An estimated 18 tonnes of plastic rubbish has washed up on Henderson island, an uninhabited coral atoll that sits between New Zealand and Peru in the Pacific Ocean.
The remote island should be an unblemished and perfect paradise because of its isolation, with 3,400 miles (5,500 km) of pure ocean in either direction.
In 1988, the island became a designated UNESCO world heritage site because of its remarkable biodiversity and long stretches of untouched sandy beaches.
Yet, Henderson has some of the highest levels of man-made pollution found anywhere in the world.
The island, once hailed an environmental jewel as one of the highest concentrations of plastic on the planet because of a freak confluence of geography and ocean currents.
A staggering 38 million pieces of plastic litter the island, and more is washed ashore at a rate of up to 3,500 pieces a day, and scientists have now warned that little can be done to save it while a throwaway culture persists.
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Floating plastic garbage has swamped a remote Pacific island once regarded as an environmental jewel and scientists say little can be done to save it while a throwaway culture persists
HENDERSON ISLAND: A PLASTIC PARADISE
The uninhabited Pacific island thousands of miles away from civilisation has become the most polluted place on Earth as thousands of bits plastic rubbish wash up on its shores.
The island, a territory of the UK, is a sanctuary to a host of threatened species including the Henderson Petrel and Henderson Crake, and its beaches are a nesting site for the endangered green turtle.
But human activity has turned what should be a pristine island paradise into a rubbish tip.
More than 37 million bits of plastic junk – weighing some 18 tonnes – have washed up on its shores, threatening the island’s wildlife.
In all, every square metre of beach has hundreds of bits of plastic – including toothbrushes, buoys, old fishing nets, plastic bags and cosmetic pots mostly produced in the last few decades and dropped by people thousands of miles away.
‘We found debris from just about everywhere,’ said Jennifer Lavers, an Australian-based researcher who led an expedition to the island last month.
‘We had bottles and containers, all kinds of fishing stuff and it had come from, well, you name it – Germany, Canada, the United States, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador.
‘It was a real message that every country has a responsibility to protect the environment, even in these remote areas.’
Henderson lies at the centre of the South Pacific gyre, a vast circular ocean current that runs anti-clockwise down the east coast of Australia and up the west coast of South America.
The gyre should be a boon for the 10-kilometre-by-five speck of land, carrying rich nutrients into the waters surrounding Henderson to feed huge colonies of sea birds.
‘As one of the last near-pristine limestone islands of significant size in the world, Henderson Island retains its exceptional natural beauty with its white, sandy beaches, limestone cliffs, and rich and almost undisturbed vegetation,’ it said.
Three decades after it was given its UNESCO status, the gyre has become a marine conveyor belt dumping endless waves of plastic detritus onto Henderson’s coast, making it the hub of what has become known as the South Pacific Garbage Patch.
Floating plastic garbage has swamped the remote Pacific island once regarded as an environmental jewel and scientists say little can be done to save it while our throwaway culture persists
Despite its extreme isolation, a freak confluence of geography and ocean currents means Henderson has one of the highest concentrations of plastic pollution on the planet
A beach clean-up team member collecting rubbish from a beach on Henderson Island. In 1988, the island became a designated UNESCO world heritage site because of its remarkable biodiversity and long stretches of untouched sandy beaches
Dr Lavers led her first expedition there in 2015 and on the island’s East Beach found there were about 700 items of plastic per square metre, one of the highest concentrations found anywhere in the world.
Compounding the problem, the churning waves have reduced more than half the waste to tiny particles almost invisible to the human eye.
This makes them even more impossible to clean up, but easily digested by wildlife such as birds and turtles.
Dr Lavers organised a clean-up effort on her most recent trip to the island last month and her team collected six tonnes of plastic garbage from the beach over two gruelling weeks.
They were unable to take away the rubbish because their ship could not find a safe mooring on the rugged coastline, instead storing it above the high-tide line for future removal.
Dr Lavers admitted it was ‘heartbreaking’ to make such a mammoth effort only to see more garbage floating ashore where they had just cleaned.
The island, once hailed an environmental jewel as one of the highest concentrations of plastic on the planet because of a freak confluence of geography and ocean currents. Here, a baby turtle on a plastic container on the beach
Henderson lies at the centre of the South Pacific gyre, a vast circular ocean current that runs anti-clockwise down the east coast of Australia and up the west coast of South America. Here, clean-up team members collecting rubbish from a beach
Compounding the problem, the churning waves have reduced more than half the waste to tiny particles almost invisible to the human eye. This makes them even more impossible to clean up, but easily digested by wildlife such as birds and turtle
Here, a pile of collected fishing bouys. Three decades after it was given its status, the gyre has become a marine conveyor belt dumping endless waves of plastic detritus onto Henderson’s coast, making it the hub of what has become known as the South Pacific Garbage Patch
‘We’d be having our lunch and watching it replenish in real time as things like buoys and bits of rope washed onto the beach,’ she said.
The marine scientist, who plans further trips to Henderson in 2020 and 2021, said the experience underlined the fact that clean-ups were not a long-term solution to the ocean’s pollution crisis.
‘It just speaks to the importance of shutting off the tap at the source,’ she said, calling for tighter restrictions on single-use plastics.
‘There’s already so much debris in the oceans, we really need to do all we can to prevent any more getting out there.’
WHAT DOES DEEP-SEA DEBRIS DATABASE REVEAL ABOUT OCEAN PLASTIC POLLUTION?
Plastic pollution is a scourge that is ravaging the surface of our planet. Now, the polluting polymer is sinking down to the bottom of the ocean.
The deepest part of the ocean is found in the Mariana Trench, located in the western Pacific Ocean, to the east of the Mariana Islands. It stretches down nearly 36,100 feet (11,000 metres) below the surface.
One plastic bag was found 35,754 feet (10,898 metres) below the surface in this region, the deepest known piece of human-made pollution in the world. This single-use piece of plastic was found deeper than 33 Eiffel towers, laid tip to base, would reach.
Whilst the plastic pollution is rapidly sinking, it is also spreading further into the middle of the oceans. A piece of plastic was found over 620 miles (1,000 km) from the nearest coast – that’s further than the length of France.
The Global Oceanographic Data Center (Godac) of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (Jamstec) launched for public use in March 2017.
In this database, there is the data from 5,010 different dives. From all of these different dives, 3,425 man-made debris items were counted.
More than 33 per cent of the debris was macro-plastic followed by metal (26 per cent), rubber (1.8 per cent), ﬁshing gear (1.7 per cent), glass (1.4 per cent), cloth/paper/lumber (1.3 per cent), and ‘other’ anthropogenic items (35 per cent).
It was also discovered that of all the waste found, 89 per cent of it was designed for single-use purposes. This is defined as plastic bags, bottles and packages. The deeper the study looked, the greater the amount of plastic they found.
Of all man-made items found deeper than 20,000 feet (6,000 metres), the ratios increased to 52 per cent for macro-plastic and 92 per cent for single-use plastic.
The direct damage this caused to the ecosystem and environment is clear to see as deep-sea organisms were observed in the 17 per cent of plastic debris images taken by the study.