The amount of trash on Oahu’s beaches has been increasing over the past decade. This paper will examine the different causes and potential detrimental outcomes of the increased amount of pollution on the beaches in Oahu. Utilizing a combination of quantitative and qualitative observational techniques as well as scholarly research, the conclusion has been drawn that the problems on Oahu are a combination of a variety of factors. Research suggests that the pollution is the result of poor waste management, human carelessness, and contamination from the portion of the ocean known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”
When people imagine Hawaii, they do not often imagine trash-covered beaches or rubbish covering the shoreline. However, the days of perfectly clean beaches and immaculate water are long gone; today, the beaches on Oahu are covered in trash. Trash is often ignored, but it tells the story of the culture that generated it.
It is difficult to gather ethnographic data on something as transient and common as the amount and type of trash on the beach; however, significant observations can be made regarding the types of trash on the shore of Oahu and the different problems facing the island in regards to littering, trash collection, trash production, and excessive consumption practices of tourists and residents alike.
The problem in Hawaii, and Oahu specifically, is twofold. First, Oahu is the victim of passive littering, which, for the purposes of discussion, will be defined as littering done elsewhere in the world that affects Oahu specifically. It also faces other more active forms of pollution and littering that stem from social problems that are specific to the island of Oahu itself.
Hawaii is uniquely placed in that it is geographically quite close to a man-made phenomenon called the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” The garbage patch is an accumulation of waste in the Pacific Ocean. It conjures up the image of a huge amount of trash floating in one particular location, but the reality is even more grim: in this location, the entire water column contains a much higher level of plastic and plastic by-products than anywhere else in the ocean per cubic meter (Murdock). This trash accumulates in this location due to the ocean currents, but ocean currents also carry these plastics and other types of debris away from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. When the debris is carried away, it will often float around in the sea until it comes to rest on the beach-- and unfortunately, Hawaii’s proximity to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch means that Oahu and the other islands are often the victim of the rest of the world’s littering.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a problem that plagues Hawaii disproportionately as a result of Hawaii’s proximity to the Garbage Patch. According to McLendon:
The upper part of this gyre, a few hundred miles north of Hawaii, is where warm water from the South Pacific crashes into cooler water from the north Bamford refers to the convergence zone as a ‘trash superhighway’ because it ferries plastic along [a] corridor that links two spinning eddies known as the Eastern Garbage Patch and the Western Garbage Patch. The whole system collectively makes up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (McLendon).
Hawaii is perfectly placed within the ocean’s currents to have choice beaches and perfect waves, but it is also perfectly placed to bear the brunt of the plastic movement from one portion of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to the other. This causes a lot of trash to wash up on the beach-- trash that was not originally produced on the island of Oahu itself.
After careful observation of the beaches on Oahu, it became clear that popular beaches had much less trash on them than the unpopular beaches. This may seem contrary to logic, but there are a few reasons why the trash on the popular beaches was less than on unpopular beaches; the reasons for the trash levels on Oahu’s beaches are probably truly a combination of a variety of different factors.
Initially, observations of the field led to the hypothesis that trash levels on the beach were directly correlated with the amount of people present on the beach. That is, beaches with a lot of trash were unpopular because they were filled with trash-- whether it was because the people frequenting them did not clean up their trash, or for some other reason. However, after closer observation, it seemed that the number of people on the beach should have, in theory, increased the amount of trash seen. More people in a specific location generally means a higher level of trash.
According to Simms, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is growing, and with that growth comes an increase in the affected area. She writes, “What's coming from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch out in the North Pacific Gyre? Among the items that wash ashore regularly on Kahuku's shoreline: buckets, bottle caps, straws, plastic crate pieces, rubber oyster separators, toothbrush handles, nurdles, ocean buoys, pieces of fishnet and ropes, fish floats, golf balls and an occasional child's sand toy. Some larger items picked up during a recent cleanup effort on the Kahuku shoreline included the back of a television monitor, part of a car bumper and a rubber fin” (Simms). What does the type of garbage coming to shore say about Oahu, Hawaii, and the world as a whole? This is a complex question that requires a good deal of analysis to answer completely.
