HENDERSON ISLAND (EON) – Henderson Island is a plastic wasteland.
This remote outcrop in the South Pacific Ocean is home to 55 species found nowhere else on Earth and it also has the unenviable title of most polluted place on the planet.
The island, around 5500km east of Auckland, is part of the UK’s Pitcairn Island territory and is so isolated it’s only visited once or twice a decade for research purposes.
You can see for yourself. Pull Henderson Island up on Google Maps and drag the yellow avatar to the bottom of the eastern beach. Now, start walking. It starts unobtrusively: a bottle here, a bit of tubing there. But soon, the scraps pile up until the sand is carpeted in multi-colored junk.
With all the plastic on the island, you may be surprised to learn that no humas live there, but there are obvious traces of them with a new study showing the island’s once pristine beaches have 671 pieces of debris including plastics per square metre.
t’s the highest density ever recorded and has researchers issuing a stark reminder of how the plastic you throw away which ends up in the ocean can land in even the most remote places on Earth.
“What’s happened on Henderson Island shows there’s no escaping plastic pollution even in the most distant parts of our oceans,” Australia’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies research and lead author Dr Jennifer Lavers says.
“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.”
Much of the debris which has ended up on the island is believed to have come from South America, around 5500km away, or discarded by fishing vessels.
On the latest expedition to the island, led by Britain’s nature conservation charity RPSB, five beach sites were sampled.
The study estimated more than 17 tonnes of plastic debris had made it to land, with more than 3570 new pieces of rubbish washing ashore per day on one beach alone.
But while that sounds like an astronomical amount of trash for an island just 36 square km in size, Dr Lavers says it’s likely they’ve underestimated their figures.
“We were only able to sample pieces bigger than two millimetres down to a depth of 10 centimetres, and we were unable to sample along cliffs and rocky coastline.”
Once plastic washes up, it tends to break apart. “If a milk jug or water bottle washes ashore on a remote island, it’s brittle from UV radiation,” says Denise Hardesty, from CSIRO, Australia’s federal research agency. “It’s in a location where wave and wind, acting against hard physical objects like sand and stones, can break it into smaller pieces. Now that single item has now become hundreds or thousands of very small fragments.” And those become buried—a permanent part of their island homes.
The sources of the debris are manifold. Lavers and Bond traced the items to 24 different countries from every continent except Antarctica. “That told us that no country is more or less to blame for this,” she says. “It’s not just commercial fisheries or cruise ships. A lot of this came from storm drains, and probably litter on beaches in—goodness knows, pick a city anywhere in the world.”
For Henderson, “clean-up is not an option,” she says. It’s too hard to get to, and too hard to live on. The only way to stop this problem is to cut the plastic off at its source.
The total junk on Henderson—all 17,000 kilograms of it—represents just 2 seconds of the world’s plastic production, which has increased by 180 times over the last six decades. “We need to factor the environmental costs into that production, so that it’s not just 1 or 2 cents to buy a straw, or a takeaway container,” says Lavers. “We use plastic in every single aspect of our society, and we can’t just change one or two things.”