Smaller than the size of Manhattan, Henderson Island is covered by 18 tons of plastic garbage–– the weight of three elephants worth of plastic bags, German bottles, Canadian plastic containers, tarps, toys, New Zealand fishing crates and more from all over the world.
"What that says is we all have a responsibility in this, and we have to sit up and pay attention to that,” says Jennifer Lavers, a marine scientist, who found the highest density of human debris recorded anywhere in the world, with 99.8% of the pollution plastic on this tiny landmass in the eastern South Pacific.
The majority of the debris – approximately 68% – is not even visible, with as many as 4,500 items per square meter buried to a depth of 10 centimeters. About 13,000 new items wash up on the shore every day.
Lavers, of the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies said, “I’ve travelled to some of the most far-flung islands in the world and regardless of where I’ve gone, in what year, and in what area of the ocean, the story is generally the same: the beaches are littered with evidence of human activity. However, my thought was the remarkable remoteness of Henderson Island would have afforded it some protection. I was totally wrong."
Lavers found hundreds of crabs living in garbage such as bottle caps and cosmetics jars. “This plastic is old, it’s brittle, it’s sharp, it’s toxic. It was really quite tragic seeing these gorgeous crabs scuttling about, living in our waste.”
Henderson Island is a UNESCO World Heritage site described as "one of the few atolls in the world whose ecology has been practically untouched by a human presence. Its isolated location provides the ideal context for studying the dynamics of insular evolution and natural selection. It is particularly notable for the 10 plants and four land birds that are endemic to the island."
Lavers' findings prove that nowhere is safe from plastic pollution. “All corners of the globe are already being impacted,” she says.
In a paper published May 15 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Lavers and coauthor Alexander Bond reported that the density of debris was the highest reported anywhere in the world.
Plastic floats so it is easily carried by currents and wind throughout the world’s oceans, persisting for decades. Over time it breaks into increasingly smaller pieces due to wave action or broken down by sunlight. Since the beginning of its mass manufacture in the
1950s, the annual production of plastic has increased from 1.7 million tons in 1954 to 311 million tons in 2014. The surface layer of the world’s oceans now contains more than five trillion items. Lavers noted that environmental agencies and nonprofits are starting to recognize plastic pollution as a major global environmental issue.
Many people are looking for ways to combat discarded plastic pollution. Boyan Slat, a speaker at the World Oceans Summit in March, is a Dutch inventor and entrepreneur who creates technologies to solve societal problems. The 22-year-old is the founder and CEO of The Ocean Cleanup, which develops advanced technologies to rid the world’s oceans of plastic.
The nonprofit plans to deploy small garbage collecting arrays with underwater "anchors" which drift about 600 meters beneath the surface. Theoretically, said Slat, the anchors will hold the plastic collecting systems in the spots where they can collect garbage most efficiently. "These systems will automatically drift or gravitate to where the plastic is. We can now clean up 50% of the patch in five years." Slat's design and plan has raised $31.5 million for The Ocean Cleanup since 2013.
Not everyone is convinced it will work. Ocean garbage sits too deep for the arrays to collect, said Nancy Wallace, director of the Marine Debris Program at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But she says the project should be praised for bringing attention to the issue of ocean pollution and plastics.
Other groups attempt to collect plastic before it goes out to sea. The Ocean Conservancy has collected more than 200 million pounds of trash from beaches. Baltimore has a trash-collecting water wheel that has trapped almost 1.5 million pounds of trash in the Inner Harbor since May 2014.
For Lavers, the key is urgency. “Marine plastic pollution is the new climate change. We’ve been arguing about climate change, and whether it exists and what is changing, for the better part of 40 years. Let’s not wait for more science. Let’s not debate it. The rate of plastic in our oceans is absolutely phenomenal, and we need to do something now.”