Henderson Island is an uninhabited, remote coral atoll in the Pitcairn Islands, located between New Zealand and Chile. At first glance, this tiny island might not look like anything remarkable, but as reports have noted over the weekend, it unfortunately stands out for the wrong reason — having the world’s highest plastic waste density.
According to a report from ABC News Australia, the United Nations World Heritage-listed Henderson Island’s beaches are littered with plastic trash, with approximately 37.7 million separate items weighing in at a combined 19.4 million tons. Most of these items are ubiquitous items most of us encounter on a daily basis, including plastic razors, toothbrushes, and cigarette lighters.
The pollution is pronounced on the island’s North and East Beaches, where there are about 671.6 items per square meter, making this the most plastic-polluted location in the world in terms of density. This, according to a team of scientists who documented the disturbing trend in a study published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, is a “wakeup call” for people, and a sign that plastic pollution might be as serious an environmental threat as climate change.
“I’ve been fortunate in my career as a scientist to travel to some of the remote islands in the world, but Henderson was really quite an alarming situation … the highest density of plastic I’ve really seen in the whole of my career,” said University of Tasmania Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) conservation biologist Jennifer Lavers, co-author on the new study.
For three months in 2015, Lavers worked with U.K. Centre for Conservation Science researcher Alexander Bond, surveying Henderson Island’s North and East Beach in an attempt to determine just how polluted the island is. Based on the researchers’ findings, a 10-meter stretch of North Beach gets polluted with about 17 to 268 new items each day, with about 68 percent of all debris on both beaches buried 10 centimeters or less beneath the sand. All in all, it took a team of five researchers six hours to survey the aforementioned 10-meter portion of North Beach, due to the high concentration of plastic rubbish in the area.
As Henderson Island is not located next to any fisheries or shipping lanes, with the nearest inhabited location (Pitcairn Island) having a population of only 40 people, Lavers believes that most of the items originally came from land, with only 7 percent of the rubbish believed to be related to fishing. She added that it would behoove people to “make a difference,” be aware of the situation and find ways to reduce demand for plastic going forward.
The focus of Earth Day 2018 is plastic pollution. On this Earth Day, explore remote Henderson Island in the South Pacific … the most plastic-polluted spot on Earth: https://t.co/LM8YQg9E8w
It looks idyllic in this satellite image, doesn't it? Not so if you're on the ground … pic.twitter.com/KlZEeKxI8u
— EarthSky (@earthskyscience) April 22, 2018
“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,” Lavers observed.
While the researchers found that the plastic waste on Henderson Island put marine species such as sea turtles and seabirds in danger, Lavers stressed that plastic pollution could also affect humans, as it is well-known that chemical agents found in plastic could find their way to the food consumed by fish and other edible marine creatures.
“Those fish are the base of the food web… and we know humans are at the top of the food web.”
In conclusion, Lavers encouraged the general public to demand “societal change” with regard to the problem of plastic pollution. She believes that Henderson Island is a symptom of a serious issue that is the “equivalent of climate change,” and that the world needs to break free from “plastic addiction” sooner rather than later.