Hawaiian Microplastic That Threaten Marine Ecosystem Health

Topics: EcologyHawaii

The state of Hawaii has an economy that is highly dependent on tourism. In 2017, the industry supported 204,000 jobs and made up 21% of the economy (Szigeti, George). This dependence on tourism has resulted in an uptick of plastic litter alongside an urge to maintain visually appealing beaches and healthy wildlife. Tourist activity results in increased plastic waste, which is then broken down into microplastics that threaten marine ecosystem health and the visual appeal and safety of tourism destinations. Stakeholder coalitions within governmental and non-governmental spheres are required to tackle the local and global drivers of the problem.

Since tourism is woven into the fabric of Hawaii, changes within the tourism industry are necessary in order to tackle the issue of micro and macro plastic pollution on Hawaiian beaches.

The Island of Hawaii is located near the center of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, which is a system of rotating ocean currents. Within this gyre is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, defined as an “enormous area of concentrated garbage in the water column,” which has been identified as the primary source of plastic debris pushed onto Hawaiian beaches (Meurice).

This information is critical in identifying the drivers and scale of microplastic debris. Sources of plastic that winds up in the garbage patch are outside the jurisdiction of the state of Hawaii or the United States of America. The problem exists and is driven by factors on a global scale such as unchecked consumerism (especially in regards to single-use plastics), negligence in terms of industrial plastic, and improper disposal.

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Microplastic is defined as small-scale pieces of plastic less than 5mm long (Chen, Qiqing, et al.). The primary sources of microplastics are clothing fibers, microbeads in cosmetic and hygiene products, and nurdles used in production (Chen, Qiqing, et al.). Secondary sources are larger plastics that enter the marine ecosystem and are weathered through abrasion or photodegradation. These plastics enter the water either through storm runoff, litter, or garbage spills. A recent study sampled and examined debris found in surface waters within the North Pacific Accumulation Zone (NPAC), a particularly dense area of debris found within the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (Chen, Qiqing, et al.). Researchers used troughs to collect samples. The study found that 84% of samples had at least one toxic chemical with concentrations “exceeding the threshold effect levels considered.” (Chen, Qiqing, et al.) This confirms what Melissa Snover, a contractor for NOAA, describes as“hitchhiking” of toxins such as Persistent Bioaccumulative Toxic (PBT) chemicals in the food web (Meurice).

This happens when compounds enter the organs and tissues of organisms at low trophic levels, which then bio-accumulate up the food web. The researchers also found that in the NPAC surface waters, the dry mass of buoyant plastic was 180 times higher than the dry mass of marine biota (Chen, Qiqing, et al.). Dry mass is defined as matter of a sample when it has completely dried, opposed to fresh mass which is subject to variance in water concentration (Chen, Qiqing, et al.). While this statistic is alarming, it is important to note the size classes and fragility of some plankton groups. The study notes that if changes in size class of the sample and inclusion of plankton that was too fragile to collect were taken into account, this ratio would be smaller. Regardless, this information shows that filter feeders and low trophic organisms in this region are feeding on a diet that is primarily plastic waste. In relation to Hawaii, this is a problem because it endangers marine wildlife that are critical to ecosystem health and are attractions to visitors. On a local scale, the priority should be removal and regulation of larger, secondary sources of microplastic. This allows the industry to tackle issues related to image and remove larger plastics before they degrade into microplastic (Meurice).

Primary stakeholders include customers, investors, corporations, business owners, and suppliers within the Hawaiian tourism industry. These stakeholders hold the most power and are heavily invested in the industry. Primary stakeholders are greatly affected by changes and have direct power to take action. Secondary stakeholders include local residents, state and local government, NGOs, social activists and the media. Secondary stakeholders hold less formal power over the industry, but are able to influence decision making through coalition with themselves and primary stakeholders (Darowski, Lukasz, et al.). For example, the local community, government and resorts could form a coalition to educate tourists, organize clean-up efforts, and advance toward sustainable development. Another example is a coalition with the industry suppliers, a tourist location, and the government to incentivize a decline in distribution of single use plastics. The relationship between primary and secondary stakeholders becomes blurred when we consider the 204,000 people employed by the tourism industry in 2017 (Szigeti, George D.). This shows that an individual can be both a participant in the industry and a local resident, which affects their relationship with the industry.

Primary indirect drivers of microplastic debris on Hawaiian beaches are consumerism and dependence on single use plastics. While these drivers exist on a large scale, Hawaii can combat them by limiting single use vacation items such as sunscreen bottles, water bottles, food packaging and other products with wasteful packaging. Direct drivers, such as littering and improper waste disposal, are also manageable on a local scale through collective action. When educated on the power they hold, tourists are more willing to take action and participate in clean up efforts if they feel it will make a genuine difference. Another driver is the tourism industry that fails to educate guests and allows for littering and irresponsible plastic consumption to take place.

