Unfortunately, “Junk Beach” Lives Up To Its Name

Sand or plastic? At “Junk Beach” on Kamilo Point in Hawaii, it can be hard to tell. Credit: Nicholas Mallos

I’m not a morning person; so 4:30 am wakeups are not my idea of a good time. But increasingly my alarm seems to be going off around this time because tides don’t care about my sleep schedule. Plus, the most severely littered beaches are almost always found on remote coastlines where cleanups cannot easily occur. Kamilo Point, known to many as “Junk Beach,” is perhaps the best example of this in the world.

After a 2 hour drive through the heart of Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, we arrived in Naalehu where we were greeted by members of Hawaii Wildlife Fund (HWF). No organization knows about marine debris on the Big Island better than HWF. Funded by NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, HWF has spent countless hours removing debris from Hawai’i’s South Point coastline—more than 240,000 pounds since 2003.

From Naalehu, it’s about four miles to Kamilo Point. No problem, right? Not so much…this four mile trip takes about an hour, most of which is spent driving—cautious not to blow a tire or axle—on what is the bumpiest, ruttiest, rockiest road in the world and I challenge anyone to prove me otherwise. A pair of humpback whales spouting off the coast and a green sea turtle spotting made the bumpfest a bit more bearable, but I was delighted to finally arrive at our sandy destination.

Due to recent high tides, most of the large debris (i.e. fishing gear, plastic bottles, etc.) that had littered the beach weeks prior was now washed up into the dunes, where it heavily entangled the native Naupaka. When HWF first visited Kamilo in 2003 debris was piled 5 feet high; largely consisting of fishing nets and buoys. However, As a result of HWF’s persistence, with each passing cleanup volunteers can focus on tackling smaller and smaller pieces of plastics. The Japan delegation and I followed our procedure at Ki’I Dunes and completely removed all debris from a 25 m2 quadrat, cataloguing every item within its boundary. In this small area of beach alone, we collected more 6.5 kilograms of plastic (> 1 cm width), comprised of more than 4,000 individual pieces. Several potential tsunami debris items were also found, including a fishing buoy positively linked to South Hokkaido, Japan; an area hit hard by the earthquake.

It’s difficult to properly convey the severity of Kamilo’s debris problem. Without careful inspection, one can easily overlook the fact that in many places the quantity of mircoplastics on the beach surface rivals that of the natural black and tan sand. In fact, it took only minutes to fill a 5-gallon bucket to the rim with mircoplastics from the beach surface without yielding a visible difference. Researchers at the University of Hawaii at Hilo suspect plastics have penetrated at least the top three feet of beach. Now that I’ve been to Kamilo, their hypothesis seems realistic. One technique fashioned by HWF to remove mircoplastics from sand is to float the tiny plastics in large bins of water, separating the low density plastics (which floats) from the higher density sand (which sinks). This approach has been successful for very small areas of surface beach with dense concentrations of plastics; however, a feasible solution that effectively scrubs entire beachscapes clean of mircoplastics remains undiscovered.

I have been to Midway, Japan, Mexico, the Caribbean, and all over the United States; but never have been to a beach so spoiled by plastics like Kamilo.  I am optimistic though, because despite all odds HWF and its devoted volunteers have been victorious in many battles against debris.

No, the war is not over and a colossal plastics problem still plagues Kamilo; but I’m hopeful that 10 years from now the biggest challenge plaguing Kamilo will be renaming it something other than Junk Beach.

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