A recent study by U.K. and Australian researchers determined that there is so much plastic debris on the planet that even the world’s most remote islands are vastly contaminated.
U.K.’s Henderson Island, an island that’s over 5,000 kilometers away from any major human settlement, is littered with over 37 million pieces of plastic.
Henderson Island is visited once every five years for research, as its location makes it the perfect spot for marine plastic debris to accumulate.
Plastic has existed in our lives for little more than half a century. As years pass by, the damage it causes to the environment becomes more apparent and harder to curb, as it seems to reach every confine of the Earth.
Plastic is still a major oceanic contaminant
According to the study, the annual production of plastic has increased from 1.7 million tons in 1954 to 311 million tons in 2014. Most of it is not recycled and end up in waterways, which in turn end up in the ocean. Now, the superficial layer of the world’s oceans is littered with over five trillion items, achieving densities as high as 890,000 pieces per kilometer squared. Researchers note that there is not enough data to understand how plastic ends up in particular places within the oceans, such as Henderson Island, which is why they conducted this study.
Located thousands of miles west of Chile, Henderson Island’s beaches are composed of fine sand, ground coral, and shells. It also happens to be within the western boundary of the South Pacific Gyre, a zone whose currents accumulate plastic more than most regions in the Pacific Ocean.
Researchers took note of the debris accumulated on Henderson Island from May through August 2015. They analyzed buried debris, beach-back debris, and surface debris. All pieces of debris larger than 2 millimeters on beaches and larger than 5 millimeters for those brought by the ocean were counted, weighed and sorted by their appearance and composition.
Using GPS, they calculated the area of the island’s north and east beaches. Then, they measured the density of the items found in several areas to draw an estimate.
Over 53,100 pieces of human debris were identified, resulting in at least 37.7 million pieces of plastic weighing an astounding 17.6 tons, and that’s only for 2015. Even if these values seem shocking, researchers assure that they are an understatement because they did not take into account the entirety of buried debris lying more than 10 centimeters deep in the sand.
What’s more is that Henderson Island is not alone. Similar results were achieved for Ducie and Oeno Atolls, both uninhabited islands within the same group of Henderson Island that are exposed to the same oceanic currents.
“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. Research has shown that more than 200 species are known to be at risk from eating plastic, and 55 percent of the world’s seabirds, including two species found on Henderson Island, are at risk from marine debris, “ stated lead author Dr. Jennifer Lavers.
Source: National Academy of Sciences