The first interview in our Interview Series is with Al Smith - The Founder of Hawaii Ocean Ambassadors.
Read on for insights in to how HOA got its start, learn about the goals and values that HOA strives achieve and exemplify, what the team is currently working on, and more!
What got you involved in beach cleanups and sustainability?
Oddly enough, my interest in cleanup efforts didn’t begin at the beach, but in the mountains.
For nearly a decade I spent approximately 40 weekends a year climbing in Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Joshua Tree, Moab, and elsewhere and would just sort of naturally haul out any trash I found left behind by other climbers or hikers.
Then, in the mid-2000s, I started to attend the Yosemite Climbing Association’s annual week-long ‘Yosemite Facelift’ event which draws hundreds of climbers from around the world to participate in a massive cleanup of Yosemite National Park. We would clean trails, parking lots, and visitor areas during the day, get in a quick climb or two in the early evening, and watch slideshows and interviews with professional, legendary climbers at night.
The sense of camaraderie and the friendships forged during those events left a lasting impression on me. To think a bunch of ‘dirtbag’ climbers would come together to volunteer their time and energy to make the world a better place was truly inspiring!
When I moved out to Oahu 7 years ago I was shocked to discover the sheer amount of plastic washing up on the island’s Windward coastlines, and equally shocked by how many beach goers would just lay their towels out among the plastic debris and do nothing to pick it up.
In my mind, it was obvious we needed to transport the spirit and energy of those ‘Yosemite Facelift’ events to Hawaii and get people motivated to do their part in keeping the beaches and reefs clean.
What keeps you motivated?
This is such a good question and one without an easy answer, because I feel I draw motivation and inspiration from so many different things.
For starters, I get a real sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from ‘getting my jersey dirty’ and doing my part to take care of our local beaches. I also am sort of naturally interested in leading by example and bringing people together to volunteer and engage in their communities.
Along those lines, I’m currently serving in my second term as the Chair of the Parks & Recreation Committee for the Kailua Neighborhood Board, so a part of my cleanup work is directly related to my roles on both the Board, as well as my role as the Founder of Hawaii Ocean Ambassadors.
I’m also motivated by an almost alarming sense for how bad the plastic pollution problem has become. With the Great Pacific Garbage Patch located just 1,000 nautical miles NE from Hawaii, we truly are on the ‘front lines of trash warfare’ as I’m fond of reminding people!
We are uniquely situated to raise awareness of this growing problem, and I feel a great sense of responsibility to not only clean the beaches but also to document through photos and videos just how bad this problem really is so that those people not living in a coastal environment can see the impact of their lazy decisions to use single-use plastics and hopefully inspire them to change their consumption habits and volunteer in any way they can to improve their neighborhoods and take care of the environment.
For people that want to become involved what do you suggest?
If you live in Hawaii there are so many great beach cleanup organizations you can join.
In addition to Hawaii Ocean Ambassadors, I’d suggest that folks check out 808Cleanups which has a great ‘Adopt a Site’ program and can provide volunteers with buckets, scales, sifters, and other cleanup supplies. They also have a great beach cleanup App you can use to find partners or groups that are planning cleanups near you, track your weight of trash collected over time, and other cool features. Download it here: 808cleanups.org/app.
Surfrider and Sustainable Coastlines are also fantastic organizations that host large-scale cleanups.
Check out their websites or social media accounts to keep up to speed on cleanups happening in your area.
Even more to the point, given HOA’s underlying values of personal responsibility and self-driven action, I’d suggest taking a bucket or bag every time you go to the beach and grab what you can before leaving for the day. You’d be amazed how much trash can be removed in a year by making this one small change to your beach day routine.
What about for those that don’t live near the beach?
If you don’t live near the beach, why not consider going out and cleaning up your local or State Parks? My sister who lives in Baltimore now takes a bag for trash every time she takes her kids to their local playground and actively does her part to keep her neighborhood clean while also capturing rubbish ‘upstream’ before it washes down into the storm drains and out into the Chesapeake Bay.
