Kamilo Beach Revisited

Kamilo now and then
April 2012 and April 2013

Almost a year to the day since my first visit, I find myself headed back to Kamilo, the famously plastic-covered ‘junk’ beach on the Big Island, Hawaii. It’s just after 6am, and I am bleary-eyed and over caffeinated, having just arrived on a date-line crossing flight from Tokyo the day before. I’ve signed up as a volunteer helping with a research project looking at the rate plastic is accumulating on the shore and have been promised a long day of hard labor shoveling sand. For the moment though, I’m using all my strength to keep my head and the truck roof from colliding as we bounce along the incredibly rough ‘road’ crossing the jagged expanse of a’a lava along the shore.

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I spy 2013: coat hanger, bottle cap, ziplock baggie, oyster spacers, fishing line, rope…

I am very curious to see how the beach has been changing, as Japan tsunami marine debris began reaching Hawaii’s shores just after my last visit. At the same time, I’ve noticed that news coverage featuring Kamilo tends to gloss over the history of plastic accumulating here, presenting images of large amounts of disaster debris that to me, just look like the beach as ‘usual.’ In any case, I am expecting to see more, not less plastic. But arriving at the beach, I can’t help but notice that Kamilo appears much cleaner than last year. I didn’t quite manage to take a photo from exactly the same angle, but you can see how the row of debris along the high tide line contains noticeably more wood and coconuts than synthetics. You still can’t walk or look anywhere without seeing plastic, but there seem to be far fewer consumer objects like dustpans, umbrella handles, and shampoo bottles, and even the sand seems less synthetic.

Kamilo tide line, April 2013
Kamilo tide line, April 2013

So if there’s supposed to be more debris arriving then why does the beach look cleaner? For starters, the Hawaii Wildlife Fund has been at Kamilo in full force, ramping up the number of cleanups both large and small over the past year. Thanks to their hard work, a lot of the most visible pieces have been picked up. But what about the microplastics, the bits that seemed to outnumber grains of sand, that were piled up several feet deep in places among the rocks? Most of them are still here, but they have shifted position. A storm in January drove all kinds of pieces, especially the small stuff, up into the bright green naupaka plants that line the shore, just out of reach of more usual tides. Though this keeps bits from being washed back out to sea, it also ensures that they are even more impossible to pick up, all mixed up with wood and soil and roots.

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But cleaner looking is not clean, and plastic problems have not gone away. The plastic here has just become more like plastic in the ocean: less visible and less photogenic. I have to gather objects with my photos, like nets are used to concentrate plastics spread out across the surface of the sea. Picking up a white Japanese brand Lotte bottle that used to contain Xylotol gum (and still holds a foil packet of silica preservatives), I can’t help but think of how this object ended up in the sea especially once given the coating of coral-like bryzoa characteristic of open-ocean crossing. While such a discovery last year would simply have been evidence of distance travelled, this time I wonder about the conditions of loss and the stories these objects could tell.

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But science calls, and there’s little time for leisurely beachcombing. In practice, measuring the rate of accumulation involves sifting the top 15 centimeters (6 inches) of sand from five sizeable plots. At first sifting is a lot like playing in a giant sandbox, watching plastic bits and rocks get caught in the screens, dumping screen contents in buckets of water to see what floats. But as the day goes on and the tide comes in, the sand gets heavier and my arms turn to jelly.

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There’s little time to examine the plastics caught in the grid with so much sand to move. But one item is impossible to miss: a big yellow float mysteriously centered right in the middle of plot 3. After figuring out that the float’s position is a joke (and need not be brought back to the lab weighed as evidence of accumulation), we notice that it reads “MADE IN JAPAN” in big block letters. A moment of unorganized silence ensures as the possible implications sink in.

