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Maui has a new plastic ban — but is it enough to protect marine ecosystems?

Viewpoint

On March 1, Maui’s new plastic ban went into full effect. The law prohibits the use, sale and provision of plastic disposable foodware in Maui County, in hopes of reducing local plastic waste. But better yet, it starts a conversation about the impact of plastic pollution and what it’s doing to our oceans and marine ecosystems.

As a marine conservation scientist for the Coral Reef Alliance and longtime Maui resident, I have seen it all. I’ve witnessed turtles entangled in fishing lines, dead crabs washed up in laundry baskets on the beach and endless piles of bottles, bags, toys, electronics, you name it. The ocean current sends plastic waste to the shorelines of Kaho’olawe, where I worked for years and spent hours cleaning up the beaches. I once collected so much plastic that I turned it into a marine debris Christmas tree.

One of the most impacted marine ecosystems are coral reefs, which are also one of the most biodiverse environments on the planet. Coral reefs are home to 25 percent of all ocean animals and provide millions of people with food, jobs and income. But they are diminishing at staggering rates, according to the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network and International Coral Reef Initiative’s “Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2020.” In fact, we’ve lost more than 14 percent of the world’s coral reefs in the last decade, mostly attributed to large-scale bleaching events sparked by climate change.

Research shows we can give coral reefs a chance of survival, as long as we keep them healthy so they can adapt to rising ocean temperatures. Marine debris, along with wastewater and overfishing, make it much harder for coral reefs and the animals that depend on them to thrive.

Each year, we produce millions of tons of plastic and it’s estimated that at least 14 million tons end up in the ocean, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. And the plastic doesn’t just float in the water. Toxic chemicals bind to it and coral reefs, along with other marine animals, are ingesting it. According to a 2018 study published in the journal Science, it also has the potential to significantly increase the likelihood of coral disease and makes reefs more susceptible to infection.

So is Maui’s new law a step in the right direction? Absolutely. Is it enough to eliminate plastic pollution in Hawai’i? No. But changing the law does start a conversation about the lasting impact plastic is having on our oceans and what we can do to change the narrative. It also encourages other island communities statewide to take similar action so we can see a greater change.

As a coral reef scientist, I urge more individuals, corporations and governments to take a hard look at the human impact we are having on marine ecosystems and take steps to reduce those impacts. Individually and collectively, our choices and actions matter. We all love our island home and I know you also want future generations to enjoy clean beaches, healthy coral reefs and a colorful marine life in Maui. That means we need to keep the conversation going — and continue to implement effective policies that protect our beautiful ocean.

* Jennifer Vander Veur is the senior program manager in Maui for the Coral Reef Alliance, a nonprofit focused on saving the world’s coral reefs. She holds two bachelor’s degrees in marine science and conservation biology, along with a master’s in marine biology from New Zealand.

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