How to clean a beach

Yesterday sister and I bused up to Waimanlo beach for a day of cleanup and a change of pace from buzzing Waikiki. Like most places on Oahu’s windward side, Waimanalo boasts both rugged beauty and a steady accumulation of marine debris, especially plastic from around the pacific rim.

While not covered in piles of waste, the beach was littered with poker-chip sized pieces every few steps, often the blues and greens and oranges of detergent bottles. We found some identifiable chunks – bottle caps, a shoe, plastic bucket handles, and three weathered half toothbrushes that seem proof of distant origin. Unlike cigarette butts (made of millions of plastic fibers, not paper and harbouring toxins that release into water after only an hour), and new-looking food wrappers, these were not items carelessly discarded by beachgoers. The strange blue-grey tubes, on the middle-left, are ‘oyster spacers,’ from farming operations in Asia.

As my sister pointed out, you don’t even see most of the plastic unless you are looking for it. Like the garbage patch, most detritus is broken into pieces, colorful sprinkles of festive, but toxic synthetic sand.  Dragging an increasingly weighty garbage bag on a hot morning across only a tiny fragment of one beach, unable to collect all the little pieces, we began to get a very practical sense the impossibility of clean-up.

As the bus driver joked when asked about the length 0f the beach – “it goes all the way around.” Multiplying plastic bits  by 112 miles (180km) of coastline on Oahu alone, I can barely begin to imagine the immensity of the problem at sea. I am also struggling to reconcile the treasure-hunt satisfaction of finding large, colourful, or identifiable pieces, with the gravity of plastic waste, a contradiction I can only imagined will be greatly multiplied on the expedition as we hope as ‘explorers’ to find waste, while, whole-heartedly wishing it was not there to be found.

A few days ago, I had a long phone conversation with a founding member of B.E.A.C.H. who pointed me in the right direction for beach clean-up, strongly recommending gloves as protection against the dangerous synthetic chemicals like DDT that adhere to the surface of ocean plastics at many, many times the concentration of surrounding water. She was also adamant that BEACH was not simply a beach cleanup organization. In fact, she had refused to participate in a cleanup of Waikiki beach on grounds of lacking litter prevention measures. In response to my commenting that tourists act as if maid service extends to the beach, she replied with a story of a man finishing a cigarette and dropping it deliberately on the ground in the path of a girl scout collecting litter.

Collecting plastic on the beach does helps ensure it does not break into smaller pieces, wash out to take another 6 year turn around the gyre, or be eaten by marine life. As many have pointed out before me, however, truly cleaning a beach requires stopping the flow of plastics. Yet, despite BEACH’s efforts targeting in sequence, cigarette butts, bags, bottle caps and cutlery, ever more plastic disposables seem to be appearing. Cheap inflatable beach toys, in bright blue, pink and green, are almost as prevalent as tourists in Waikiki. Sold on almost every corner for less than 5 dollars (“air mattress $2.99; $3.59 inflated”), they are designed to last a single, short vacation at most and it is unlikely that even resolute survivors would be packed back home to be used again.


Pacific Crossroads / Spam Musubi

I’ve been in Honolulu the past few days, half holidaying, half-researching. My trip started with strange and serendipitous encounters – an airplane seat neighbour that claimed to be Steven Segal’s body guard buying me 10am champagne, and randomly recognizing fellow expedition mate, Tim Silverwood, in the hostel lounge.

Early Friday morning I took a taxi to Pearl Harbor with a youth hostel friend, securing a coveted ticket to the memorial. I tried to politely offer my version of the ‘factual’ exhibit. The “road to war” display begins with Commodore Perry landing in Japan and thus ending a long period of isolationism – or, white American man magically changes the entire course of history the second his foot lands on foreign soil. I was most enrage-amused by a large map that marked all the sites of “Japanese Expansion” across Asia and the Pacific but neglected to explain exactly what the US was doing in Hawaii (not a State until 1959) and the Philippines. While overall a careful, interactive exhibit that gives much credit to a technologically advanced, meticulously planned, daring attack, and acknowledging the naïve and arrogant mistakes of the US navy at the time, the exhibit designers still manage to label the Japanese as enemies. Perhaps the most striking contrast from the Hiroshima memorial, is the promotion of American patriotism, not peace, as if what is carefully framed as an event in the past still justifies current (and unacknowledged) presence in Japan and the Pacific. With the mandatory movie explicitly instructing the audience to “mourn the dead,” and remember the event as “monumental history,” Pearl Harbor is a memorial to military sacrifice, not a plea for humanity.

Oahu, of course, is more than a crossroads for textbook history. Waikiki’s transient tourist community has an especially prominent Japanese presence. The grocery store carries bento-box lunches and other Japanese style to-go food with multi-language labels, but offers only plastic forks, not chopsticks at the check-out. There’s an Aloha sushi chain, ubiquitous bilingual reminders that tips are not included in restaurant bills and taxi fares, and local guys cat-calling after pretty girls in awkward Japanese, “kawaii desu ne!” (pretty, isn’t it?). The commodified, superficial mix of cultures (as food/shopping/kitsch), is perhaps most obviously materialized as ‘spam musubi’ – Hawaiin pork, American processed into Japanese convenience food:

At the end of the day, Waikiki reminds me as much of Vegas’ tourist infrastructure as of other beach cities. The towing hotels connected by malls, designed for consumption alone make Cuba’s Veradero seem quiet and quaint in comparison. What is otherwise mostly a typical Hawaiin holiday is increasingly punctured by reminders  – as I stare across the sea, hear others speak of flights home or stumble across signs numbering the miles to North America  – that I am about to embark on my own monumental crossing of 2705 (4354 km) to Vancouver.