The Hawaiian islands are a magnet for the world’s plastic waste


The causes of plastic pollution in Hawai'i

Hawai'i’s unique position in the Pacific Ocean is responsible for the warm waters, unique wildlife, and luscious greenery that attract tourists from all over the world. Unfortunately, this location also makes the Hawaiian islands a high impact area for plastic pollution.

Sitting in the middle of the North Pacific Gyre, the Hawaiian island chain is surrounded by circulating ocean currents that funnel marine debris to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — the largest accumulation of ocean plastic in the world. Here, the islands act like a comb, sifting out debris as the current cycles past.

Plastic pollution in Hawai'i ranges from tiny microplastics that contaminate coastal waters to massive piles of plastic waste that accumulate on its coastlines. Many local environmental groups and government regulators are addressing the issue of single-use plastics, and for good reason, but not all of the debris washing up here is related to this issue. Use the slider to explore the main causes of plastic pollution in this tropical paradise.

Microplastic pollution

Plastic isn’t designed to decompose; when it enters the ocean, it’s degraded by sunlight and waves until it breaks apart into tiny pieces of plastic called microplastics. These plastics can be as big as a pencil eraser or smaller than a grain of rice. They can also absorb and transport chemical pollutants and threaten marine life that ingest them.

Many of Hawai'i’s windward beaches, or those on the north and/or east sides of the islands, are coated in a fine layer of microplastics. Not only does this impact tourism, which is a crucial part of Hawai'i’s local economy, but it also harms marine life that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. A recent study of a protected area off the Big Island’s Kona Coast, which serves as a nursery for many fish, found that microplastic outnumbered baby fish 7 to 1.

Commercial fisheries

Most of the plastic debris washing ashore on Hawai'i’s windward beaches isn’t from single-use plastic products, but from commercial fisheries and maritime industries like shipping. When larger pieces of debris wash up, they’re predominantly fishing nets, rope, crates, buoys, buckets, baskets, fuel tanks, and totes. This type of debris can pose serious risks for marine animals who are often injured or killed after becoming trapped or tangled in it.

Hawai'i is drowning in the world’s plastic waste

Hawai'i is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, which borders countless communities in North and South America, Australia, and Asia. Intentional littering, mismanaged waste, and/or severe weather events like tsunamis and flash floods in any of these places can cause plastic to enter the ocean. Once it enters the ocean, it gets caught up in strong winds and powerful ocean currents that carry the debris to Hawai'i’s shorelines where it accumulates in absolutely massive quantities.

Video: Learn about the plastic we recovered from Oahu’s beaches

In this video, our co-founder and CEO Alex Schulze will show you some of the plastic we collected, explain what makes it different from the plastic collected by crews from our other cleanup locations, and share more about what we learned during our Hawai'i scouting mission.


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