It’s shortly after sunrise on Hawaii’s Kai One Beach and Stephanie Elm already has a towel laid out. But instead of sunblock and a good book, she’s brought with her a metal kitchen strainer and a reusable shopping bag. Elm isn’t there for a relaxing beach day, she’s there for the trash.
She spends the next hour picking up microplastics in the sand. The beach is so full of the colorful fragments, that even though she’s picking them up at a rate of one piece every two seconds, she doesn’t ever have to leave her towel. After all the sand within arm’s reach appears to be without plastic, Elm swipes away the top layer of sand to reveal a whole new layer filled with more microplastics.
“It’s so much. It’s everywhere. I’ll spend my whole time in a three by three foot area,” she said, her voice a mixture of overwhelm and disbelief. “At what point does it stop?”
Elm, a military spouse, moved to Hawaii just over a year ago when her husband got stationed at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. At first, she found it difficult to meld her idea of how Hawaii would be with the reality of how it was. In reality, it was expensive, with tons of traffic and beaches full of litter.
And like many military spouses, finding a job after the move was difficult. With a marketing degree and 13 years experience, the job that best suited her was over an hour away in Honolulu, a drive that she hated and a salary that didn’t compete with the high cost of living in Hawaii. She eventually quit her job in Honolulu and took a job much closer to home, as a part-time church secretary.
“Personally, it was really hard for me to adjust: the cost of living, not making what I did before, watching my saving go down the drain. It was hard,” she said. “I was always conflicted. I felt so incredibly grateful to live in Hawaii and confused and lost in this place at the same time.”
Career-minded military spouses often face the challenge of maintaining careers while moving every few years. It can make holding professional jobs extremely difficult. According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Defense, military spouse unemployment rates can vary from 20-25 percent, much higher than the national average. Additionally, 31 percent work part-time even though they would rather have full-time employment. Military spouses on average earn up to 26 percent less income than their non-military peers.
As a result, a growing number of military spouses have taken their skills and turned them into small businesses that move with them. For Elm, picking up microplastics became an outlet for her to get away, explore and do something helpful at the same time. She looked for a way to turn her outlet into a business, which led to Micro Mahalo.
Micro Mahalo turns microplastics into colorful letter magnets, ornaments and Christmas stocking charms. Elm said she came up with the idea of repurposing microplastics because little else can be done. Because microplastics are too small to determine if they are recyclable, unless repurposed, they become trash. She regularly participates in community-organized beach clean-ups and she gives 15 percent of her proceeds back to ocean and beach conservation efforts.
“I may not know these people, but we have such a shared common interest,” she said. “It makes me feel like, I could belong here.”
On the other side of the Pacific another military spouse, Kimberly Chapman, is getting her inventory ready for the holiday shopping season. Her business, Daisy Faye Designs, offers a collection of clutches, pouches and scarves. The accessories are handmade from floral and modern fabrics and were created for both special occasions and everyday use.
She said she started the company nine years ago when she could no longer grow in her own career. Chapman has degrees in marketing and business, with a background in retail, but the small town where her husband was stationed at the time had limited career advancement opportunities.
“I had a job that I loved, but I literally could not be promoted because of where we lived. So I was doing all of this work and working really hard and trying to do a good job for nothing,” she said. “Like a lot of military spouses, I was really frustrated with the lack of opportunity. I think so many military spouses can relate to the frustration of trying to have careers and feel successful.”
Chapman is now in full preparation for the holiday shopping season, which makes up a quarter of her sales, she estimated. She has spent the months leading up to November sewing and building her inventory so she can focus only on marketing and shipping come December. As a stay-at-home mom, most of her sewing is done while her daughter naps. Though, since her husband has been deployed, she works after her daughter goes to bed, as well.
“When he’s home I try to work every other night, generally. But since he’s gone I work every night,” she said. “My business has been great this past year.”
On the other coast, in North Carolina, Katie Streck is quickly building her inventory as well. She makes socks, mugs, towels and personalized baby gifts for her company Ella Bella Boutique. Her products range from funny to sentimental. One of her white tea towels has the silhouette of a rooster printed on it. At a glance it looks like a traditional farmhouse style tea towel, but looking closer it reads “Rise and Shine Mother Cluckers.” Her best selling item, socks, say on the bottom “If you can read this brings me wine” or “a beer” or “a pumpkin spice latte” depending on the style.
Streck, whose background is in teaching, started the business three years ago.
“I was struggling with postpartum depression and I needed something just for me,” she said. “But we were stationed in Oklahoma at the time and teachers don’t make enough money there to cover childcare for two children. So I started a business out of nowhere.”
Though her business has been doing much better than she anticipated, aspects of military spouse life have caused some unexpected turbulence. A year ago, her family was waiting to hear where they would be stationed next. They received word they would either go to Japan or North Carolina. Because there are weight limits on what you can move to Japan, Streck knew moving there would likely shut down her business. She quickly hired her mom with the end goal of Streck running the business side of her company and her mom making the inventory. In February, they found out they were moving to North Carolina, but she knows Japan is still a possibility in the future.
“It just kind of opened my eyes to that it could happen at anytime and I needed to get used to the idea of moving to Japan,” she said. “Even just moving here was a huge expense. With all of my inventory and equipment it was a huge mess. I don’t want to do that again.”
Most of Streck’s sales come from her website and Etsy shop and she estimates the holiday shopping season makes up 50 percent of her annual sales. Though this year she expects that percentage to be higher since her shop was closed for two months while her family relocated to their new duty station.
“That was a huge financial hit to not have an income for two months,” she said.
Back in Hawaii, Elm sits on her back porch and sorts her collection of microplastics. She sorts some pieces by color and puts them in vases to use as centerpieces for an upcoming market she’s attending. Some pieces she sets aside to use for the current order she’s working on. She scrubs the microplastics and places each piece into the molds.
“I feel like starting my business and doing beach cleanup has given me a greater appreciation for Hawaii,” she said. “It’s been heartwarming.”
Laura Mannweiler is an award-winning freelance journalist based in San Diego with her Marine husband and three children. She is working on her Master’s degree and does daily news updates on her Instagram, Not Dumb News.