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Hawiian Coastal Plastic Cleanup by Young People

Optimism versus pessimism, how do we find balance between the two when confronting the environmental challenges of today? The older generation has many opportunities to help young people to be optimistic about the future — by encouraging them to take action.  The sea offers us inspiration to act (it is la mere in French, our...

In a dive near the plastics clean up site, the author observes that oceanic plastic becomes harder to observe as it degrades into smaller and smaller pieces making it lethal for more and more life forms in the food web

Optimism versus pessimism, how do we find balance between the two when confronting the environmental challenges of today? The older generation has many opportunities to help young people to be optimistic about the future — by encouraging them to take action.  The sea offers us inspiration to act (it is la mere in French, our mother). In Hawaii, a small volunteer shoreline cleanup was facilitated by elders, then a group of determined and optimistic young people demonstrated clearly that the one thing we must not do today, is to do nothing.

We were a small group of volunteers; among us, three fun loving Alaskan girls, Tammy, Daisy and Molly. They chose to do this hard work rather than bask on the beach. They were visitors to the Island who got one look at this lovely curve of shore and felt compelled to act. We sought advice from our cheer-leader, resident-grandfather-of -12-carpenter, Robin Reyes who was working nearby.  He said though he respected and supported our work, the changing tides and winds will soon cover it with plastic garbage again. It appears that this mid-Pacific hook in the shoreline is acting as a collecting point of detritus from near and far. In spite of that, these hardworking members of the younger generation keep a sense of optimism about the future because they are doing the best they can with what is before them.

Just getting to the cleanup site was an adventure in itself through the dense Polynesian jungle

The fact is that the world’s beaches from Arctic to Antarctic are in many                                                                         places, or most places, literally paved with plastic detritus.

Scientific American reports in this link that for every foot of shoreline around the world, there are the equivalent of 5 grocery bags of plastic debris, millions of tons of it adrift in the worlds rotating current gyres.


The big stuff is obvious and sometimes removable, but all of it is constantly being broken up into smaller and smaller bits by UV sunlight and the surf. The only thing we must not do in the face of this growing disaster or others like it, is to think it is not our problem. Humanity must take a serious look at the amount of plastic that we are allowing to get into the ocean. We must nurture optimism in our own hearts and the hearts of others, with the belief  that anything we do for the common good really matters and does indeed make a difference.

It is shocking to see that this semi-isolated cliff -bracketed boulder beach on the north coast of the  Big Island is littered with a nasty assortment of plastic objects large and small. There were many tons of plastic and commercial fishing net debris in this small cove. Volunteer beach combers could only scratch the surface.

There are ugly snarls of commercial fishing trawl net, some sections of which might weigh a ton. Floating nets like these are especially notorious because they attract fish; from little guys to giants who get tangled in them, die, and attract more creatures to these death traps. In a piece-count of commercial Japanese fishing floats we realize that 200’ of beach yielded almost 200 styro-foam floats and scores more, big and small, in a variety of shapes and colors. Friends reported seeing an entire small car washing back and forth in the surf perhaps kept afloat by the four tires. South Point on the opposite side of the Island has seen a lot of debris from the Nuclear Reactor disaster site at Fukushima Japan. The remote Aleutians, and much of Alaska’s coast is littered with this same debris.  We wondered what dangers we might face from radiation dealing with these articles? This insidious risk is magnified by knowing that more than one cleaner of beach garbage has been swept away, gone forever with a single rogue wave, indeed, there was a fatality on a nearby island recently. Beach-combers beware !

I have participated in shore clean-ups for more than 30 years and has never been more dismayed than looking down at this little half-moon beach. Seen from high above the amount of plastic is staggering but on hands and knees among the logs and boulders below, one sees that there are literally billions of small and smaller bits where the crashing surf and rolling boulders is grinding the plastic into bits so small that they will be ingested by small and smaller marine organisms. These are in turn eaten by large and larger organisms thereby threatening virtually all the fish that we would like to eat.


The beach is out of sight to all but a few daring surfers and those who come to watch them. The surfers scramble down a low place on the cliff, belaying themselves with a permanent rope and using steps chipped into the basalt.  We are just downhill from the sleepy little towns of Kapaau and Hawi on the  Hamakua Coast on the north tip of the Big Island of Hawaii. The residents call this desecrated jut of wave lashed shore, Lighthouse Point.


