Sustainable Coastlines conducts four large cleanups on Oahu each year, as well as a number of smaller ones. Here's what a typical haul looks like JEFF HAWE PHOTO

Sustainable Coastlines conducts four large cleanups on Oahu each year, as well as a number of smaller ones. Here’s what a typical haul looks like JEFF HAWE PHOTO

Several years ago, Kahi Pacarro was in the midst of a successful run in the real estate development industry when the economy took a downturn and he had no steady work. So he decided to turn it into an opportunity, embarking on a surf trip around the world. Australia, Bali, South Africa, the Netherlands and the Philippines were among 26 countries he visited during an 18-month trek alongside his girlfriend Louise (now his wife).

Along the way, the couple noticed a lot of locales had one unfortunate thing in common: ocean pollution. In some places, the trash and plastic waste in the water and on the shoreline, he recalls, were “out of control.”

When he returned home to the islands, Pacarro decided to tackle the issue locally, launching Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii (SCH), a nonprofit that hosts beach cleanups while raising awareness about marine debris and pollution through educational outreach and public awareness campaigns. Modeling it after Sustainable Coastlines in New Zealand – which he volunteered with during his travels – Pacarro started the organization from his living room with a group of friends in 2011.

“Seeing the pollution in the water and surfing with it, and then looking at my own behaviors upon returning (home) … I was just shocked,” Pacarro recalls. “I took the bull by the horns and worked for nothing for three years to build (SCH) to where it is now.”

It has certainly come a long way since the Pacarro living room. SCH now runs a statewide, multi-faceted operation that encompasses large-scale coastal cleanups, educational initiatives and sustainable waste management services. And while the group is very much about cleaning trash off beaches, the crux of it all goes beyond that – to raise awareness about the issue in order to prevent trash from ever getting there to begin with.

Next up for the organization is a slew of events in honor of April’s Earth Month. From now through April 30, conservation-themed artwork is on display at RevoluSun Smart Home (210 Ward Ave.); some of the proceeds benefit SCH. On April 29, SCH hosts a movie screening of A Turtle’s Tale at Waimanalo Beach Park at sunset, followed by its Earth Day Festival at the same location from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 30. In addition to cleaning up the beach, the event also features live entertainment, games and more.

Sustainable Coastlines executive director Kahi Pacarro spoke to a group of students at Blanche Pope Elementary School earlier this week MISSY ROMERO PHOTO

Sustainable Coastlines executive director Kahi Pacarro spoke to a group of students at Blanche Pope Elementary School earlier this week MISSY ROMERO PHOTO

A Personal Journey

Pacarro had landed his job in real estate development after graduating college, building tract homes and high-rise condos. He enjoyed the work, but during his travels, he discovered that his true passions were elsewhere.

“After traveling, I realized that … I wanted to enjoy life versus being stuck in the rat race,” he says. “I just wanted to really enjoy more of my time on Earth – and actually try to extend Earth’s sustainability, and sustain it so that the next generation and beyond can experience what a frickin’ miracle this place is.”

Plus, seeing trash around the world prompted him to examine his own behaviors, and he realized that certain things he did – like throwing out construction materials and drinking from plastic water bottles – only added to the problem.

“It pains me to (remember) telling the contractors to just throw stuff away,” Pacarro recalls. “Now I know where ‘away’ is.

“And I was a consumer of single-use plastics,” he adds. “I thought I was doing the world a favor by buying bottled water versus buying a Coca Cola – I thought I was being an environmentally sound guy.”

He sees SCH as a vehicle to help others have the same kind of awakening that he did.

“To have the blinders pulled over me, and to have that exposed, it made me feel ignorant,” Pacarro recalls.

“But at the same time,” he continues, “it was like an opportunity. If this happened to me and it is happening to my family and friends, this is happening to so many other people. I figured we need to have more people who are conscious about it to really lead the way and start influencing change.”

