LIHUE — A 40 percent rise in plastic production is on the horizon, according to the American Chemistry Council, and that presents a big problem for little islands like Kauai, conservationists say.
For instance, the South Pacific’s uninhabited Henderson Island landed in the spotlight in June with its plastic-peppered shores that totaled 18 tons of debris.
Closer to home, the oceanic garbage soup we know as the Great Pacific Gyre has strewn Midway Atoll’s shores with plastic debris — so much so that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hosted cleanup efforts there in 2016.
Buoys, floats, bins, baskets, bottles, spoons, lighters and fishing gear are the mainstays on Kauai’s coastlines, according to beach-cleanup organizations, and they all have plastic components.
“We aren’t inundated with plastic bottles like some of the Third World countries,” said Scott McCubbins of Kauai Surfrider’s Net Patrol. “I truly believe that most of our plastic is from the commercial fishing industry.”
Commercial fishing nets are made from polypropylene, a plastic product, McCubbins pointed out.
The amount of plastic in production is set to nearly double in the next 10 years, according to the American Chemistry Council, which cited $186 billion invested into 318 new facility projects since 2010 — all in the name of shale gas.
Those new facilities are posed to convert shale gas into plastics. Half of them have been completed.
Meanwhile, a separate study by the American Chemistry Council, released in December, shows plastic recycling rates in America are below 30 percent, about 2 percent lower than the previous year.
The Great Pacific Gyre spits out most of that marine debris that’s landing on Kauai, said Mark Manuel, Pacific Islands marine debris regional coordinator for NOAA — especially the derelict fishing gear.
Manuel said the general make-up of the majority of the derelict nets points to a source outside the longline industry around Hawaiian waters.
“From all accounts, the data shows the majority … aren’t from a local source,” he said. “We don’t know what fishery type or region. It’s difficult to define.”
Kauai Surfrider volunteers alone garnered more than 91,000 pounds of debris from the island’s shores in 2017, and the organization estimates around 20 percent of the weight and 40 percent of the volume of their debris is plastic.
Much of the cleanup efforts by 808 Cleanups and Net Patrol target larger pieces of marine debris.
It’s a way to remove as much plastic as possible from the beaches before it breaks down into the microplastic that’s infiltrating birds, fish and other components of the island’s ecosystem.
“Plastics of all sizes are harmful to marine organisms,” said Carl Berg, ecologist with Kauai Surfrider. “Large ropes and nets entangle whales, while micro-plastics get eaten by zooplankton and corals.”
In 2016, 2,906 million pounds of plastic bottles were collected for recycling, a 71-million-pound dip from 2015. In 2016, the recycling rate was 29.7 percent — a decrease of 1.4 percentage points compared to 2015, according to the American Chemistry Council.
With a potential 40 percent rise in plastic production looming in the next decade, conservationists say now is the time for consumers to put their proverbial feet down.
“One thing people can do is not drink out of single-use plastic bottles,” McCubbins said.
Berg said that’s the number-one suggestion in his book as well.
“No plastic bags. No Styrofoam,” he said.