We’ve all noticed it. We see it at our favorite beaches and surf spots, waterfalls and hiking trails. It’s becoming as common as tourists. It’s scary and ugly. It makes most of us angry and some of us hopeless.
Specifically, plastic. Whether washed up on our shores or in our workplaces and homes, it’s a difficult problem with not always simple solutions. Living on an island makes us all more keenly aware of pressing environmental issues we face, but it’s not always easy to know what to do.
While it’s tempting to stick our heads in the sand in shame and despair, some of our island residents are doing the exact opposite. One of the local nonprofits that’s dedicated to addressing this challenge is the Maui Huliau Foundation. Executive Director Malia Cahill and Program Assistant Ashley O’Colmain are the two-woman show running the Huliau Foundation. Their programs seek to address environmental issues on Maui through empowering youth.
These women and kids they work with have some amazing ideas about how we can deal with our trash problem.
There’s a lot of trash happening on this island. The Central Maui Landfill will be at mass capacity in 2026, just eight years from now. With more than 165,00 residents (and growing), and many visitors at any given time that do their share of waste-creation, trash is an issue that affects us all. According to the EPA, the average American create 4.4 pounds of waste per day. So what can we do to keep from being an average American?
At local events around the island, you may have seen them. If you’re one of the more than 9,000 people who’ve attended “Green Events” like Ho‘omau, Punana Leo O Maui’s annual event, then you’ve definitely seen them. Posted at zero waste stations, Cahill, O’Colmain and their youth and volunteers help attendees sort their waste into compostable foodware, food waste, recyclables and trash. Having consulted with planning committees and vendors beforehand, all the single-use containers and utensils at the Green Events are compostable.
So far, these events have diverted over 2,000 pounds of waste from landfills. “It’s about living your values,” said O’Colmain. “If you value your environment, you have to do these things that aren’t really that hard to do, it’s just about knowledge and changing our views. And it’s effective… Events are good because there are so many people there, and so much impact. We man the stations because part of it is that we want to educate people. They want to talk. People want to know that there are things they can do, and that we’re in it together.”
So far, this little team with huge drive has done many popular events around the island, such as Paddle Imua, Haleakala Waldorf Faire, the Indigenous Crop Biodiversity Festival and Kula Festival, Ulu Festival and the Local Wild Food Challenge, with tentative plans to do this year’s Maui Film Festival. This month, they even did their first private event–a wedding.
It’s a long day for the Huliau team, which started before the event to set up and ended long after everyone wenthome. O’Colmain told me she clocked a 14-mile day at the recent Haleakala Faire, checking out stations, coordinating volunteer shifts and hauling waste. Through its work, the Huliau team hopes they can inspire others in their personal lives. Taylor Redman, a Huliau student and junior at Kamehameha who’s involved in the Green Events, said that “It’s important for everyone to know where their waste goes and the alternatives when they separate their compost and recyclables so they don’t all just end up in the landfill. It’s even more important for people in Hawaii because we only have so much land for those landfills to be.”
After each event, with gloves and grit, the women of Huliau and their volunteers sorted and weighed the waste so they could record and report on what’s happening. I worked with them at the recent Waldorf event, as they and their kids sorted huge bins of food waste and compostables.
“It’s just the right thing to do,” said O’Colmain. “That’s why I have so much conviction about sorting through trash. Sometimes I feel like it makes me look a little insane, but it’s the right thing to do so I’m going to keep doing it. We all want to live in a world where we’re more in tune with our environment.”
Cahill picked up a huge bag of compostable products and stood on a scale. “Thirty pounds” she called out, and a kid recorded it on a spreadsheet, while we sorted food waste and compostable containers into different bins. The food waste and compostables went to O’Colmain’s farm, Kupa‘a Farms or farms near the events.
The Green Events started back in 2015, when Lahaina Plantation Days approached the Huliau Foundation about reducing waste at their event. The Aloha Aina event was also happening around that time. The Huliau Foundation designed zero-waste stations and helped the events with their efforts to reduce waste. Event planners and community organizers were looking at ways to lessen the trash impact at these large-scale events, and the idea grew from there.
The Huliau Foundation now works with vendors and planning committees for ideas for compostable and reusable products, provide volunteers to work the stations, and weigh all the waste after the event to measure impact. The biggest event they’ve done so far is Ho‘omau, which attracted more than 3,600 Maui residents this year. In a short film that Huliau youth made about the Green Events, Trish Ishikawa, the Coordinator for Ho‘omau, said that “At the school we’re always teaching kids about malama‘aina and aloha‘aina, and we thought it would be really important to show them and the public that this is something that is possible. We had a lot of positive feedback from the public.”
They also did a trash audit last year for the Made in Maui County festival, one of Maui’s biggest events, attended by over 10,000 people. They sorted trash, weighted what could have been recycled or composted, and went around to the vendors to see what products could be replaced with compostables. They made recommendations to the event planning committee about how it could go zero-waste next year, which would have a huge impact on reducing the amount of trash that goes into the landfill.
The Green Events concept is generating a lot of interest. It’s a no-brainer for events and festivals that generate huge amounts of waste, and therefore have huge impact, but sometimes planners don’t know where to start. Huliau can’t do every event, but the Foundation also does consulting, and it hopes to pass the knowledge on by loaning the zero-waste stations and training workers to use them. As interest grows, Cahill and O’Colmain are searching for ways to make Green Events more accessible to every event. One thing they currently need is a place to store their zero-waste stations and equipment in central Maui.