A group of SCH volunteers clean Kahuku Beach JEFF HAWE PHOTO

A group of SCH volunteers clean Kahuku Beach JEFF HAWE PHOTO

Cleaning The Coast

When things are thrown away, that’s often the end of that as far as the consumer is concerned. But SCH stresses that there isn’t really such a thing as “away”- discarded items often end up in the water or wash back up on shore. According to a 2014 report from nonprofit 5 Gyres, there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean – weighing 269,000 tons. Not only can debris trap sea creatures, but it also can be toxic to the ocean as a whole. And when we eat fish that have eaten plastic, what’s the effect on us?

SCH hosts four large-scale cleanups on Oahu annually – on north, east, south and west shores – along with smaller ones during the year throughout the state and in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Common items found include plastic bottles, plastic bags, food packaging, cigarette butts and other microplastics. (Plastic items retrieved during cleanups are separated and then sent to partners including cleaning company Method and Bureo Skateboards to be re-purposed into their products.)

In addition to its cleanups, SCH visits schools, colleges and community groups to educate people of all ages about plastic pollution, the importance of recycling and reusing materials, and ways to reduce consumption. As a part of its educational initiatives, SCH operates an Education Station, a 20-foot shipping container that’s been repurposed into a mobile classroom (learn more about shipping container conversions) that travels around the island to offer hands-on activities for kids to learn about issues affecting the ocean. When it was at Punahou School, for instance, more than 450 students from grades 1-12 visited the station.

“This opportunity allows students to explore … ways they can help solve this problem – such as refusing a straw or using a refillable water bottle,” says Punahou’s Gates Science Workshop co-director Gail Peiterson.

To help manage waste at events, SCH runs a Waste Diversion Education program, renting out a three-tier receptacle designed to allow for compost and recyclables as well as trash. The program has had a presence at a number of high-volume events, including concerts and surf contests.

All of this, remarkably, is powered by a dedicated group of volunteers: Pacarro is the only paid staff member; he’s backed by about 25 core volunteers who do a range of tasks from conducting presentations to spear-heading cleanups. In the last five years, SCH has presented educational information to 3,700 viewers, had 14,008 volunteers participate in its events, recycled 40,047 pounds of items found during cleanups and removed 149,507 pounds of trash from beaches. It’s also built up an extensive network of partner agencies, businesses and other nonprofits including NOAA, Kokua Foundation and more.

Trash found during a Sustainable Coastlines cleanup. JEFF HAWE PHOTO

Trash found during a Sustainable Coastlines cleanup. JEFF HAWE PHOTO

The Bigger Picture

Despite the huge strides that SCH has made, the work can, at times, feel redundant: “We will go and clean a beach and come back just a couple months later and it’s just as dirty,” Pacarro says.

While the cleanups are perhaps the most visible part of SCH, the core of the organization is in addressing the root causes of what they pick up.

“If all we do is clean beaches and try to clean up the ocean, that is all we will ever do,” Pacarro says. “There is another step of us trying to think outside the box, trying to stop the flow of trash from ever getting to the beach in the first place.”

On the consumer level, that involves incorporating how to reduce consumption of certain goods into its educational initiatives. During SCH events, volunteers stress that the things they pick up on the beach are the very same items that people use every day.

“Awareness is key,” says volunteer Jeff Hawe. “I think very few people are consuming plastics and things like that because they don’t care – it’s just that there is not the awareness where that rubbish goes. Raising that awareness is sometimes all it takes to get someone to change their daily habits, which if you apply that on a large scale, makes a big impact.”

But it goes further than the consumer, too. Pacarro sees pollution itself as “the result of failed design” on a company’s part.

“The whole onus of litter in the ocean and litter on the streets is really pushed on the consumer that it is our fault,” he says. “Yes, we are littering. But what if there was nothing to litter at all? What if the things that we consumed were done once we consumed them?”

When it comes to the future of SCH, Pacarro applies that same kind of lofty vision.

“We want to see cleaner beaches. We want to see a state that really includes plastic pollution education into its curriculum. We want to see a state that … embraces alternative technologies and compostable products.”

He pauses for a moment and adds a final hope: “We want to see a point where Sustainable Coastlines has to go and choose another issue because this one is already solved.”