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Canadian Students Help Combat Hawai‘i’s Microplastics Problem

January 6, 2019, 7:36 PM HST · Updated January 6, 7:43 PM
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A group of engineering students at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, Canada have been working with the Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund (HWF) to design a prototype machine to remove small pieces of plastic debris from beaches. Their invention is called HoolaOne.

The HWF has been working with volunteers to clean the coastlien near Kamilo Point in Kaʻū on Hawaiʻi island for 15 years and just recovered 500,000 pounds of plastic, including bundles of nets and line. According to HWF, it is impossible to collect everything and plastic never goes away, because it only breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. This microplastic debris is the most difficult to collect and remove from the beach because doing so is very time consuming.

“Two years ago, this group of engineering students from the University of Sherbrooke approached us and asked what they might do to help with our marine debris recovery work,” Bill Gilmartin, HWF’s Research director, said. “I suggested they tackle the problem of removing small plastic pieces from beach sand and they took on the challenge as a class project.”  

HWF sent the students pictures of the problem and shipped them boxes of plastic-laden beach sand to work with.

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“We discussed as many of the potential problems as we could think of, like rocks and pieces of wood in the sand, access to cleanup sites, and the varied slopes of beaches,” Gilmartin said.  

The students’ invention, HoolaOne, was specifically designed to separate very small microplastic pieces up to 2 inches in diameter from the beach sand. The students have earned several awards from Canadian groups and have been featured in numerous media events for their work.

“We just heard from the students that the prototype is ready for shipping and field testing at Kamilo. And, ideally, some of the engineering students would come to Hawai‘i Island in February to work with HWF team members to field test the prototype and make any adjustments or modifications needed to fine tune and ensure the machine’s highest performance,” Gilmartin said.

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The students have already raised over $70,000 in Canadian dollars to design and build HoolaOne. HWF needs to raise about $15,000 to bring the machine and students to Hawai’i.  

“We are seeking donations from individuals and local business throughout Hawai‘i to support this final push to bring this microplastics beach cleanup machine to Hawai‘i in January,” Gilmartin said. “Please make a tax-deductible contribution to HWF today and let us know that you support these University of Sherbrooke students and you want to be part of the solution to recover plastics from our beaches to protect native wildlife.”

The HWF hopes more models of the studentsʻ invention can be used to clean beaches around the world in the future to reduce wildlife losses to plastic ingestion. HWF is also urging the public to reduce the use of of single-use plastic items.

More information about HWF is available on their website.

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