March 21, 2018

Remote island has 'world's worst' plastic waste density

17 May 2017, 02:24 | Ruben Fields

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Henderson Island in the South Pacific is thousands of miles from any major industrial centers or human communities. But it's filled with trash — more than 37 million pieces of it researchers say

Henderson Island, an uninhabited atoll in the South Pacific, is so isolated that it's one of the few places in the world "whose ecology has been practically untouched by a human presence". However, the extent of plastic pollution on Henderson's beaches was such that the researchers made a decision to document it, in a study now published in the journal PNAS. More than 3,500 pieces of plastic wash up on the desolate beaches each day, the researchers estimate.

Images provided by Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania, where Lavers is a research scientist, show thousands of brightly colored items strewn upon Henderson Island's sands: water bottles, pieces of netting, plastic helmets, garden containers and other debris so broken down that its original objective is unrecognizable.

A recent expedition led by Jennifer Lavers at the University of Tasmania in Australia found 38 million items of rubbish weighing a total of 18 tonnes spread across its beaches. Water sampling in the region found up to 400,000 plastic particles per square kilometre, which is close to the density in the North Pacific garbage patch.

That said, the sheer amount of garbage the team could count in three months of research on the island was enough to take a toll on the scientists - especially after they witnessed the impact the debris was having on marine animals, including a sea turtle fatally entangled in fishing line. Also, pollution along the island's rocky coastline and cliffs has not yet been measured, the researchers said.

The island sits near the center of the South Pacific Gyre, an ocean current that sweeps up debris carried from South America and deposited by fishing boats. So what are 37 million bits of plastic debris doing on its beaches? The trash adds up to an estimated 37.7 million pieces of plastic.

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Interestingly, the majority of debris (68%) is not visible to the naked eye because it's buried beneath the sand.

But now, researchers say it has earned a much more worrisome new title: the world's most polluted island.

By human standards, Henderson Island is no tropical paradise, with its mountainous terrain and lack of arable land helping to explain why the only major effort to settle it had to be abandoned by Polynesian navigators centuries ago.

"Documenting the extent of the problem on one of the most pristine islands left in the world presented an especially unique opportunity to highlight the seriousness and global nature of the plastic pollution issue", Lavers said.

She said that the finding should act as a warning that plastic pollution is as big a threat as climate change. This is a global problem requiring global solutions but the responsibility of the United Kingdom government is clear: "It must take concrete action to reduce the amount of plastic ending up in the sea", said Greenpeace oceans campaigner Ariana Densham.

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