Tiny, uninhabited island weighed down by tonnes of plastic waste

16 May 2017

Desert islands might not be the dream locations you thought they were. Image: Vibrant Image Studio/Shutterstock

A remote Pacific island is not as untouched by humans as previously thought, with tonnes of plastic washed up on its shore.

A new study of Henderson Island has found humanity’s pre-packaged fingerprints all over its previously pristine beaches.

Uninhabited by humans, the island – part of the UK-owned Pitcairn Islands – has sadly been ruined by our activity, with an estimated 17 tonnes (37m pieces) of plastic debris deposited there.

Thousands every day

The study suggests that around 3,500 new items of litter wash up on just one of its beaches every single day, with approximately 1m pieces of plastic for every square kilometre of the island.

In a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers think this is one of the most polluted areas on the planet, in terms of plastic waste.

“What’s happened on Henderson Island shows there’s no escaping plastic pollution, even in the most distant parts of our oceans,” said Dr Jennifer Lavers, researcher at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies.

“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.”

Tough life on the seas

This is the latest in a long line of bleak studies into plastic pollution in the planet’s oceans and on beaches around the world.

In 2015, a major investigation into Earth’s wildlife found that that 90pc of all seabirds have consumed plastic, with the likes of albatrosses and penguins now in trouble.

The research shows that just 5pc of seabirds had eaten plastic in 1960, rising to 80pc five years ago, with today’s results posing a serious threat to wildlife.

Plastic bags, bottle caps and synthetic fibres from clothes litter seas around the world, with their appearance confusing birds into thinking they are food, which can cause illness and death.

Deep, deep trouble

A related study spanning the depths of Earth’s oceans found human-made pollutants that were banned in the 1970s.

Sampling amphipods from the Marianas and Kermadec trenches, Newcastle University’s Dr Alan Jamieson led a study that found extremely high levels of pollution in the organism’s fatty tissue.

These included polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), pollutants commonly used as electrical insulators and flame retardants.

The former was banned in the 1970s in many parts of the world, which means that during its four-decade run, enough PCB was produced – estimated at 1.3m tonnes – to have a potentially damaging impact 40 years later.

It all makes for grim reading, with the introduction of plastic-eating caterpillars the more promising response for some, rather than a basic, obvious reduction in the amount of plastic used and produced.

Think fast

Lavers believes that the majority of plastic produced each year – estimated to be more than 300m tonnes – is not recycled.

“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,” said Lavers.

“Research has shown that more than 200 species are known to be at risk from eating plastic, and 55pc of the world’s seabirds, including two species found on Henderson Island, are at risk from marine debris.”

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic