable products are actually safe and environmentally friendly? Are electric vehicles really going to be cheaper to operate that gas vehicles? Are we prepared to deal with all the batteries from these vehicles when the time comes? As other have stated, there is no easy answer.

gasaraki · 6 months ago

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