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Though reported to NOAA, the float will never be confirmed as of tsunami origins. Despite all the news coverage, not a single item washed up on Kamilo has definitively been traced to the Japan tsunami. NOAA, it seems, is being rather stringent with the criteria: a found object must have identifiable markers like a person, company or place’s name; said entity must then be contact and asked to confirm that it is likely that they lost the item in question on March 11, 2011. While this makes sense in terms of scientific objectivity (the floats for example are used by oyster farmers in both Japan and Korea), it is somewhat at odds with common sense understandings of those most familiar with the beach. When three Japanese refrigerators washed up on the beach in close succession, and only one ever seen before at the beach, it doesn’t seem too far to reach to assume the conditions of their origins. But who writes their name on mass produced kitchen appliances?

Had this been my first trip to Kamilo I might have been disappointed by the relative lack of spectacular piles of trash. Not finding what you’re looking for has a tendency to be kind of disappointing, even when the thing you’re looking for is plastic garbage. Just ask anyone that’s gone looking for the ‘trash island.’ But as a return visitor, I find the changes somewhat encouraging if only symbolically. Plastic problems are far from resolved, but should we manage to stop producing so much plastic, there’s hope for reducing the rate of accumulation that we’re busy trying to measure, for cleaning up at least the visible stuff if not all the associated toxins. We are not the only creatures to notice the difference. A very large Hawaiian Monk seal also visits the beach, coming up to rest on the sand. It’s a rare sight as monk seals are endangered because of entanglement with plastic, and only 1200 seals remain.

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How to Live Responsibly with Plastic

Seafaring disposable lighters, collected from the beaches of Hawaii
Seafaring ‘disposable’ lighters, collected from the beaches of Hawaii

We are obsessed with absolutes. Ban bottles. Zero waste. BPA free. A world with good and bad neatly slotted on either side. You are with us or against us. At the same time, we can’t do everything, so we applaud ourselves for tiny efforts. Refill a bottle. Bring a bag. Doing something is better than nothing, and maybe little moves can change the world, or at least make us feel a lot better.

Thinking in absolutes while acting through small compromises is one strategy for dealing with a complicated world. We simplify to get by, living mostly by habit, as it is impossible to carefully consider each and every move. When it is time to think about change, we like lists. 4 facts you didn’t know about plastic. 10 canned foods to avoid. Suggestions for shopping that neatly organize the world into good and bad objects. Easily digested consumer choices that fit with how we already live.

But what needs to be challenged is how we live, and how we live with plastic. We need to make big moves, but not totalizing ones. Responsibility cannot come from unbendable rules but from constantly engaging with – and responding to – the messy world we have made. We need to think more of rather than less of plastic; deal with not demonize; approach as powerful, not just bad.

In the spirit of resolutions (and yes, lists), I offer a set of numbered provocations for thinking about and living with plastic. These are suggested starting points for proceeding responsibly through complicated worlds where facts are constantly in motion and solutions cannot always be mapped in advance. What if we live everyday by treating plastic as if:

1. Plastic has a life of its own. It will always do things that humans can’t control. Getting into oceans, escaping from our best plans to recycle or bury it. To justify production or use based on assumptions of best-case scenarios is to underestimate plastic’s own powers.

2. Plastic is toxic. Plastic is not stable or inert; it leaches and attracts chemicals. Like household bleach, it is sometimes necessary in small doses, but even tiny amounts of the chemicals in plastic can cause devastating effects to living creatures. To be free of BPA is to be full of something else that just hasn’t yet been deemed dangerous.

3. Plastic is durable. Plastic does not always remain in a form or place that is immediately useful to humans, but it does not disappear. It is often made to break or made for single-uses, but it could be made differently. To confuse disposable with short-lived is to fill the world with plastic.

My Day, In Plastic

I’ve always been an environmentally minded person. When my father cut down the acre of forest in our backyard, I felt so bad for the trees that I vowed not to speak with him again (I caved sometime after dinner, several hours close enough to eternity for a 10 year old). I stopped eating meat years ago, have always been suspicious of where recycling really goes, and have an uneasy relationship with shopping for anything, especially if it comes in a package.

Since starting my plastic project, I’ve been systematically cutting down on the plastic in my life. I’ve substituted metal and glass for plastic containers, cotton and wool for polyester and nylon, cellulose for synthetic sponges. At any give time, I likely have a reusable bag, bottle and pair of chopsticks within reach. So when I asked my students to write down all the plastic objects they touched in 24 hours, I decided to check in on my own plastic habits and do the assignment along with them. The results? My life, as the 67 item-long list documents, is far from plastic free.

