two men with screen cleaning the beach
Cleaning Up The Coast

World champion waterman Kai Lenny spreads awareness about the problems of plastic pollution.

Text By
Jeff Hawe
Images By
Jeff Hawe & Andy Mann

Out on the ‘Alenuihāhā Channel, Kai Lenny’s hydrofoil board swiftly floated across the faces of whitewater cresting peaks. On its underside, a wing-like mechanism extended into the water, creating lift as it moved forward, which enabled Lenny to ride rolling swells while moving through the channel. Meaning “great billows smashing,” this ocean channel is regarded as one of the world’s most treacherous, due to its strong winds and high seas. For Lenny, however, this crossing was merely the first leg of a five-day journey across the Hawaiian Island chain as part of Hawai‘i’s first statewide beach cleanup. At its completion, Lenny—a world champion waterman versed in kiteboarding, windsurfing, stand-up paddleboarding, and big-wave surfing—would have traveled 200 nautical miles and participated in six beach cleanups on Hawai‘i Island, Maui, Lāna‘i, Moloka‘i, O‘ahu, and Kaua‘i in partnership with Sustainable Coastlines Hawai‘i and the 5 Gyres Institute.

Current predictions estimate that plastic will be more prevalent than fish within the ocean by 2050. Already, the oceans contain more than 270,000 metric tons of plastic waste, and counting. In 2012, 5 Gyres research director and co-founder Marcus Eriksen established the world’s first global estimate of plastic pollution, determining that there were more than 5 trillion plastic particles afloat in the sea. Eriksen found that 92 percent of these particles were microplastics. These microscopic pieces of plastic, nearly invisible to the naked eye, float through ocean ecosystems in what he calls a “plastic smog,” which threatens the existence of marine species, worsens climate change, and degrades human health. “It’s difficult to convey what you can’t see,” Eriksen says. “This issue is a tragedy of the commons. It’s everyone’s problem, but the trash washing ashore in Hawai‘i typically belongs to no identifiable country or company.”

Landing on Lāna‘i’s remote Shipwreck Beach, Lenny and his team were struck by the uninterrupted line of bottles, nets, and plastic particles running its entire length. The massive amount of debris along this shoreline is a shock, especially considering its small number of visitors. It comes as less of a surprise to those who understand the movement of the ocean—the majority of coastal rubbish across Hawai‘i drifts onto beaches from the North Pacific Gyre, a surface current that carries an estimated 33 percent of all the ocean’s trash. Regardless, it is still unsettling. “With every high tide, a new deposit … is left on Hawai‘i’s coastlines,” explains Kahi Pacarro, the executive director of Sustainable Coastlines. “Presently, it’s the worst we’ve ever seen.”

These beach cleanups were conceived as a way to bring the issue to the public, and invite them to get involved. At the end of five days, the campaign gathered 326 volunteers, who worked together, across the islands, to collect more than 11,000 pounds of debris.

But just as daunting as Lenny’s voyage from island to island for the initiative is addressing plastic pollution in the oceans with tangible solutions. “The biggest contribution to the solution would be design for recovery, in which companies that produce plastics accept responsibility for the fate of what they create,” Eriksen says. Consumers can demand this of the companies they buy from, and create change by rejecting single-use plastics and polystyrene (styrofoam), thus reducing their personal impacts on the ocean.

Lenny’s final crossing for the initiative was the Kaiwi Channel, which connects Moloka‘i and O‘ahu. After spending a few minutes examining its conditions, he said, “Well, I guess it’s time to go,” picked up his hydrofoil board, and went. Three hours and 26 minutes later, Lenny arrived on O‘ahu, besting his personal record by 41 minutes. Later, at Makapu‘u, crowds anticipating his arrival joined him, eager to spend hours by his side, working together to clean up the coast.

Kai Lenny cleaning plastic from beach

At Pololū Valley on Hawai‘i Island, renowned surfer Kai Lenny embarked on a five-day sustainability campaign.

volunteers cleaning the shoreline holding waste bag

More than 300 volunteers gathered across the islands to clean debris from Hawai‘i’s shorelines.

Young boy cleaning littered plastic from beach rocks

According to recent studies, plastic waste is on the rise—a figure stirring communities to take action.

two men with screen cleaning the beach

A beach cleanup at Makapu‘u on O‘ahu’s east side.

two women and little girl cleaning plastic from beach

The ocean is currently littered with more than 270,000 metric tons of plastic waste, and counting.

Kai Lenny on surfboard with paddle
two women and little girl cleaning plastic from beach

The ocean is currently littered with more than 270,000 metric tons of plastic waste, and counting.

Kai Lenny on surfboard with paddle
Kai Lenny kite surfing in front of abandoned rusted freighter in ocean

“With every high tide, a new deposit is left on Hawai‘i’s coastlines. Presently, it’s the worst we’ve ever seen.” —Sustainable Coastlines’ executive director, Kahi Pacarro, who, along with world champion waterman Kai Lenny crossed 200 nautical miles to bring awareness to the issue of protecting the ocean.

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