Posted by: Miriam Goldstein | April 12, 2011

Plastic pollution on Hawaii’s famed green sand beach

A couple weeks ago I was lucky enough to go to Hawaii for the 5th International Conference on Marine Debris. (You can see my tweets at @seaplexscience, or the conference hashtag #5imdc.) This was my third time in Hawaii this year, but since the first two visits were to catch a ship and immediately leave, I’d never seen much of Hawaii outside of the Honolulu docks and Home Depot. So after the conference, my husband and I headed out for a week on the Big Island.

We decided that we had to see the Big Island’s famed green sand beach. Green sand beaches are very rare (there’s only two in US territory – this Hawaiian one, and one in Guam). The green color is caused by olivine crystals eroding out of lava flows, so you need both a nice erodible lava flow, and a relatively calm area of coast where a beach can form. There are no towns or good roads near the Big Island’s green sand beach – it’s way down on South Point, and the last 2.5 miles can only be accessed by 4-wheel drive or on foot. We like to hike and so we walked.

On our walk to the beach, I was pretty shocked at the vast amount of washed-up plastic debris that we saw in the middle of nowhere on South Point. Having studied plastic marine debris for the last three years, I was intellectually familiar with Hawaii’s marine debris problem, but seeing it with my own eyes (especially when my brain was in hiking mode) was a saddening experience. Despite a recent beach cleanup which was bagged and waiting for pickup, countless plastic items and bits were mixed with the driftwood on the black lava rock beaches.

Plastic debris mixed with driftwood amongst black lava rocks.

More plastic debris along coast.

Bags from beach cleanup, South Point, HI

These bags were waiting for pickup after a beach cleanup. The sad face is for the amount of trash - perhaps I should have made a happy face for the cleanup!

After a pleasant (except for the trash) 45 minute walk, we reached the green sand beach. It was spectacular – the green sand washes out of an eroding volcanic cinder cone.

Green sand beach on Big Island, HI

The green sand beach! The layered cliff in the back is the eroding cinder cone. The SUV parked to the left of the cone gives a sense of scale.

Olivine crystals eroding out of the cliff

Olivine crystals eroding out of the cinder cone cliff. Aren't they pretty? Also, idiots who carve their fool names into beautiful scenic things go to the SPECIAL hell. AND get cursed by Pele.

But even on the green sand beach, there was plastic everywhere. It wasn’t as obvious as on the lava rocks, but the high tide line was marked by a wandering line of tiny plastic particles, with the occasional larger item. While my husband frolicked in the waves, I couldn’t resist picking up the tiny bits. It only took me 10 minutes to get an entire handful.

Handful of plastic debris from green sand beach

My handful of plastic debris from the green sand beach.

Plastic particles along the high tide line

Plastic particles (and a little wood) along the high tide line, with my toes for scale.

Closeup of green sand, wood bits, and plastic

Closeup of green sand, wood bits, and plastic. Oh, I love those olivine crystals.

Scientifically, it was pretty interesting. The plastic bits I picked up on the beach don’t look like the ones we found way out in the Gyre – there are more colors, especially blue and pink, and the pieces are not as weathered. I’m going to run some of them through our spectrometer to see what type of plastic they are. But personally, my tiny glimpse of the huge scope of Hawaii’s marine debris problem was very sad.


  1. Thanks for writing about this. Glad there are still some people like you who value our world’s oceans. Maybe the least we can do is disposing of our items properly. Check this video out.

  2. Thank you for addressing the debris problem along Green Sand Beach. My husband and I hiked this beach in August and were equally disturbed by what we saw along the coastal trail. Sad, but true, most of the hikers that day hiked or drove along the dirt road leading to the infamous beach, and never saw the mounds of plastic tucked into the scattered beaches in the area. I’m trying to organize a service project to clean the area in May, if anyone could assist us with organizing it – that would be great! Thanks for your posting.
    Angela Effertz , faculty, Normandale Community College, Bloomington, MN

  3. […] won’t allow in a container their child drinks from? Should our children (or ourselves) have to play on polluted beaches, building castles from plastic sand? As a Pagan, what kind of reverence am I showing (and teaching […]

  4. This is really sad to here and see this. We just got back from hawaii and I was also in shock of what is washed up on the beaches. Is there anything that will stop this. I love hawaii and want to keep going back

  5. […] won’t allow in a container their child drinks from? Should our children (or ourselves) have to play on polluted beaches, building castles from plastic sand? As a Pagan, what kind of reverence am I showing (and teaching […]



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