The Island Dump

This South Pacific Island has the highest levels of plastic rubbish in the world

The small island in the Pitcairn Group off South America is covered in plastic waste despite being uninhabited and 5,000 km from any cities or land-based industrial facilities.

It has the highest density of rubbish anywhere in the world. The small island is estimated to have 37.7 million items of debris with a combined weight of around 17,600 kgs.

The findings in the Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) should act as a wake-up call. Clearly plastic pollution is as big a threat as climate change.

The density of debris was the highest reported anywhere in the world, up to 671.6 items/m2 on the surface of the beaches- PNAS

Dr Lavers from the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies and Dr Alexander Bond at the Centre for Conservation Science in the UK headed a conservation team to the remote island to map the damage plastic rubbish has had on the island’s environment. The damage caused by the plastic pollution was so extreme it took Lavers and her team of five, six hours to survey just 10 metres of the coastline.

Henderson islandImage: plastic debris on East Beach, Henderson Island, credit: J. Lavers 2015

The results were staggering with 671.6 items of rubbish per square metre: 68 percent of this buried 10 cm or less in the sand.

What’s worse, after cleaning up the shoreline, the tide would wash up another 17- 268 new items of rubbish every day. Lavers was shocked by the sheer volume of pollution on the small island:

In addition to just blowing my mind with the sheer volume of plastic that was there, what amazed me was the majority of the debris was not shipping waste.

Staggeringly, only seven per cent of the rubbish found on the beach was fishing related. According to Lavers, the items surveyed on the beach were mainly household items including plastic razors, toothbrushes, plastic scoops for baby formula and baby dummies.

"There is nowhere left in the world that is safe — plastic is ubiquitous". Says Lavers

However, the results were not a true depiction of the full amount of rubbish found on the island. Anything buried lower than 10 cm or found on cliff sides or rocky sections of the island were discounted.

The effect the rubbish has had on the surrounding environment, and marine life is obvious. Over 1,200 species have been negatively impacted. For example, the junk circulating the island has warded off sea turtles attempting to their lay eggs on the beach.

Henderson IslandImage: one of many hundreds of crabs that now make their homes out of plastic debris washed up on Henderson Island, this particular item is an Avon cosmetics jar, credit: J. Lavers 2015

Rubbish floating in our oceans is also affecting our health. As Dr Lavers explains plastic is toxic, and when 25 per cent of the world’s fish are eating this toxic plastic, we are putting our own health at risk.

"It is not a big leap to say the whole of the marine food web is contaminated and we are putting ourselves at grave risk.”

Unfortunately, change is a slow process. Dr Lavers’ solution revolves around a sweeping educational campaign and societal change largely driven by public demand.

"Politicians don't make decisions based on what scientists say — when decisions are made it is because the public demands."

"That won't happen until the whole of the population recognises that this is the equivalent of climate change. We need to move now, and we need to move fast.

I need the public to give me their voice [for] a global movement, so we can break our plastic addiction here and now.

Header: so-called “disposable” plastic items on East Beach, Henderson Island, credit: J. Lavers 2015

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