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Originally published Friday, February 2, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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World's garbage floats onto idyllic beaches in Hawaii and beyond

On the first day of my vacation on Kauai in December, I went for a walk on the beach near the house that my wife and I had rented. The spot was everything...

Minneapolis Star Tribune

On the first day of my vacation on Kauai in December, I went for a walk on the beach near the house that my wife and I had rented.

The spot was everything I'd hoped for: A two-minute walk down a dirt road led to Moloa'a Bay, fringed by an inviting crescent of pale yellow sand, deep and soft under my bare feet.

One unpleasant detail compromised the scene. A baffling display of ugliness sprawled along the tide line: water bottles, milk crates, fishing buoys, netting, plastic bags, a barrel-sized clump of orange plastic rope and, scattered everywhere, a fine confetti of broken-up plastic chips.

By any standard, Kauai is remote, thousands of miles from the nearest continent in any direction. Where did this stuff come from?


What you can do: Aside from the obvious (don't litter, and limit use of disposable plastic items), there are plenty of opportunities to learn more and volunteer.

• The Ocean Conservancy organizes a global coastal cleanup each fall. This year it's Sept. 15.

• For more information on the scope of the problem, this Web site is an eye-opener:

• When in Hawaii, vacationers can volunteer for a day with the Surfrider Foundation cleaning up the mess. The Web site will link you to the local chapters. Kauai's number for information on cleanup days is 808-828-1147. For general information, go to also are Surfrider branches in Washington state).

The answer stunned me. It came all the way from Mexico, the continental United States, Alaska, Taiwan, Japan and China. Some was dumped off of recreational and commercial ships, but most of it came from individuals who littered, be it by the side of the road or on the beach. Plastic takes hundreds of years to decompose, meaning that all the plastic ever made still exists somewhere. A lot of it is floating in the Pacific.

"We're at a juncture of convergence zones that create this massive gyre that collects trash," said Paul Tannenbaum. "Some of it ends up on our beaches."

Tannenbaum is a founder of the Kauai chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, an international nonprofit group that advocates for clean oceans and public access (both issues are near and dear to surfers).

Marine scientists refer to that gyre Tannenbaum mentioned as the "Great Eastern Garbage Patch" — a floating dump that's twice the size of Texas, and by one account is awash with 3 million tons of debris. Slowly circulating currents act like a global drain tornado, slowly drawing trash dumped off the coasts toward its center.

The main Hawaiian islands and the chain of small sea islands to their west act like a giant comb at the fringes of the gyre, collecting bits of floating plastic from all over the world, Tannenbaum said.

Depressingly, it wasn't the first time I had encountered unexpected trash in an isolated place. The Sian Kaan Biosphere Reserve, about 120 miles south of Cancun, has miles and miles of undeveloped coastline that is littered with junk that has floated from cruise ships, the Caribbean Islands, South America and Africa. In addition to being unsightly and unhygienic for people, plastic trash kills seabirds, fish and turtles that mistake it for food. In popular areas, beach hotels and resorts clean their beaches each morning, so most travelers never know the extent of the problem.

"Trash travels," said Tom McCann, a spokesman for the Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit that advocates for clean seas. "You end up with these enormous floating trash piles that bring garbage to every shore. About 80 percent of it is from land-based sources."

It's tempting to consider the problem somebody else's. But water connects everything, regardless of where we live.

"Drop a cigarette butt out the window, it washes from the street into a sewer, from there into a stream, then a river, then the ocean," McCann said. "The good thing about the problem is that so much of it stems from personal behavior, and that's one of the easiest problems to solve."

To that end, every cigarette butt, every plastic shopping bag and every plastic bottle matters. Just ask Tannenbaum, who this month was out picking up the globe's garbage again.

"I moved here a couple of years ago from California; I was astounded by the trash, and that some of it was coming from my home state," he said. "We started the Surfrider chapter nine months ago when we saw that nobody was picking it up. We do volunteer cleanup days once a month."

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