Ho‘omalu Ke Kai upcycling washed-up plastic, building beach cleanup stations, more

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Michael Raithous of Ho‘omalu Ke Kai shows off a recently-extruded 2×2 board. Taken April 24, 2024. Photo Credit: Scott Yunker/Kaua‘i Now

Kaua‘i and the world celebrated Earth Day on April 22 – but for groups like Hoʻomalu Ke Kai, Earth Day is every day.

Members of the local ocean conservation nonprofit on Wednesday exhibited one of their latest initiatives: An upcycling facility capable of transforming plastic marine debris into building materials and more.

“We have multiple cleanups per month, and we’re finding upwards of 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of marine debris a year,” said Ho‘omalu Ke Kai Director of Operations Tim Leichliter. “Half of that’s plastic and we didn’t feel good about throwing it in the landfill.”

Ho‘omalu Ke Kai is just one of several groups removing trash from the shores of the Garden Isle. The local chapter of Surfrider, a nationwide ocean conservation nonprofit, historically collects more marine debris – about 85,500 pounds per annum – than all other Surfrider chapters combined. It’s a fraction of the approximately 14 million tons of plastic that end up in the ocean every year, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Ho‘omalu Ke Kai now diverts up to 50% of its collected ocean plastic since opening its upcycling facility at the Makaweli Industrial Center in Kaumakani one year ago. The rural site is perhaps best known as the old Gay & Robinson sugar mill.


“We’re not solving the issue [of plastic production and consumption],” Leichliter said. “However, we are creating some sort of solution regarding what plastic already exists, and we could create more solutions if more people were interested.”

Freshly shredded plastic ready to be processed. Taken April 24, 2024. Photo Credit: Scott Yunker/Kaua‘i Now

Many local students are already familiar with Ho‘omalu Ke Kai’s upcycling endeavor: The nonprofit hosts field trips to its Kaumakani facility and delivers in-school presentations. But the rest of Kaua‘i will encounter the project sometime this summer when Ho‘omalu Ke Kai installs five upcycled cleanup stations on beaches across the island.

“It’s a physical example of what’s happening with the plastic … You can see the process in action,” said Michael Raithaus. “It’s not just, ‘Hey, throw all your stuff into a green metal bin and recycle.’ We’ve all heard that.”

The nonprofit’s first beach cleanup station is slated for placement at Nukoliʻi Beach near Outrigger Kauaʻi Beach Resort & Spa in Līhu‘e. The locations of the other four have yet to be finalized.

Each cleanup station will feature a QR code taking users to a website where they can learn more about ocean conservation and the lifecycle of plastics.


“We’d like to place them where tourists are, so they not only come to Kaua‘i and take in its beauty but also give back a little bit as well,” said Raithaus.

Raithaus – dubbed “Machine Mad Mike” by Leichliter – produces the short 2×2 boards used to construct the cleanup stations. He and fellow Ho‘omalu Ke Kai director Allegra Kanna Scribner volunteer 20 hours per week to upcycle plastic in Kaumakani.

Their facility is a combination of high technology and bootstrap inventions: A first-of-its-kind spectrometer identifies eligible plastic (only numbers two, four and five can be handled safely) cleaned in a jerry-rigged washing machine equipped with one-micron and UV filters.

Raithaus and Kanna Scribner wear masks while shredding, melting and extruding ocean debris with machines donated by Plastic Paradise, a now-defunct Kapa‘a business. The process is no more toxic than burning candle wax, according to Leichliter.

“That said, we still filtrate. The air from the extruder gets sucked through a vacuum system and pushed through an activated carbon filter,” he added. “We can measure for toxicity and it comes out cleaner than the air that we’re usually breathing.”

From left: Tim Leichliter, Kenui Topp, Allegra Kanna Scribner and Michael Raithaus of Ho‘omalu Ke Kai. Taken April 24, 2024. Photo Credit: Scott Yunker/Kaua‘i Now

Ho‘omalu Ke Kai is currently limited to the production of 2×2 boards. Yet that will change in the coming months: Thanks to a grant from the Kaua‘i Office of Economic Development, two new machines – an injection molder and a sheet press – are on the way.

The new machines will allow the nonprofit to upcycle more varieties of marine debris, including derelict fishing nets. The new machines can also produce more items – ranging from the fun, like surfboard fins and skateboard decks – to the more utilitarian, like bricks, blocks and signage. Production speed will also increase exponentially; Raithaus dreams of one day supplying local contractors with upcycled construction materials.

However, the future of the Ho‘omalu Ke Kai upcycling facility is not certain. Next year’s rent is due in July and it’s not clear where those funds will come from. Red tape prevented the nonprofit from using its current Office of Economic Development grant for that purpose, claimed Leichliter.

“We’re working with the here and now and what we have available to us,” said Kanna Scribner. “We’re hoping to make people aware of things that are happening on Kaua‘i that they might not know, like the fact that we can upcycle ocean plastic.”

Leichliter agreed.

“We have something that can last over five times our lifetime, and we have a need for commodities that can be made from it,” he said. “Let’s figure it out.”

Scott Yunker
Scott Yunker is a journalist living on Kauaʻi. His work for community newspapers has earned him awards and inclusion in the 2020 anthology "Corona City: Voices from an Epicenter."
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