Some of the items represent things I can’t easily control: the synthetic carpet in grad housing; a strong glasses prescription. But many more are things I am not willing to go without, plastic objects part of important daily practices I feel I could not otherwise perform. Most concerning are the 17 things that could be considered single-use, containers not meant to be refilled, razor blades that cannot be sharpened, food packages that will long outlive their contents. I do not often possess the skills that alternatives would require (I am mortally terrified of wielding a straight razor), competency lost as disposables and ready-mades proliferated long before I was born. In other cases it’s a matter of time. While I enjoy making and baking all kinds of things from scratch, I would have to seriously re-arrange my life in order to supply myself with homemade staples like laundry-soap and almond milk on a regular basis.

Trained to think about systems, not individuals, I try not to beat myself up or judge others too harshly for plastic habits. After all, plastic is part of the ways we have learned to be capable participants in everyday life. I do not like alienating people or myself (always in danger of being labeled an eco-freak). But understanding these complicated commitments is only part of the process. There is a fine line between not blaming and not doing anything at all. Every time I tell a group of students about my research, someone sheepishly hides a single-use plastic bottle under the table. But we don’t need to feel bad about plastic, we need to put the bottle back on the table, think about how it is connected to the politics of a shared way of life and capitalist mode of production, and look for the cracks through which it can be changed.

As I grade my students’ reflections on their plastic days, can’t help but notice that I am still surrounded, sitting in a plastic chair at a plastic table, with a plastic cup and straw (oh boba, how I can’t leave you), beside my plastic sunglasses, grading with a purple plastic pen. It seems I have done more to change my ability to see plastic (in pretty much everything) than to give it up.  I don’t have an easy solution for my plastic life, but there’s one thing I do know: an individual giving up the bags, bottles and cutlery symbolic of plastic habits might be a place to start, but it is far different from systemic change.

How much plastic is in your life?

24 hours, in order:

Glasses! Contact case Contacts Hairbrush Milk carton/cap Kitchen floor Toothbrush Soap Toothpaste tube Scissors Stapler Tupperware Dishsoap bottle Shower curtain Bodywash Shampoo bottle Razor Shirt? (no tag) Flip flops Credit card Screen door Detergent bottle Washer door Floss (nylon and possibleyTeflon – eeew!) Pepper grinder Bottle top Bike key/seat/pedals Bathing suit Shorts Goggles Student card Kickboard Deck chair Ice cube tray Folder Messenger bag Chair Sunglasses Tack This pen! Fan Computer cord Veggie peeler Colander Knife handle Phone Carpet Fridge door handle Micro-suede couch Knitting needles Chip bag Salsa container PB jar Garlic bag Compost bin Remote Chocolate package Toilet seat Keyboard/cover ipad case USB stick Saline bottle Nintendo 3DS Powder bottle Blinds Lamp Light switch

Fake Grass on a Plastic Beach

My recent research trip to the Big Island, Hawaii included a pilgrimage to Kamilo beach, near South Point. Kamilo is not a tourist beach; it is far from towns and houses, five miles down a very rough 4-wheel drive road. And it is covered in plastic waste. Like many people involved with plastic pollution, I have wanted to visit this beach for a very long time. I finally got the chance thanks to the incredible generosity of Noni and Ron Sanford, a local couple that have been beachcombing and cleaning up debris here for years.

Given the difficult trek, we left well before dawn, making our way through tall grass and groves of trees on increasingly rough roads. As the sky lightened the dirt track gave way to an otherworldly crossing of jagged black lava. Finally arriving at the beach with the dawn, this is what we saw:

This is not a local littler problem. A few containers read “Hawaii dairy,” but the vast majority of writing is Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and occasionally Russian. But don’t exonerate yourselves too quickly my North American friends – currents speed waste from the west coast of North America right past these islands to wash up on shores in Asia, or to circulate back around years later, likely as the tiny pieces scattered everywhere on the beach, recognizable only as plastic:

I’ve held large bags of Kamilo ‘sand’ before, but nothing compared to digging for hours through piles of plastic, synthetic confetti over a foot deep where it gets caught in the rocks. Among these motley fragments are pre-production plastic pellets called nurdles (the super round white balls), which are industrial rather than consumer waste.

