Hawaii is known for its miles of powdery white, otherworldly black, and even red- and green-sand beaches. Kamilo Beach, on the Island of Hawaii’s southeast coast, boasts blue, green, purple, and pink hues. But the colors here are not natural—they come from plastic fragments mixed into the grains of sand. This stretch of shoreline is a magnet for marine debris, thanks to ocean currents, strong winds, and its proximity to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a trash vortex between the West Coast and Japan. Each year, volunteers from the nonprofit Hawaii Wildlife Fund remove 15 to 20 tons of fishing nets and lines, straws, utensils, cups, plastic bottles, toys, and disposable lighters from the remote beach. But the garbage keeps on coming.
Kamilo Beach is not alone—visitors to even the most famed beaches in the state, like Oahu’s Waikiki, Maui’s Kaanapali, Kauai’s Hanalei Bay, and the Island of Hawaii’s Hapuna, will encounter marine debris that’s floated ashore, along with trash left behind by day-trippers. “People think beaches in Hawaii are clean until they participate in a beach cleanup and start to notice all of the straws, cigarette butts, plastic wrappers, hair bands, flip-flops, and microplastic,” says Shelby Serra, a conservation advocate at the Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF).
The PWF and Hawaii Wildlife Fund are just two of a number of environmental nonprofits attempting to address the state’s seemingly never-ending trash problem, which only worsened during the pandemic with an uptick in take-out-related waste and masks showing up on beaches. To counter Hawaii’s plastic crisis, state and local lawmakers have passed legislation in recent years banning single-use plastic, including ordinances enacted this year in Honolulu and on Maui prohibiting the sale and use of disposable plastic and polystyrene foam food ware. But just because laws are passed doesn’t mean people will abide by them. On-the-ground efforts are needed to raise awareness, too. “Actual policy advocacy is merely one facet, passing the law is just one step,” says Serra.
Case in point: Hawaii banned cigarettes in state parks and on beaches in 2015, yet three years later, when the PWF requested to see the Maui Police Department’s records, they found that zero citations had been issued. Serra believes that if people knew how harmful their butts were for the environment, they might think twice before flicking them into the sand. “Many people don’t even know that a cigarette filter is actually made of tightly packed plastic fibers,” she says. “Couple that with the toxins that are being filtered out of the cigarette itself, it can be a very harmful piece of debris if ingested by birds or marine life.”
Perhaps no group needs this education more than the legions of tourists descending on the islands in even greater numbers since the state lifted its COVID restrictions in March. During the lockdown-induced lull in visitors early on in the pandemic, the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) started working with local organizations to address the impact of vacationers through an initiative called the Malama Hawaii Program. One of the goals is to enlist visitors in the fight against the island’s trash by connecting them with area nonprofits working on the issue.
The HTA recruited hotels, restaurants, and shopping centers in Oahu, Kauai, Maui, the Island of Hawaii, and Lanai to start offering discounts and free nights of lodging to tourists who participate in beach cleanups or who volunteer to plant native trees, clear non-native plants, and fish for invasive tilapia to restore ancient fishponds. Some hotels require proof of the trash collected or hours volunteered, while others just trust their patrons to follow through. At the Hyatt Regency on Maui and the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel on the Island of Hawaii, for example, it’s all on the honor system: guests just need to pick up a cleanup kit during their stay and visit a beach to comb for plastic before they leave. Meanwhile, on Oahu, Sheraton Waikiki guests can get a night comped by signing up to plant native trees with the Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative.
When the program was introduced in 2020, it was a huge help to community groups who didn’t have the resources to recruit and take on volunteers on their own. “Participating Malama Hawaii organizations, like the Pacific Whale Foundation, have made beach cleanups easy and accessible for visitors by providing the necessary materials,” says John De Fries, HTA’s president and CEO. The kits for the self-directed beach cleanups, comprised of recycled grain bags and data sheets to document the debris, are stocked by local nonprofits and left at the resorts’ front desks or tourist-friendly locations nearby. In Maui, PacWhale Eco-Adventures, an ecotourism outfit run by the PWF, started placing them at the Ocean Store at Maalaea and Lahaina, as well as at the Maui Brewing Company, Kohola Brewery, and farm-to-table restaurant Moku Roots. The Hawaii Wildlife Fund has been carrying out similar efforts on the Island of Hawaii and inviting visitors to organized beach cleanups like the one on Kamilo Beach.
So far it’s been a big success. In the past couple of years, tourists have contributed thousands of pounds of trash pickup from dozens of beaches around the state. “We have found that many visitors to Maui want to learn and give back while on the island,” says Serra. “If only a small percentage of them participated in a program like this one, we could easily have enough people to clean every beach on Maui every day of the year.”
The increase in manpower is particularly helpful for smaller islands like Kauai, whose population of 70,000 is dwarfed by its tourists—more than 1.3 million people visited in 2019. Many of the island’s hotels, like the Hilton Garden Inn Kauai Wailua Bay and the Sheraton Kauai Coconut Beach Resort, are offering free nights for participating in self-directed beach cleanups as well as for signing up for organized volunteer outings, like hikes to remote bays to pick up marine debris led by the the local chapter of the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation. “It’s an adventure for people who come clean with us, because we typically take them to places that most visitors never see,” says Barbara Wiedner, education and outreach chair of the Surfrider Foundation’s Kauai chapter.
These cleanups are also enabling visitors to have a more meaningful connection to the Hawaiian community and the environment. “When people physically see, remove, and record the debris they find, there are connections made that carry into their behavior moving forward,” says Serra. While beach cleanups help solve the immediate problem, the bigger impact might be in the lifestyle changes visitors make afterward to reduce the amount of plastic trash they produce, like packing a Hydro Flask, using a bar of soap instead of a bottled version, and saying no to plastic utensils when getting takeout. “We need to stop opting for convenience and selecting the cheapest option,” says Megan Lamson, president and program director of the Hawaii Wildlife Fund. “We must combat the ever-increasing problem of plastic pollution across our planet, not just for the health of our oceans but for the health and wellness of humanity and our chance at maintaining a livable planet into the future.”