“We’re so used to trash cans and throwing things away,” Cahill said. “That has been part of the challenge of this program, to break this habit that is so ingrained in us, but at the same time that’s a big part of the opportunity that this program provides. It can be really empowering to work as a community to see how much of our waste we can reduce. We’ve gotten very positive feedback. It’s a little more effort at first, but people always feel great about the end result. It’s been really exciting to see some of our biggest events on Maui stepping up.”
The Green Events are just one of the projects the Huliau Foundation takes on. Huliau students are increasingly concerned about the growing problem of plastic in our oceans, and have started several other creative projects to address it. For the past three years, Huliau students have gone to the Plastic Ocean Pollution Solutions (POPS) Youth Summit, where they meet with youth from all over the world, share ideas, and get fired up about ways they can address plastic reduction on Maui.
One of these ideas is a project called #sporkitup, which has produced and distributed more than 15,000 bamboo sporks to promote the use of reusable utensils in place of single-use plastic utensils. The foundation sells the sporks at Tin Roof in Kahului, Product of My Environment surf shop in Paia, Jaws Country Store in Haiku, Designing Wahine in Makawao and Baya Bowls, Hale Zen and Honokowai Farmers Market in West Maui.
Huliau students also worked with partners on a program called Foam Free Future, which led to the launch of Surfrider Foundation’s Ocean Friendly Restaurants in Hawaii, to help support restaurants to reduce styrofoam and plastic waste. The students visited restaurants to give them information about alternatives to styrofoam food service items.
And all of that isn’t even the bulk of what the Huliau Foundation does. Cahill and O’Colmain also teach middle and high-school students to make environmental films, which have been screened at film festivals. The videos, which can be found on YouTube, are clever and charming. They use whiteboard or claymation, music videos, and storytelling shorts.
In some videos, kids act as “Sea Police,” educating viewers about coral-killing sunscreens and using plastic forks. One popular video parodies Maklemore’s “Thrift Shop,” with lyrics like “You want some sweet potatoes, I got some sweet potatoes, Mexico guess what, don’t send us your tomatoes!” Huliau is currently enrolling for its Westside spring program, which is now in its second year. Students can apply at Mauihuliaufoundation.org.
“When people see you taking big action, it inspires them to take action on whatever scale they can,” said O’Colmain.
This is a sticking point for some when it comes to the daunting environmental problems we all face. There’s sometimes a defeatist attitude when it comes to personal responsibility and the efficacy of changing personal behavior. What good, the thinking goes, does not using a plastic fork do in the face of industry and corporate waste, which pollutes at a far more vast rate than an individual ever could?
While it’s true that policy is essential to solving the environmental crises we face as an island and a planet, it’s not true that our day-to-day actions don’t have an impact on our island community. From the plastic lids on to-go cups and forks at parties, each individual’s choices do make an impact.
“Plastic is going to last a long time, and you’re only going to use it for a few minutes,” said O’Colmain. “We just want people to be mindful and aware about how much plastic is in their daily lives.”
Or as Huliau student Redman said, “Our lives as consumers have become suffocated by plastic and in this generation we barely use reusable utensils and containers. We all need to realize that we do have a huge impact on our environment and we can change our ways to help ourselves and our environment.”
Committing to not using single-use plastic is a great first step. Carrying around a Huliau spork, or even just a set of utensils from your house, is just a matter of developing a new habit. It can be hard to be the first, but attitudes are changing, awareness is growing, and we can all be a part of that shift. Many people already carry around their reusable water bottles–consider the amount of plastic bottles saved from just the proliferation of the Hydroflask.
The next level is assessing our everyday plastic use. There are all kinds of products, from reusable “ziplock” bags to beeswax sandwich wrappers (check out local brand Bee Akamai by Lani Monroe) aluminum straws, insulated coffee cups and mason jars for cold drinks. While these things can mean an initial investment, they save money and plastic use in the long run.
It’s all about mentality and behavior change. Back when the plastic bag ban was up for hearings, some residents gave passionate testimony about the essential nature of these single-use nightmares, which were choking our shorelines and roadsides and killing sea life. Now that they’re gone, we hardly notice the difference, and what a difference it’s made.
If you must buy single-use products for your office or classroom event, birthday party or barbeque, buy compostable ones–they aren’t much more expensive. If your favorite plate lunch place or smoothie shop doesn’t use these products, speak up and ask for them.
Native Hawaiians lived sustainably, while the American nation creates more waste than any other in the world, and consumes more resources than most. American consumer culture teaches us that we need newer and better things all the time, that we are imperfect so need to buy this and that to become better, and that the way to show love is through giving people stuff. None of this has to be true.
If you surf, dive, enjoy the beach, hike our mountain trails or breathe air, this is your concern. It’s all of our kuleana. We all want to protect our island, and we cannot wait for our leaders to tell us what to do. So compost. Shop at your farmer’s market. Buy a Huliau spork and bust it out the next time someone hands you a plastic fork. And when you see the Maui Huliau team at a local event, helping to save thousands of pounds of waste from going to our landfills, say hello.
For more information go to Mauihuliaufoundation.org.
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Photo: Bryan Berkowitz