Hawaii’s Beaches Face A Microplastics Crisis

Apr 21, 2021 | General Information

Oahu will have the strictest single-use plastics ban in the state based on a controversial bill passed recently by the Honolulu City Council. Faced with the daunting prospect of getting rid of huge stocks of plastics containers, many food industry leaders opposed the measure. Although plastic bans went into effect in Maui and Hawaii counties last year, they only prohibit polystyrene foam containers and, unlike the Honolulu bill, not utensils and other plastic service ware.

Let’s give Maui County credit for becoming the first jurisdiction in Hawaii to ban polystyrene foam containers, including plates, clamshells, bowls and cups. Violating the ordinance can cost food vendors up to $1,000 a day. Among the exempted items: packaging for raw or butchered meats, poultry, fish, eggs or other food that needs further preparation. Hawaii County deserves some cheers as well. Its ordinance that took effect June 1, 2019, prohibits restaurants and other food servers from using polystyrene foam plates, bowls, cups and other containers. Straws, cup lids, utensils and film wraps are not included, but the county “encourages the use of environmentally preferable alternatives.”

Visible plastic refuse washing up on Hawaii’s beaches is only part of the state’s plastics problem. The unique position in the Pacific Ocean that provides Hawaii with warm waters, marvelous wildlife and luscious greenery also ensures that thousands of pounds of microplastics wash up on beaches in the state every year. Sitting in the middle of a system of circulating ocean currents that funnel marine debris to Hawaii’s windward beaches has earned it the unwelcome moniker of the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” Unfortunately microplastics washing up on Hawaiian beaches is expected to double by 2030.

Rough ocean waves relentlessly grind larger plastic items into microplastics. This plastic waste is eaten by larval fish. The global health impacts of microplastics on recently hatched fish and other ocean wildlife – and human ingestion — is not yet known. What we do know is that microplastics have been found in packaged food, bottled drinking water and a remarkable assortment of other household products.

Hawaii’s government is trying to deal with that part of the plastics problem over which it has some control, namely plastic containers. In addition to bans by Hawaiian counties on plastic containers, Hawaii 808 Cleanups, a nonprofit with a large contingent of committed volunteers, is expanding its cleanup, education and outreach efforts throughout Hawaii. 808 Cleanups has collected over 500,000 pounds of trash from Hawaii’s beaches in 2019.