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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Kamilo Beach on Material World

For a relatively small dose of my more academic writing, check out my guest post over at Material World. Lots of great articles and announcements for material culture folks, and a really interesting short entry on attempts to care for and return photos and other items lost with the 3/11 tsunami.

Kamilo beach lost & found

Google sleuths and polyglots! I need your help solving a collection of (s)pacific mysteries. Instincts honed in the 80s served me well in identifying the green lump of plastic above as a battlecat saddle from He-Man (Panthor’s actually based on the colour), but do you have any ideas about the rest of these objects found washed up on Kamilo beach in Hawaii?

Much of the plastic circulating the Pacific remains anonymous, even after it gets caught in nets or picked up off beaches. Broken into pieces, labels and contents long gone, there are few if any clues to help trace waste to its possible place of production, consumption or disposal.  Identifying objects and bits of writing is not only incredibly satisfying (especially compared to counting bits of confetti), this information helps researchers track where waste comes from and how it circulates in the ocean.

Some kind of game pieces? Glassware but what does it say?

These are Japanese survey stakes, but from where/when?

Found in a beachcombers closet, not on the beach:

The owner loves the shirt but would like to make sure it’s not advertising something offensive before she wears it.

Finally, Noni’s toy collection, in case you’re still in mystery/nostalgia mode.

Comments appreciated!

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.