Hawaii has a serious trash problem — and it's coming on ocean waves

Story highlights

  • The ocean current is carrying vast amounts of marine debris onto Hawaii's shoreline
  • Previously, many thought Japan's 2011 tsunami caused an uptick in marine debris

(CNN)The Hawaiian archipelago is in trash trouble.

Vast amounts of trash have been washing ashore on the state's once-pristine beaches.
    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been trying to keep critical parts of the ocean clear of marine debris, removing 57 tons of it from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in 2014. This area is a part of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, the largest conservation site in the United States.
    Despite the government agency's efforts, Hawaii continues to be plagued by trash, much of it plastic.
    Originally, there was speculation that Japan's devastating 2011 tsunami had brought a wave of debris to Hawaii's islands, but recent results from an aerial survey suggest otherwise.
    Plastic debris makes up nearly half of the archipelago's shoreline trash, according to a survey (PDF) that was conducted between August through November 2015 by Hawaii's Department of Land & Natural Resources (DLNR) and North Pacific Marine Science Organization.
    This survey was conducted so that these groups could see how big of an impact the Japanese storm had on Hawaii. It turns out the catastrophic storm wasn't the trash culprit.
    "This survey found a very limited amount of debris associated with the Japan tsunami," Suzanne Case, DLNR chairwoman, said in a statement.
    So where is all this garbage coming from?
    "Most of what was mapped is common, everyday items that someone haphazardly tossed onto the ground or directly into the water," Case said.
    In short — it's coming from just about anywhere and everywhere.
    With the way the state is positioned geographically, the ocean's current is carrying massive amounts of plastic waste to Hawaii's coast.
    "These items get caught up in ocean currents and unfortunately much of it eventually lands, mostly on north and east facing shores. Hawaii is recognized around the world for our beautiful beaches. Unfortunately we cannot say they are pristine, because they've been so seriously impacted by our trash," Case added.

    Threatening our environment

    The increased plastic waste on Hawaii's shoreline is a big deal because it's affecting the state's wildlife. There's evidence that marine life and seabirds have been ingesting bits of plastic, which is detrimental to their health.
    It's not just small pieces of plastic washing ashore. Some of this marine debris includes big items like derelict fishing gear, foam, tires, even abandoned vessels.
    The survey, which was funded by the Ministry of Environment of Japan, concluded that this trash is threatening many critical habitats in and around Hawaii, such as coral reefs that harbor some unique species, like the world's biggest sponge, which was recently discovered by scientists of the state's coast.
    The increased waste in Earth's oceans has been a growing problem. A great deal of plastic debris finds itself in massive garbage patches in the Pacific Ocean.

    Picking up the trash

    Marine debris is the huge threat to wildlife and possibly to human health. Scientists still don't know what happens to our bodies when we eat fish that have ingested microplastics — plastic that break up into tiny particles that are mistakenly eaten by marine life.
    Microplastic has become such a problem for U.S. waterways, with more than 8 trillion microbeads flooding into our streams, rivers and lakes — that's enough to cover 300 tennis courts daily — that President Barack Obama signed a bipartisan bill in December prohibiting the sales and distribution of products containing microbeads.
    Although the marine debris plaguing Hawaii is the most widespread type of trash in our oceans, it is also some of the most preventable waste, according to NOAA.