One of the most remote islands in the world, Henderson Island in the South Pacific, is now littered with an estimated 37.7 million pieces of plastic debris, according to a new study from British researchers.
This is despite the fact that Henderson Island, part of the UK’s Pitcairn Islands territory, is over 5000 kilometers from any major population centers, and is uninhabited. It is, however, near the center of the South Pacific Gyre ocean current.
The island is actually so remote that its only ever visited every 5–10 years or so, almost solely by research vessels. But great distance from human population centers is apparently not enough to protect the island from the seemingly endless waste stream that modern civilization is producing — as we noted in our earlier article on the discovery of very high levels of chemical pollution in the world’s deepest ocean trenches.
Going by the new research, the beaches of Henderson Island are now littered with higher densities of plastic debris than any other beaches on the planet — with up to 671 items of plastic debris found per square meter on the island’s beaches.
The study’s lead author, IMAS researcher Dr Jennifer Lavers, commented: “What’s happened on Henderson Island shows there’s no escaping plastic pollution even in the most distant parts of our oceans.
“Far from being the pristine ‘deserted island’ that people might imagine of such a remote place, Henderson Island is a shocking but typical example of how plastic debris is affecting the environment on a global scale.
“Based on our sampling at five sites we estimated that more than 17 tonnes of plastic debris has been deposited on the island, with more than 3570 new pieces of litter washing up each day on one beach alone.
“It’s likely that our data actually underestimates the true amount of debris on Henderson Island as we were only able to sample pieces bigger than 2 millimetres down to a depth of 10 centimetres, and we were unable to sample along cliffs and rocky coastline.”
Commenting on the reality of there being around 300 million tones of plastic produce every year, the majority of which is not recycled (even when placed in “recycling” bins), Dr Lavers stated: “Plastic debris is an entanglement and ingestion hazard for many species, creates a physical barrier on beaches to animals such as sea turtles, and lowers the diversity of shoreline invertebrates.”
He added: “Research has shown that more than 200 species are known to be at risk from eating plastic, and 55% of the world’s seabirds, including two species found on Henderson Island, are at risk from marine debris.”
As there have been no serious efforts to date on the mass scale to back away from widespread use of plastics, and as the human population of the world continues growing rapidly, this situation is likely to get considerably worse over the coming decades. Most of the other pollution problems now affecting the world are as well.
Personal action on the level of product choice (or the choice to forgo unnecessary consumption) is of course something that individuals can do to reduce their contribution to this problem somewhat.
The new findings are detailed in a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.