In addition to cleanup efforts, I’d suggest that everyone seek to change their consumption habits to avoid single-use plastics whenever possible and to reduce, reuse, and recycle.
What sets HOA apart from the pack?
I founded Hawaii Ocean Ambassadors because I saw a need for an organization that would stress individual action and personal responsibility, while contributing to the greater good. A number of other cleanup groups focus their energy on hosting large monthly or quarterly cleanups as a way to bring together a ton of people and raise the collective awareness of the fact that our plastic use is killing our oceans and suffocating the planet. I have always greatly enjoyed attending and participating in these events, but I noticed that many folks would attend these cleanups, pat themselves on the back, and then wait several months for the next event to do something.
With Hawaii Ocean Ambassadors we work to inspire and encourage people to take it upon themselves to organize their own mini-cleanups with friends and family, and to take consistent action to protect our reefs and coastlines, while changing their day-to-day habits.
We also take on ‘Special Projects’ such as successfully getting the educational video changed at popular snorkeling spot, Hanauma Bay to better inform people not to walk or stand on the incredibly fragile coral reef, we worked to help get the reef-safe sunscreen law passed in Hawaii, and are working towards creating grassroots support for other regulatory and legislative solutions.
What strides in your day to day life are you making to reduce your plastic intake?
As a bachelor in charge of several tech start-ups and non-profits, I’m always short on time and don’t typically slow down and take the time to cook for myself – which by and large typically would mean less overall waste.
Like many modern Americans, my life is go-go-go. As a result, I used to be as guilty as anyone at getting meals to-go in single-use packaging. After doing hundreds of beach cleanups though, it became almost impossible for me to accept the amount of waste my habits were producing, so now I steer far clear of plastic straws, plastic water bottles, and of course, styrofoam.
I am still not ‘perfect’ when it comes to my consumption habits, but I no longer visit restaurants that package their food in anything other than biodegradeable or compostable trays, haven’t used a plastic bottle or straw in so long I can’t even remember the last time, and try to always bring a reusable water bottle every where I go.
It’s actually not only given me piece of mind, but has no doubt saved me money.
I think though that its important to recognize that if someone like me who is very focused on the issue of plastic pollution still struggles to be zero waste, that we really do need legislative solutions and bans on certain single-use items that are unnecessary.
I believe there is no reason why we can’t follow the lead of other nation’s around-the-world in banning certain items that we don’t actually ‘need.’
In France for example, they have banned plastic cutlery. An ‘easy’ step for them as the French like their picnics to be a bit fancier anyway. So, no one was really ‘harmed’ by the ban, and it made the world a better place. In Hawaii we have been fighting for similar bans on plastic straws and styrofoam food containers. These bills have stalled in committee at the State Legislature, but we’ll keep pushing and advocating for their passage.
I believe we need to make it easier to do the right thing.
And if the only solution to getting rid of plastic straws is to ban them, then I’m all for it.
What’s next? Any exciting projects?
Yes! We are continuing to advocate for the need for legislative solutions that aim to reduce our waste, protect the environment, improve our water quality and safety, support local farmers and small businesses, and create support for more programs to support the health of the ocean and our near-shore reefs.
In addition to those efforts, we are working on getting mechanized sand sifters for our coastlines, looking into using plastic bio-blocks to make modular homes for the homeless, and, in time hoping to work to replicate Norway’s efforts to use marine debris to repave our roads.
If there’s one thing you want people to remember after reading this, what is it and why?
I’d like for people to remember that it is not the job of ‘someone else’ to clean the beach or make a difference.
It is individual action that inspires others to reduce their waste and lend a hand. Many small efforts can make a big difference!
So, please do your part and take a bucket or bag to the beach with you every time you go, reduce your plastic use and support those businesses that have made steps to reduce their environmental footprint, and give support to politicians and legislation that aim to protect and improve the environment.
We are all in this together, and each individual action goes a long way towards making a difference!