From drones to filters to artificial islands, innovators are working to reduce the threat thousands of tons of trash pose to marine ecosystems.

Anja Krieger
Freelance journalist

February 1, 2016 — A few palm trees stand strong in the salty breeze. Located on the southern tip of the Pacific island chain of Hawaii, Kamilo Beach is an isolated stretch of black volcanic shoreline in the middle of nowhere. Just a few hundred yards from shore, humpback whales rise up from the depths, colorful fish fill the reefs and rare sea turtles swim in to nest on the beach.

Photo courtesy of Honolulu Civil Beat

But even in this remote place, garbage washes ashore each day. “We find a lot of toothbrushes and combs, plastic bottles and caps, over and over again,” says Megan Lamson, a marine biologist working for a local non-governmental organization, the Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund.

Old Hawaiian sayings have described the bay as a place where people went looking for loved ones if they got lost at sea. “Historically that area has been kind of the catcher of things that are floating in the ocean,” Lamson says. But over time, the composition of materials that wash ashore has changed dramatically. “Back in the day it was large pieces of heavy wood from other continents,” she says, “now, unfortunately, it’s a lot of plastic.”

It’s an all too familiar sight around the world. Since the early 1970s, researchers have collected plastic from beaches and oceans around the globe. At the 9-mile (14-kilometer) stretch of coastline around South Point alone, about 15 to 20 tons (14 to 18 metric tons) of trash wash up each year.

“Here on Hawaiian beaches, we have debris from all around the North Pacific,” Nikolai Maximenko, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, explains. Some pieces come from Asia, others from the West Coast of North America, and, Maximenko adds, “of course we have local products, too.”

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