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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.