Plastic debris from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, created by years of human litter, washes up regularly on the Kahuku shoreline on Oahu's North Shore. Photo by Nina Wu.
When is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch reaching Oahu's shoreline? The answer is that it's already here.
Kahuku's shoreline, just past the shrimp trucks (and makai of the wind farm) on the northeastern side of Oahu, has been the hardest-hit because of the way ocean currents flow. The shore, managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, has no public access but you could get to it if you walked far enough east of the Turtle Bay Resort. The debris is scattered along pockets all the way to the area fronting Kahuku Golf Course.
What's coming from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch out in the North Pacific Gyre?
Among the items that wash ashore regularly on Kahuku's shoreline: buckets, bottle caps, straws, plastic crate pieces, rubber oyster separators, toothbrush handles, nurdles, ocean buoys, pieces of fishnet and ropes, fish floats, golf balls and an occasional child's sand toy.
Some larger items picked up during a recent cleanup effort on the Kahuku shoreline included: the back of a television monitor, part of a car bumper and a rubber fin.
Honolulu-based non-profit group, Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawaii (B.E.A.C.H.), founded by Suzanne Frazer and Dean Otsuki, has been cleaning up the Kahuku shoreline since 2008, as well as other heavily impacted beaches in the state, including the Big Island's Kamilo Beach, since 2006.
While Kamilo Beach may have taken the title of "dirtiest beach in Hawaii," Kahuku could well be the "dirtiest beach on Oahu."
In August 2008, the International Year of the Reef, B.E.A.C.H. and 160 volunteers hauled out 3,000 pounds of fishing nets and ropes, 1,100 pounds of marine debris and 50 pounds of recyclables at Kahuku.
This Tropicana water bottle has mandarin writing on it, indicating it originally came from Asia.
Volunteers counted 9,010 pieces of plastic, 1,152 pieces of rope, 809 caps and lids, 735 Styrofoam pieces, 348 pieces of rubber tubing, 299 oyster spacers, 253 plastic beverage bottles, 203 other plastic bottles, 197 fishing nets and 153 fish floats.
Even with regular beach cleanups every other week at Kahuku, the debris washes up along different pockets of the shoreline again.
Where does it all come from?
None of this is yet from the March 11 tsunami and earthquake, which is expected to land on the main Hawaiian isle shores in the next two years. This debris is from human litter that has amassed in the ocean for years — a manmade creation, not a natural disaster.
It probably comes from all sides of the Pacific. There are water bottles with Chinese writing on them and bottle caps stamped with Nestle on top.
Marine debris comes from both land-based and water-based sources.
Land-based litter, like plastic bags, get blown into waterways and eventually, the ocean, where they break down into smaller pieces. Recreational boaters, fishermen and cruise ships also contribute to the litter, throwing items like fishnets, ropes, floats and water bottles overboard.
This is plastic debris, close up, on Kahuku's shoreline.
What's even worse is when plastic litter breaks down beneath the ultraviolet rays of the sun, into small jagged pieces, and then even smaller, so that it's as fine as sand. These are the most difficult to clean from a shoreline (B.E.A.C.H. uses a sand sifter), and the most dangerous because birds, fish and other marine wildlife mistake them for food.
Monk seals and Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles have been spotted along this particular Kahuku shoreline. Have you seen photos of Laysan albatross chicks from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands with cut-open stomachs full of plastic pieces? It's death by plastic.
Most east and windward facing beaches across the main Hawaiian islands are the most heavily impacted by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and due to ocean currents, rake in the ocean's derelict fishing gear, according to an aerial survey by NOAA.
How did this happen in Hawaii — the postcard image of paradise? If you enjoy the ocean, play in the ocean, or care about your health (which is impacted by the health of the ocean), then this is more than just about a dirty beach.
What can you do?
* Reduce your use of plastic, especially single-use plastics like disposable cups, bags, forks and straws which get tossed after just one use. Bring a reusable bag to the store or opt out of a plastic bag at checkout if you don't need one.
* Recycle your plastic items (remember reduce comes before recycle). No. 1 and No. 2 plastics can go into your blue bin for curbside pickup. Plastic beverage bottles are redeemable for 5-cents apiece at Reynold's Recycling. Plastic bottle caps can also be recycled at four Goodwill locations.
* Learn about the different kinds of plastics. Here's a handy guide.
* By all means, make sure when you're done with a plastic item that you keep it from landing in waterways and the ocean. If your kids play with plastic sand toys at the beach, make sure to clean up after them when they're done.
* If you see any plastic on the beach, whether it be a plastic bag, straw, fork or cup, pick it up and remove it properly so it won't break down on the shoreline into smaller pieces. That's when it gets even tougher to clean up.
* Read "10 Things You Need to Know About Marine Debris" from NOAA's website. Help educate others about marine debris and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
* Watch "Bag It: Is Your Life Too Plastic?" and share the film with others.
* Join the cleanup efforts. Plastic Free Hawaii is planning a beach clean-up on Saturday Dec. 3. Meet at Kahuku High School at 9 a.m. You can also volunteer for B.E.A.C.H. Click here to learn more.
Here are some more photos of what's washed up on Kahuku's littered coastline:
Barnacles started attaching themselves to this ocean buoy before it washed up on Kahuku's shore. Photo by Nina Wu.
Look closely at the tidepools and you will see all the colorful bits of plastic, which is what happens when large, plastic items break down into small pieces, eventually becoming plastic debris. This debris floats in the ocean and is ingested by fish, birds and other marine wildlife who mistake them for food. Photo by Nina Wu.
From left to right, volunteer Azure Ng, B.E.A.C.H. founders Dean Otsuki and Suzanne Frazer haul a net from off the rocks at the Kahuku shoreline. Photo by Nina Wu.
Plastic debris embedded in sand is a big challenge to extract. You may think at first they might be crushed rocks or shells, but these petroleum-based plastic pieces don't belong on a natural shoreline. Eventually the plastic pieces break down into such small pieces they become "plastic sand." Photo by Nina Wu.
Suzanne Frazer of B.E.A.C.H. holds what's left of what appears to have been a plastic shampoo bottle. This bottle washed up on Oahu's Kahuku shoreline from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.