cleaning up the coastline

Michelle Liu
July 20, 2023

The mission on this overcast Saturday morning was simple: clean up the beach.

I was looking forward to this day. I’d been researching volunteer opportunities since I moved to Hawaii late last year. My husband, who was born and raised in Honolulu, has always told me about the importance of malama aina. I wanted to do my part, so signing up to volunteer with Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii (SCH) was an easy decision.

Getting ready to pick up land-based debris.

The local nonprofit hosts an Island-wide Cleanup every June to kick off World Ocean Month. SCH partnered with Kokua Hawaii Foundation for the cleanup at Mokuleia Army Beach, one of four cleanup sites on Oahu on Saturday, June 3rd.

Sign to malama Mokuleia just outside the beach.

When my friend Abby and I first pulled up to the beach, we didn’t notice a lot of trash. But that would change. SCH crew members gathered all the volunteers together for a quick introduction. We learned about the history of Mokuleia and how the lush lands used to grow taro. We then all took a moment to close our eyes to think of someone we wanted to be with at that moment, wherever they were in the world.

I thought of my dad who lives 5,000 miles away. It’s tough to be away from him. But as I stood there on that beach, surrounded by strangers with one shared mission, a sense of peace flowed over me with a realization: we’re all connected by the ocean. Water connects every country around the world. That’s why it’s important to keep it healthy. Our goal was to reconnect with the land and the coastline by cleaning up land-based debris, which is waste material left behind by humans.

One of the crew members explained that Mokuleia has a lot of plastic, cigarette butts, and food containers. It’s also a hot spot for people to burn pallets for illegal beach bonfires. But once all that wood is burned, the nails and staples that keep the pallets together are left in the sand.

Burnt pallet with nails sticking out of wood.

Equipped with that knowledge, a pair of gloves, and a giant trash bag, we set off toward the sand. We quickly came across plastic debris in the bushes and along the beach. I was sad to see the trash piling up in our bags, but I also felt some accomplishment. It felt like I was doing a small part to help our aina.

Picking up trash.

During our search for trash, we also found remnants of several old campfires. While burnt wood was usually behind, one large piece of wood had nails sticking out of it. We called over a crew member who lent us a stick with a magnet attached to the bottom. We ran it through the sand, picking up dozens of nails each time.

It felt a bit like a game of “Where’s Waldo?” but instead of searching for a man in a hat and red and white striped shirt, we were keeping our eyes peeled for sharp nails.

Nails stuck to the magnet.

It was hard work and we had to take turns. Every time we thought the sand was clear of nails, we would run the magnet through again and it picked up a few more.

We spent at least 45 minutes at that site alone, alternating between the magnet and digging through the sand with our hands. I’m not sure how many nails were collected, but the “dangerous materials” bucket was about halfway full when we were done.

The "dangerous materials" bucket filled with nails.

We slowly walked down the rest of the beach, stopping at more burnt-out bonfires and collecting more nails with the magnet. We were careful not to disturb the bushes and other native Hawaiian plants as we picked up plastic fountain drink covers, cigarette butts, and remnants of glass bottles.

By the time the sun peeked out from behind the clouds a few hours later, Abby and I were ready for lunch and a break. Our bag of trash joined all the other volunteers’ trash piled in a corner, ready for pickup. I was tired but filled with a sense of purpose.

I hope we left the beach a little bit cleaner and the ocean a little bit healthier. Because now, when I look out toward the miles and miles of deep blue water, I smile and think about my dad. I feel calm and peaceful knowing that the ocean can bring us together, no matter how many miles are between us.

Come along on this beach cleanup that’s inspiring communities to take action and protect their coastlines:

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