The first and most obvious thing to note is that most of the items being discarded are not biodegradable. They are also often items that are able to float, so they easily bob along in the current and are pushed by the waves towards the shore, where they finally come to rest. Their existence in the water is harmful to the biodiversity of the Pacific Ocean, both out at sea and in the more sensitive habitat by the shore. The article notes that some of the trash picked up by volunteers has labels in a variety of different languages; Chinese, Japanese, and Sanskrit were listed as being seen at a recent beach clean-up (Simms).
Another problem that will not be discussed in detail here but should be noted is the biological reality that while plastics are not biodegradable, they do break down into smaller polymers (Simms). When this happens, the water acidity changes and ecosystems suffer. In addition, when plastics are battered in ocean currents, they can break into smaller pieces that are as fine as sand, and these types of plastics are much more difficult to clean up than the larger pieces of refuse (McLendon).
However awful the pollution situation is regarding the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it is not the only problem facing Oahu’s beaches. To blame all of the trash on the beach in Oahu on passive littering would be tantamount to ignoring a massive problem that faces Oahu and Hawaii as a whole.
As an island, Oahu has a refuse problem. There is a limited amount of space, and as the population and consumption grows, there is an increasingly large problem with waste management on the island. Without a proper recycling system, recyclable objects, such as water bottles, are thrown out; when these things are thrown out, they often end up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Simms). This creates a never-ending cycle of pollution and refuse on the beaches of Oahu.
Most pollutants will find their way to the beach regardless of where they are dumped. Things like plastic bags may get caught in the wind and blow to the shore, or they may get caught in rainwater runoff; on an island like Oahu, it is nearly guaranteed that any litter discarded improperly on the island will find its way back to the beach. The only way to stem the flow of plastics from the island onto the beaches is to drastically reduce the amount of plastics that are used on Oahu, but people are very resistant to this type of change as it means less convenience for them (Simms).
One problem that plagues Oahu is the problem of plastic bags. Plastic bags and plastic water bottles are problems throughout the world, but the amount of plastic bags observed at the beach-- both the well-attended beaches and the poorly-attended ones-- seemed to be higher than other types of refuse. This may be because people are unwilling or unknowledgeable about the proper way to discard of plastic bags, or it could be because the citizens and tourists on Oahu use a large number of plastic bags every day (Nasako).
Oahu has faced problems with the regulation of waste management in recent years, as well. For instance, Dan Nasako writes, when the landfill closed, the city released an undetermined amount of medical waste into the water near the beaches (Nasako). In reality, medical waste should not even be discarded in a landfill, but Hawaii faces a problem that is unique in relation to the rest of the United States: it is an island with a relatively small area of land. While landfills in the continental United States can expand over large areas, the landfills in Oahu must be regulated carefully (Nasako).
Some have suggested that the solution to the landfill problem is to ship the refuse off the island; however, this does not really solve the issue of pollution in the first place. If the refuse is shipped from the island, it will have to be put in a landfill elsewhere, or else it will be dumped into the ocean. If the refuse is dumped into the Pacific, then chances are, in a few years, the refuse will start to move slowly back towards the island of Oahu. Dumping refuse in the ocean is a band-aid for a larger problem. It is certainly not a long-term solution to the problem of pollutants on the beaches of Oahu.
In her article on pollution in Oahu, Mary Simms interviews an individual who participates in cleaning up Oahu’s beaches. “’Its pretty frustrating, especially on this windward side,’" he says. “‘We'll clean some beaches where we clean one day and we come back a few weeks later and it looks like we haven't cleaned anything”’ (Simms). Cleaning beaches manually is ineffective, but does help to raise awareness regarding the state of the beaches in Oahu.
There are no easy solutions to such a complex, many-faceted problem. Although Oahu is not responsible for the bulk of the trash washing up on her shores, she does carry some responsibility for the state of her beaches. In this case, searching for a solution is going to take some of the best minds of the generation, but it is fundamentally important for the future of Oahu and Hawaii.
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