Tiny Pacific island has no humans but gets much of world's plastic trash
The beaches of Henderson Island are covered in trash. The sand is littered with plastic razor blades, toothbrushes and scoops from containers of baby formula, coffee and laundry powder. Turtles get tangled in fishing wire. Land crabs make their homes inside toxic plastic.
Henderson Island is located in the South Pacific, 3,100 miles from the nearest factory or human settlement. Even though it is so far away from human activity, it has become overrun with human pollution. In fact, according to a new study, it has the highest density of plastic debris ever recorded in the world for a beach.
"The Human Footprint Is Everywhere"
The researchers behind the new study just published their findings. They estimate that there are about 37.7 million pieces of plastic debris on Henderson Island. It is one of many places on Earth where human waste ends up. Humans produce 311 million tons of plastic waste every year.
“The human footprint is everywhere, and it runs deeper than most of us imagine,” Jennifer Lavers told NewsHour in an email. She is the University of Tasmania marine scientist who led the study. She described Henderson Island as a beautiful and unique place but said it has been badly affected by human waste. "It is suffering immensely at the hands of humans that have never set foot on the island, never even heard its name,” she wrote.
Lavers has traveled to some of the world’s most remote islands throughout her career. Oddly enough, her examination of Henderson Island began on Google Maps. One day, she was looking at Google's pictures of Henderson Island and noticed significant quantities of trash on its beaches.
In May 2015, she and her expedition team ventured to Henderson Island. The island is only 14 square miles. By comparison, the island of Manhattan is 22 square miles. Henderson Island sits in the path of a major oceanic current called the South Pacific Grye. Such ocean currents are known to gather plastic, becoming highways for garbage that finds its way into the sea. Once picked up by a current, items can travel thousands of miles. As a result, Henderson Island is on the receiving end of a dense and steady stream of floating trash.
Lavers' team spent four months calculating how much plastic filled Henderson Island’s beaches. They walked along the high-tide line along the coast and split the beach into sections. They then counted the number of plastic, glass, wood and metal items in each section. In certain places, the researchers dug 2 to 4 inches to measure how much plastic had been buried in the sand. In the nearby forests of the island, they examined the garbage that ended up there.
On the worst beach, Lavers' group found an average of 22 plastic items per square foot of beach. Some spots had up to 62 pieces per square foot. These rates were 200 to 2,000 times higher than what was previously recorded on similar islands in 1991, which was the last time such a study was done in the area. Overall, the researchers estimated the island was covered with 17.6 tons of plastic garbage.
Danger For Plastic-Dwelling Crabs
Approximately 3,600 items arrive on the island each day, the report said. The most common items were plastic bottles, caps and lids. Lavers also spotted a trend of single-use “disposable” items such as plastic razor blades, utensils, toothbrushes and scoops found in coffee cans and laundry detergent.
“Hundreds of land crabs now make their homes out of broken, toxic plastic,” Lavers said.
Seeing a once-beautiful beach covered in the trash is troubling, but the trash build-up also causes damage that is not as easy to notice. Heat and sunlight can break apart items like bags or bottles into tiny pieces. These pieces of plastic are easily consumed by wildlife. Prior research has found more than 200 species are threatened by eating plastic.
Humans Are Throwing Away Too Much Plastic
Most of the plastic pieces on Henderson Island trace to Japan, China, Chile and Peru. That might be due to how plastic gets picked up by oceanic currents. It might also be because the island is located close to South America. Some of the trash on Henderson Island also originated in the United States and Europe.
Lavers argued that the best way to keep rubbish from washing up on beaches is to reduce our dependence on plastics. We should especially cut down on single-use items like forks and spoons and use alternative materials where possible.
“Documenting the amount of plastic waste on the island was a unique opportunity," Lavers said. It presented the chance to highlight the seriousnesses and global nature of pollution. “Henderson Island is not unique – plastic is, quite literally, everywhere.”