On October 7th, the Kauai County Council voted to ban plastic bags. While plastic has made our lives better in so many regards, I applaud this effort to protect the ocean and the creatures within. Marine debris is a huge problem in our beautiful Hawaiian Islands. According to NOAA, over 600 tons of abandoned nets were removed from the northwestern islands since 1966. Many animals including the endangered Monk seals die when they become tangled in these nets. Over the fourth of July, the United States Coast Guard removed 32 tons of debris from the same area.
Even though these numbers sound impressive, they represent only a small amount of the debris floating in our oceans. Between Hawaii and California lies the great Pacific garbage patch. It is made up of small pieces of buoyant plastic debris. As an example of the problem, think of the Humpback whales who migrate between Alaska and Hawaii. They must traverse this patch. Unfortunately, the patch tends to congregate in areas of the ocean that are rich in life making removal difficult. NOAA explains that straining the water to remove the debris is not recommended. “. . . straining the ocean waters for plastics would capture the plankton which are the base of the marine food web and responsible for fifty percent of the photosynthesis on Earth.”
While environmentalists work on methods for removal, the County Councils of Maui and Kauai passed bills to address the problem at one source. The bill mandates that all bags used after January 1, 2011 be made of recycled paper, biodegradable plastic or reusable totes. In addition, Kauai launched an aggressive public awareness campaign called ‘Keep Our Oceans Clean’. I saw the thought provoking ads while just vacationing in Kauai. They used ordinary citizens holding piles of marine debris. The one that struck me the most, featured a woman with hands full of cigarette butts. Unbeknown to me, cigarette butts are the number one piece of trash. At the Lihue Airport, I saw a stunning display about a young albatross named Shed. The poor chick ate so much trash that he ruptured his crop and died. Pictures of the debris removed during necropsy showed plastic bottle tops, plastic bag material and cigarette butts. I will never forget that picture!
In closing, I want to thank the Kauai and Maui County Councils for their work on behalf of our environment. I hope your efforts will inspire other city and county councils to take similar action. Let’s keep our country and our oceans clean.
-‘Coast Guard removes 32 tons of debris from Northwestern Hawaiian Islands’, Honolulu Advertiser, 7/13/09.
-Kim, Leland ‘Ad Campaign Seeks To Reduce Ocean Litter’, www.khnl.com/Global/story
-‘De-mystifying the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, www.marinedebris.noaa.gov/info.