“A beach cleanup on the southern coast of the island of Hawai‘i”

March 2019 – Hilo: I am one of the many volunteers that Hawaiʻi Wildlife Fund (HWF) counts on to help clean up the plastic marine pollution at Kamilo Point. Kamilo, located on the southeastern part of the island of Hawaiʻi, is in a remote corner of the island located within the Kaʻū Forest Reserve in the Waiʻōhinu Ahupua‘a, accessible only by 4WD or a very long hike. Kamilo, which literally means “swirling” and “twisting” in Hawaiian, is a natural environment so isolated and beautiful that city people such as myself, standing under our looming skyscrapers with our lattés in hand, can hardly believe it exists.

Leah Sherwood (center) and fellow UHH students help with a debris survey at Kamilo (Sept 2018).

But exist it does, and it has now become infamous for the many tons of plastic consumer waste and fishing gear that accumulates there. It has even been given the moniker “Junk Beach.” I like to imagine a time before people started referring to it as junk beach, how welcoming the clear warm water and salt-and-pepper colored sand would have been after a hard week.

At 8:30 a.m. on cleanup day, the other volunteers and I meet HWF staff at Wai‘ōhinu Park, about one mile from the dusty access road leading to the cleanup site. This local park represents both a meeting place and final chance to fill up water bottles and use a flushable toilet. HWF staff review an array of safety protocols such as “do not handle unexploded ordinances” and “if you hear horns, return to the vehicle you drove down in immediately” and explain the primary reason that we are all here for the day (to restore coastal habitat for native wildlife). One thing I enjoy about this morning prep time is the chance to speak with the other volunteers. HWF has hosted cleanup volunteers from Germany, South Korea, and tourists from all over the U.S. who wanted to do some good while on their vacation. However, most of the volunteers, including me, are locals who drive in from Hilo or Kona, the two major cities located on either side of the island, or nearby residents of the Kaʻū district.

At 9 a.m. we pile into HWF’s two 4WD vehicles, which have been given affectionate nicknames. There is “BB”, the black Surburban, and “Ruby”, the red Dodge pickup truck with the military trailer hitched to it, which does most of the hauling of plastic debris out of Kamilo. There is also usually a red Ford pickup, as yet unnamed, driven by Andre, one of HWF’s most dedicated volunteers. Andre was awarded “most energetic volunteer” at a party that HWF threw in January 2019 to celebrate its 250-ton debris removal milestone.

The best description of the drive down to Kamilo appears in the book Flotsametrics by Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who perfectly captures the bumpy unpaved roads and the treacherous maneuvering among the bushes and lava rocks that hug the coastline. The drive takes a little under two hours. Depending on who the driver is, and in which vehicle you happen to be riding, and whether you are prone to motion sickness, the trip down to Kamilo can be peaceful and quiet or downright miserable. You feel enormous relief when you finally see the ocean, sand, and abundant plastic litter, which signals it is time to park and get to work.

One thing that newbies notice arriving at Kamilo is that the sand is no longer just black and white, but speckled with blues, pinks, greens, yellows, and pale artificial whites. Stick your hand down into the sand and you will draw up mostly fragmented plastics with very little true sand. This is why we work hard to locate and remove all fishing gear (nets, line, and rope) and larger plastics from the coastline before they disintegrate into fragments due to the harsh ocean environment and exposure to sunlight (in a process called “photodegradation”). Though some microplastics (any plastic under < 5 mm) can come directly from cosmetics, paints, or pre-production pellets called “nurdles” (the smallest unit of plastic used to create larger plastics), I suspect that most of the microplastics present in the sand are fragments from these larger plastic products.

As the beach cleanup progresses, we fill up dozens of meter-tall re-usable bags that have been collected over the years by HWF. This is the most environmentally responsible way to haul away plastic debris from the beach without adding yet more plastic bags to the landfill.

Debris survey with HWF at Lae o Kamilo (Nov 2019). Photo by Elizabeth E. Weber.

We also try to remove as much fishing gear (line, rope, and nets) from the environment as possible. Discarded net and line bundles (also called “ghost nets”) cause severe damage to wildlife and will persist indefinitely if not removed from the environment because they were designed specifically to withstand the tough ocean environment. Such fishing and cargo nets are monstrous to handle out there on the slippery lava rocks. By the time a net ends up on the beach it is typically tangled up with other loose nets and line, other plastic and organic debris, and maybe a lava rock or two. I always think of them of as black holes because of how easily they swallow up the objects around them, including animals. Or maybe cancer cells are a better metaphor given their ability to move around the ocean inflicting death and destruction. The nets that we remove from Kamilo are used in the Hawaiʻi “Nets To Energy” program, which creates electricity out of the steam produced by burning the nets in an industrial incinerator in O‘ahu.

Typically, the wind and heat are relentless at Kamilo, leaving us all exhausted. Sometimes there is no wind, which is even worse, because it makes the heat truly unbearable. I wear full protective gear (sunglasses, gloves, hats, and fabric wrapped around my mouth). Any exposed skin gets slathered in reef-safe sunscreen regularly throughout the day.

Once the trucks are full of collected plastic debris, we pack up and head to the waste transfer station near Wai‘ōhinu Park where the day began. At the transfer station, the volunteers line up in single file behind Ruby’s trailer and pass one bag or large debris item at a time down the line for disposal. A long-time volunteer who knows the drill will assist with counting and organizing the bags to document the day’s haul as others toss the plastic contents into the dump. Any items that may be reused (e.g., pallets, in-tact buoys, crates) will be set aside and given to the interested party.

As the sun begins to set at the end of cleanup day, I am physically exhausted. On an emotional level, I am torn. On the one hand, I am proud that we were able to remove so much plastic debris and fishing gear from the sea. On the other hand, I feel a bit sad and angry that our consumer culture and fishing industry practices have made it necessary for me to spend my Saturday removing debris from the shoreline in the first place. It also feels overwhelming to load up trucks with debris only to return back to the same scenario in just a few weeks. It would be so wonderful if one day I could just visit Kamilo to swim and to read a book, and walk on actual sand made of coral, calcified algae and lava rocks, and not plastic.

The author, Leah Sherwood, was a graduate student at UH Hilo working on a Master’s degree in Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science and an intern with HWF during her time on island (2018-2020), and is currently a journalist based in Los Angeles, California.