Tourism in Hawaii is dependent on maintaining pristine, visually attractive beaches and getaway destinations. If consumers no longer see aesthetic value in the location, they will choose to travel somewhere that offers a greater return on their investment. This is because we are self-interested actors and will make decisions based on benefits for us as consumers. According to Tim Tyrell of the Department of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics of the University of Rhode Island, a travelers perception of the destination plays a critical role in each step of the decision making process (Tyrrell, Tim). This includes before the purchase, during the purchase, and when return trips are contemplated. If the image o gdf a beach resort changes through the introduction of pollution or marine debris, travelers are likely to rapidly change their plans. In a study of attractiveness of Hawaii, travelers ranked beauty and climate above the 14 other factors in attractivity (Tyrrell, Tim). This study was conducted in 1987, yet it is arguable that the information presented is still applicable today as travelers are still actively seeking beach destinations. Travelers are still gravitating toward ecologically beautiful, warm locations such as a Hawaii. The continue accumulation of marine debris and plastics on Hawaiian beaches will be detrimental to the health of its tourism based economy.

Policymakers and environmental groups have already begun introducing solutions to the problem of plastic waste in Honolulu specifically. The mayor of the city signed a bill that went into effect July 2018 that required businesses to charge a fee for bags they give to customers regardless of compostability or recyclability (“Honolulu Mayor to Sign Latest ‘Plastic Bag Ban’ into Law.). The city had already enacted a ban on single use plastic bags, and this new law is designed to reduce litter and eliminate access to these bags. Non-governmental environmentalist groups are also working to change the informal rules and attitude toward recycling in the city of Honolulu. Instead of recycling, tourists and residents are being encouraged to “refuse and reuse” plastics, paper and glass (Kaneyuki, Darry).

This approach eliminates the dependence on recycling services that operate by shipping recyclables overseas to the US mainland or China, a business that is easily impacted by foreign tariffs and regulations. On a governmental level, Lori Kahikina, director of Environmental Services for Honolulu, argues that it doesn’t make sense for them to recycle when reusing or reducing consumption of recyclables is an option (Kaneyuki, Darry). This is an example of environmentalist groups and governments forming a coalition to tackle an issue. To expand on this effort, resorts and hotels can work to educate their visitors on the importance refusing and reusing. The tourism industry in Honolulu is capable of tackling the issue of marine debris on beaches through ecotourism. Ecotourism is tourism targeting natural, endangered areas with the goal of education, conservation and cultural appreciation. Ecotourism can be used in the form of beach resorts that specialize in the education of marine ecosystems, organize clean ups and use profits to aid in conservation efforts. This approach involves limited amounts of government influence, which allows for innovation and competition between ecotourism companies.

In conclusion, the state of Hawaii is at a crossroads when it comes to the delicate balance between economic development and environmental conservation. The state relies on tourism to power its economy, and is facing challenges regarding increased amounts of plastic debris on its beaches. This challenge is driven by the tourism industry itself, as well as global and societal dependence on single use plastics. The location of Hawaii adds complexity to the issue because plastic debris is pushed onto shore through the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. On a smaller scale, the city of Honolulu has begun tackling these challenges through the use of governance and other institutions to generate change.


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Chen, Qiqing, et al. “Pollutants in Plastics within the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.” Environmental Science & Technology, vol. 52, no. 2, 2018, pp. 446–456., doi:10.1021/acs.est.7b04682.
Darowski, Lukasz, et al. “Negative Impact of Tourism on Hawaii Natives and Environment .” Lethbridge Undergraduate Research Journal, vol. 1, no. 2, Jan. 2007, doi:http://hdl.handle.net/10133/469.
Tyrrell, Tim. (1992). Tourism and the Environment: Marine Debris, Beach Pollution and the Importance of Image. url:https://www.researchgate.net/publication/282031912_Tourism_and_the_Environment_Marine_Debris_Beach_Pollution_and_the_Importance_of_Image
Szigeti, George D. “HAWAII TOURISM INDUSTRY SET NEW RECORD TOTALS IN 2017.” David Y. Ige | David Ige, Governor, State of Hawaii, State of Hawaii, 31 Jan. 2018, governor.hawaii.gov/newsroom/latest-news/hawaii-tourism-industry-set-new-record-totals-in-2017/.
“Honolulu Mayor to Sign Latest ‘Plastic Bag Ban’ into Law.” KITV – Honolulu, Hawaii News, Sports & Weather , KITV, 2017, www.kitv.com/story/35953116/honolulu-mayor-to-sign-latest-plastic-bag-ban-into-law.
Kaneyuki, Darryl. “The Future of Recycling in Hawaii.” Hawaii Business Magazine, Hawaii Business Magazine , 8 Sept. 2018, www.hawaiibusiness.com/the-future-of-recycling-in-hawaii/. 

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Hawaiian Microplastic That Threaten Marine Ecosystem Health. (2022, Apr 23). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/hawaiian-microplastic-that-threaten-marine-ecosystem-health/

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