Last year, an “unprecedented” eruption of the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island shot lava into the air, sent tremors rumbling through the ground and destroyed more than 700 homes — upending life for months on parts of the island.
The destructive volcano also created something new: Pohoiki, a 1,000-foot-long black sand beach, which formed when hot lava flowing into the cold ocean exploded, leaving dark grains of sand in its wake, Civil Beat reports.
That pristine new beach wasn’t pristine for long, though.
Nicolas Vanderzyl, a University of Hawaii at Hilo marine science student, measured the infiltration of microplastics on a handful of beaches across the island — and found that Pohoiki is already littered with plastic pollution, just like the older Hapuna and Hilo Bay beaches, according to a university news release.
“There’s this romantic idea of the remote tropical beach, clean and pristine like the beach Tom Hanks washed up on [in the movie Castaway],” said ecologist Steven Colbert, a mentor to Vanderzyl, according to National Geographic. “That kind of beach doesn’t exist anymore.”
Vanderzyl said there were 21 bits of plastic for every 50 grams of sand on the new beach — primarily tiny microfibers, which are found in fabrics like nylon and polyester, and end up in the water when humans do laundry or get in the water wearing textiles that release them, National Geographic reports.
“I kind of figured there was going to be plastic there,” Vanderzyl told KITV. “I didn’t want to believe it when I saw it, but I can’t honestly say I was all that surprised.”
Plastics created and then discarded by humans are washing up on beaches worldwide, as well as sinking to the deepest depths of the oceans — threatening fish, birds, turtles and other wildlife, according to researchers. One beach in Hawaii, Kamilo Point, is so overwhelmed with human refuse that it’s sometimes called “junk beach.”
Since 2003, the Hawaii Wildlife Fund has picked up more than 268 tons of marine pollution — largely plastic — from that portion of the shoreline alone, according to the university. It’s an important task because birds can mistake microplastics for fish eggs, discarded products can strangle sea turtles and the detritus makes beaches unsightly.
“It’s like a synthetic bacteria,” Vanderzyl said, according to Civil Beat. “It’s spreading everywhere like a plague, and after a while you just can’t see it.”
Experts are trying a new approach to clean up those microplastics, particularly at Kamilo Point. A dozen engineering students at Québec’s Université de Sherbrooke created a large vacuum cleaner they call Ho‘ola One. Vanderzyl is collecting data to see how well the new system works.
“We vacuum everything into an empty reservoir, and once the reservoir is full, a six-inch valve opens and drops everything down into a decanter, which is full of seawater. It has big heavy jets to mix everything and then big manifolds to stop the turbulence,” said Alexandre Savard, who led the team, according to the University of Hawaii. “After decantation the plastic floats on the top while the sand and rocks sink to the bottom. The plastic is filtered from the water with stainless steel filters and the sand and rocks are returned straight to the beach.”
But what’s on the beach is only part of the story, experts say.
“We have estimates of how much plastic is coming into the ocean and how much is floating in the ocean and they don’t match up,” Colbert said in the university news release. “We don’t know where the plastic is going. Is it sinking onto the sea floor? Accumulating on our beaches? Is it being eaten by birds or carried onto land? How is it accumulating and where is it accumulating? It’s not well documented.”
Vanderzyl said he plans to go back to Pohoiki beach in December 2019 to collect more samples, so he can compare how plastic pollution has accumulated a year since he took the initial samples there, the Hawaii Tribune Herald reports.