Henderson Island, an uninhabited remote island in the South Pacific, is covered by 18 tonnes of plastic.
The island is being studied by marine scientists after it was discovered that it has the highest density of anthropogenic debris recorded anywhere in the world. 99.8% of the debris is plastic.
“I’ve been fortunate in my career as a scientist to travel to some of the remote islands in the world, but Henderson was really quite an alarming situation … the highest density of plastic I’ve really seen in the whole of my career,” says Australian researcher Dr. Jennifer Lavers.
The findings were published this week in the Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences. Production of plastic has increased from 1.7 million tonnes in 1954 to 311 million tonnes in 2014. The nearly 18 tonnes of debris found on Henderson Island accounts for just 1.98 seconds’ worth of the current annual global production of plastic.
According to the research team, led by Dr. Lavers and Dr. Alexander Bond from the Centre for Conservation Science in the UK, there are 671.6 items per square meter on the surface of the island’s beaches, with 68 percent of the debris buried less than 10 centimeters in the sand.
Over the three-month survey of the island, the team witnessed 17 to 268 new items wash up on a 10-meter section of the island’s north beach. This translates to a daily accumulation rate of 1.7 to 26.8 items per meter. Overall there were about 13,000 new items washing up on the island daily.
Dr. Lavers says that the majority of the debris is waste that has found its way into the ocean from land, rather than waste from shipping lanes or fisheries. Only 7 percent of the debris was from fishing-related activities. The majority of the mess was from everyday household items, like plastic razors, toothbrushes, plastic scoops, etc.
“It speaks to the fact that these items that we call ‘disposable’ or ‘single-use’ are neither of those things, and that items that were constructed decades ago are still floating around there in the ocean today, and for decades to come,” Dr. Lavers said.
The plastic has created a barrier for sea turtles attempting to enter the beach, resulting in a reduction in sea turtle-laying numbers.
Plastic pollution in the ocean is becoming an increasing threat. According to a recent report, if the rate of plastic pollution stays the same as it is now, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050.
Plastic pollution affects both ocean animals and humans. Plastic waste facilitates the spread of industrial chemicals. According to Lavers, “At a very minimum, 25 percent of world’s marine fish species are consuming plastic and we know with that plastic comes a suite of chemical pollutants. Those fish are the base of the food web … and we know humans are at the top of the food web.”