The beach is an unforgettable lesson in what things are made of plastic, and what kinds of plastics float. I learn by looking  that rolls of tape, bicycle pedals and umbrella handles qualify in both categories. And so too, I learn, does Astroturf. With disturbingly poetic irony, I pick fake grass off a plastic beach. We also saw lots of bottle caps, bottles with caps  (the most common kinds of plastic bottles sink when not full of air), and a surprising number of toothbrushes, most extremely weathered, bristles worn down to almost nothing. From amongst these broken pieces, Noni and I pulled a collection of strange treasures, including wheels and lighters Noni is collecting for art projects. I am particularly intrigued by seemingly less-interesting knotted pieces of plastic bag. I learned a few months back that Hawaii promoted a ‘knot your bag’ campaign in an effort to ground flighty plastic film, and wonder whether it did more than make people feel better about using disposable plastic.

Further down the beach, turtles swim in surge channels garnished with waste, bright plastic pieces floating visible in the frothy waters, a reminder of the animal lives at stake. Even more sobering, is a wood pallet that Noni suggests might be Japanese tsunami debris, but we have no way to confirm. Like much of the waste here, it too ultimately remains anonymous. It is especially worth noting, though, that this is the best the beach has looked in years. Fishing nets, ropes, floats and bottles are no longer piled waist high, thanks to the diligent clean-up efforts of Ron and Noni, and the Hawaii Wildlife Fund. But cleanups at collector beaches do not stop flows of plastic into the ocean, they do not remove pieces already inside fish and birds, and they do not end the need for more cleanups.

The Last Straw

Plastic is so entangled with everything we do, that is seems pretty much impossible to stop using it cold turkey. My computer is plastic, my contacts, even my toilet seat. The last time I purchased eyeglasses I was told that getting my prescription filled with actual glass lenses would leave me with spectacles so heavy as to prohibit their staying on my face in any useful fashion. I am, however, still trying to reduce my plastic use as much as possible. I think one of the best strategies for doing this on an individual level (but never at the expense of systemic change!), is consciously cutting out items, one by one. My clarinet teacher used to say that it took 28 days to break a bad habit: it takes many conscious repetitions to turn carrying a reusable bottle or bringing your own bags to the grocery store from an exception into a new routine.

The next question, of course, is what items? Speaking with beach-clean up and plastic waste educators, the items most often cited are single-use disposables, especially those commonly found on their respective local beaches and easily substituted or done without. Plastic bags and bottles (don’t forget the caps!) seem particularly charismatic examples, and ones that most people would probably be quick to name. But to my surprise, plastic straws also top many worst offender lists. While small in comparison to whole cups or bottles, they are items far less likely to be reused or disposed of carefully. And they float.

Unlike my glasses, I generally use plastic straws for only a few short minutes. In fact, despite my admirable bag and bottle habits, I am so used to straws, that I was actually annoyed by their absence on single-serving tetra packs of coconut water. I associate drink-box packages so closely with bendy straws that the ‘problem’ of consuming the contents without caused me to pause. I actually had to think for a minute to figure out that I could very, very easily lift the little foil tab and drink right from the container. But after picking up a generous handful of straws (many in Starbucks green) off the beach near my parents’ house, I’ve finally been motivated to work on cutting them out of my routines – one by one.

How to be plastic straw-free:

1. Do without – request “no straw” with your next iced coffee/soda/G&T

2. Can’t imagine your iced tea tasting the same sipped straight from the cup? Carry your own reusable straw.  Stay classy with stainless steel

3. Can’t imagine how we ever lived without plastic straws? Encourage your local beverage establishment to switch back to paper

PS If anyone finds a reusable boba (bubble tea) straw let me know!