Necropsies of dead turtles, fish, whales and sea birds reveal that they are attracted to plastic bags and Styrofoam pieces large and small. The saddest images are those of albatross, already threatened and endangered whose desiccated bodies on remote islands reveal stomach’s bursting with plastic garbage killing the glorious birds slowly and horribly.  There is a monstrous but largely unseen Pacific Gyre of floating garbage beyond our view but it too prompted us to act.

Bent at the waist for hours at a time among the slippery ankle and leg breaking boulders the young people fill one huge black contractor garbage bag after another. There was a mind-boggling assortment of plastic stuff, at least one of everything you might buy at a Wall Mart or True Value hardware store. A few tons of garbage were sadly left behind, too heavy to pull by hand up the cliff face. “The girls above cried down to me, “’not too full please, it’s all we can do to pull the bags up the face of this cliff!”

These young women poured their hearts                                      and muscles  into the work

We can only imagine what the ohana (family) of King Kamehameha I 1736-1819 might have thought over 200 years ago about this drifting oceanic garbage washing ashore in his “front yard” on the Alenuihaha Channel. Born just offshore of where we work, he was brought to land just a few miles east of here. He grew up to create the independent Kingdom of Hawaii in the face of colonialization.  His ancestors still live here in harmony with nature.



Across the generations the first residents were and still are intimately familiar with this shore where limu-kohu, a delectable edible intertidal sea vegetable flourishes. Opihi is a cone shaped , a single shelled grazing mollusk flourishes here too and is considered a delicacy by those brave enough to dart among the foaming waves to gather them from to the boulders to which they tenaciously cling. Near shore fish like Upolu are abundant even in the surf zone. The ancients had ingenious ways to catch them from shore. This delicious silvery fish can weigh as much as a small person. Abuse and neglect and pollution of the sea threatens all of this and much more of course. Marine garbage threatens each of us as well. “As goes the sea, so goes all the earth”. “In taking care of the sea, we take care of ourselves.”

The young people  hauling contractor bags up the face of the 60’ cliff, hand over hand with half inch nylon rope, they  knew something about difficult challenges. We have dedicated our work to Nianoa Thompson and the crew of the Hawaiian ocean going canoe of ancient design. They have given the world an example of successfully facing a huge challenge — sailing around the world on a three year epic.

Now headed home they will have visitied 150 ports in 27 nations to create a “lei of hope” around the globe. Everywhere it goes, Hokulea is calling attention to the tragedy of ocean plastic and other forms of garbage, thus its nickname, “the lei of hope”.  “Just as we care for our own health, we must care for the sea, whose oxygen producing energy gives us every second breath”.

Whenever you visit a lovely place in nature for the calmness and inspiration that it offers, you might consider the idea that you can pay a “voluntary admission fee” by simply leaving it cleaner than you found it. Hiking a trail in the forest or along the shore, you can easily carry a backpack with a garbage bag liner and bring the junk back to a recycle site. It’s easy to do, no problem and it makes you feel good to take care of what we enjoy for free.

It’s so much more fun when you involve young people in your                                                                                            outdoor activities — like beach cleanups.

What can you do if you don’t live near the coast? Volunteer at the Elementary School — or at any school;  organize a community roadside clean-up. Most important of all, become involved in the political process that supports candidates who care deeply of taking care of the air, land and water. Hold your elected officials responsible for the health of our lands and seas and the air above them. With optimism fortified by pluck, courage, and informed hard work, we intend that seven generations from now, our grandchildren will inherit clean air, clean water and an earth that they can live on happily, sustainably and peacefully.

The only thing we must not do — is to do nothing!

(Then have fun doing the best you can !)



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Meet the Author

Michael McBride
He has more than 40 years experience as a wilderness guide, interpretive naturalist and bush pilot flying the wilds of Alaska. He's a Master Guide, licensed Coast Guard Captain with strong expertise in marine biology. He is an elected member of the Explorer's Club and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and is a Nationally Certified Yoga Teacher. He was the first Alaskan to serve on the Smithsonian National Board, a Trustee for The Nature Conservancy and Wilderness Foundation board member. He was awarded a Legislative Citation for Practical Activism. He was an Advisory Board member and pilot for Lighthawk, "Volunteer Pilots Flying for Conservation in America” and a founding patron of Bateleurs, “Volunteer Pilots Flying for Conservation in Africa” and is an elected member of the Africa Game Rangers Association. His Kachemak Bay Wilderness Lodge won a score of international awards and is listed in the NY Times Best Seller "1000 Places To See Before You Die" . Web site: His new book The Last Wilderness-Alaska's Wild Coast is available at Fulcrum Publishing, Golden Colorado