Plastic pollution presents a large and ever-growing problem for coastal communities. Every year, roughly 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the ocean, according to Much of the trash is dumped into the sea from ships. But most comes from land: bottles, cups, bags. Once the trash enters the ocean, it enter animals’ bodies, killing the animals immediately or entering marine food chains. 

Single-use plastics play an outsized role in the crisis. Take plastic straws for example.  According to The National Park Service, something like 500 million straws are used every single day in the U.S. alone, with an estimated 8.3 billion plastic straws currently sitting on the world’s beaches. Overall, when we look at the daunting amount of plastic we’re depositing into the world’s oceans–nearly 14 million tons per year–it’s as clear as a translucent plastic straw that a crisis is impending.

Sad? Yes. Terrifying? Definitely. Defeating? It shouldn’t be. 

Organizations like Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii are doing their damnedest to reverse the tide of ocean pollution. A grassroots, Hawaii-based nonprofit, SCH started in 2010 with a humble beach cleanup at Makapu’u on the south coast of Oahu. Two-hundred volunteers showed up that day, and since then SCH has kicked off a global movement of community-led environmental activism, coordinating educational programs, waste diversion services and public service campaigns while helping others organize their own beach cleanups. 

Nearly 10 years since its founding, while SCH persists with its small team of founders, the organization has become a global force for change, with hundreds of thousands of followers across social platforms, celebrities taking up SCH’s mantle, and, most importantly, its core offering–the hands-on beach cleanups–attracting thousands of volunteers each year. To date, SCH has engaged more than 35,000 volunteers and cleaned up 500,000 pounds of debris from the coastlines of Hawaii. 

At this year’s SURFER Awards, SURFER will bestow its Agents of Change Award to Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii. We recently caught up with SCH’s Executive Director Rafael Bergstrom to find out more about the organization’s future and the extent of the plastic pollution crisis threatening coastal communities today. 

Can you talk about the cleanups that SCH helps facilitate? How does it work? Can anybody sign up?

SCH coordinates and launches the biggest cleanups in Hawaii and makes the experience fun and open to anyone. Our mission is to inspire local communities to care for their coastlines. To do so we want people to be excited about their kuleana (personal sense of responsibility) to protect the places they love most. People are inspired when they are having fun and in an atmosphere where they connect with others. Each year we coordinate eight to 10 large-scale cleanups across the Hawaiian Islands that are completely open to the public. We also hold educational cleanups with schools, corporate team building cleanups and pop-up cleanups as the need arises. Sometimes the plastic pollution issue can be overwhelming as it continues to grow, but the more hands-on our communities are the more equipped we are to collectively make change. 

Off the Wall
Photo Credit: Ryan Craig

How is the ocean pollution crisis at impacting coastal communities, specifically the Hawaiian Islands? 

Every day, waves and wind bring new loads of plastic pollution to the beaches of Hawaii. Our unique position in the Pacific Ocean make Hawaii susceptible to plastic from all over the world and as production of plastic escalates globally we are seeing 14 million tons of plastic entering the ocean each year. That’s equivalent to a garbage truck of plastic being dumped in the ocean every minute of every day. While the effects are global, we see the results first hand in Hawaii. A recent study showed that plastic pieces outnumber juvenile fish 7 to 1 in surface breeding grounds. Marine animals in Hawaii are affected across the board–from entangled turtles and monk seals, to seabird stomachs, to whales and fish. Hawaii sees the single-use plastic pollution first hand and also is at the forefront of impact from the commercial fishing industry with everything from multi-ton ghost nets to oyster spacers washing up on our beaches with every high tide. Our story is one that needs to be shared globally so that we can help people everywhere understand how they can contribute to change. 

It sounds like even with all the great work SCH has done, beach cleanups alone aren’t enough to reverse the damage we’ve caused to our coastlines. What other initiatives does Sustainable Coastlines focus on?

While we love to gather community to clean up, our messaging never waivers–cleanups are reactive and not the solution to the mounting problem. Beach cleanups are merely an educational tool and a space for community to gather and connect around a cause. Clean beaches start at home where we have to turn off the tap of plastic rather than constantly bailing out the bath water. We take this messaging seriously and work with both youth and businesses to facilitate the changes that we need in society. Our education program reaches at least 10,000 students in classrooms each year. Our SCH education team works with all grade levels from kindergarten to college–and adults, too–to not only discuss how plastics became so prevalent in our society, but also how we have endless opportunity to reverse the damage being done. That reversal can be in the simple steps of refusing single-use plastics in your daily life to getting involved civically by advocating for change at more institutional levels. We also work with businesses in our waste diversion program to demonstrate that we can treat waste differently by understanding the materials we use for events and how those materials are treated after disposal. In this program we encourage switches away from single-use plastics, separate waste streams for composting and recycling, and do on-site education for event guests. Ultimately, we have to move away from the convenience-based, single-use mentality that has put us in the place of having polluted oceans and beaches. 

What does SCH have on the docket in 2020 and what’s the best way for Surfer Mag readers to get involved? 

We’re gearing up for a hugely impactful 2020 with big enhancements to our current programs and some new ideas to be launched. SCH will of course have our large-scale cleanups on the schedule for anyone to join–from locals to visitors, you are always welcome at our events. We will be introducing some new technologies for our composting efforts that will be educational and game changing. Look for workshops and interactive experiences at our events that make deeper connections to the solutions we all have at our fingertips to be a part of. We’ll also be launching a program called the Pilina Pledge where people from all over the world can become ambassadors for the changes we encourage. Pilina is the Hawaiian concept of deep connection or how we are bound together–both with each other and the land. Our goal in this program is to enhance impact after events by giving volunteers and community members a menu of options to continue work in their daily lives after they connect with us.

For those who can’t make it to Hawaii, please follow along with Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii on Instagram and share the organization’s great work with others.

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