The Once Pristine Henderson Island Is Now Covered With Plastic Waste

By Kim Bussing on June 21, 2017

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Henderson Island before the debris (Photo Credit: Unesco.org/ Ron Van Oers)

Henderson Island in the south Pacific Ocean has always been known for its remarkable biological diversity and untouched ecology. Now, the remote UNESCO World Heritage site that lies 3,100 miles (5,000 km) from the closest human settlement, can also lay claim to being one of the most polluted places on Earth.

Jennifer Lavers, a researcher from the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies who has been studying the coral atoll for a few years, says the tiny, 14.4 square miles (37.3 square kilometers), island is home to over 38 million pieces of waste. According to the scientist, this is the “highest density of anthropogenic waste recorded anywhere in the world, with 99.8 percent of the pollution plastic.”

Current state of Henderson Island (Photo Credit: Jennifer Lavers/University of Tasmania)

The amount of trash is surprising given that the island, the largest of the group of four Pitcairn volcanic islands, has no residents and is visited by scientists only once or twice every decade. However, as it turns out, humans do not need to be physically present to pollute an area. In this case, the trash is brought in by the South Pacific Gyre, an ocean current that sends garbage bobbing through the sea to Henderson. The primary offenders are fishing-related debris, like lines and nets, and single-use household items.

What’s even worse is that the unsightly rubbish scattered across the island’s sandy beaches is just the tip of the iceberg. According to the researchers, over 68% of the junk is buried under the sand. This means their estimates, based on the trash found up to 10 centimeters below the sand, may be underestimating the full extent of the pollution.

Hermit crab uses cosmetic jar for shelter (Photo Credit: Jennifer Lavers/University of Tasmania)

Besides being aesthetically unpleasing, the waste is also harmful to the island’s wildlife. Lavers and study co-author Alexander Bond discovered hermit crabs taking refuge in toxic cosmetic jars, and sea turtles, that come to the island to lay eggs, entangled inside fishing lines. The trash is also harmful to seabirds and fish that mistake the colorful plastic pieces for food.

An analysis of a 32-foot patch of the beach revealed that much of the trash originated from China, Japan, and Chile. However, Lavers and Bond, who published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, on April 7, state, “Across the board, no country got a free pass on this – we found bottles from Germany, containers from Canada, I think it was a fishing crate from New Zealand. What that says is we all have a responsibility in this, and we have to sit up and pay attention to that.”

Photo Credit: Jennifer Lavers/University of Tasmania

Unfortunately, Henderson’s debris collection which equals just 1.98 seconds of the world’s annual production of plastic, is a mere blip in the amount of the nondegradable material that is carelessly tossed out every day. According to experts, over 8 million tons of plastic waste ends up in our landfills and oceans each year.

Environmentalists like Boyan Slat, who founded The Ocean Cleanup in 2011 after discovering “more bags than fish” while diving in Greece, are trying to clean up the mess. However, his efforts will only make a difference if we all pitch in by avoiding plastic altogether or reusing and recycling when that is not possible. Unless we find ways to reverse the situation, this ever increasing pollution poses a serious risk to the health of our planet and all its residents, including humans.

Resources: Guardian.co.uk, NPR.org, treehugger.com

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140 Comments
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  • Hi hiWednesday, July 26, 2017 at 4:27 pm
    In 2020 there is supposed to more plastic bags then fish and by 2025 there is to be no more sea food because of pollution and if you didn't know Woolworths ,Aldi and coles plastic bags are hurting animals from eating th plastic bags and the plastic bags make 2 animals go extinked every hour so now remember to try and use the bags that aren't 100% degradable because there even worse than normal grey bags and use the reausable bags and otherwise you can not use any bags at all otherwise tell everyone about this message and by the way this is all true facts please help this sad world and think of how bad hit hurts when you hit a bird or something because you kill 250 animals a year because of the 100,000,000,000,000 bags used a year...
    • Hi hiWednesday, July 26, 2017 at 4:14 pm
      Every one watch the war on waste
      • mshadz25
        mshadz25Tuesday, July 25, 2017 at 5:29 pm
        We should rise up and end pollution!
        • Unknown FredTuesday, July 25, 2017 at 5:29 pm
          That is just sad!!!
          • zamTuesday, July 25, 2017 at 5:19 pm
            this I bad #recycle
            • Amy233Tuesday, July 25, 2017 at 2:30 pm
              Stop putting trash in the ocean
              • ShomasSunday, July 23, 2017 at 7:12 pm
                This shisheling shtart was amashing, itwas veeeeery intreshting.
                • EnglandismycitySunday, July 23, 2017 at 7:12 pm
                  oceans are infected
                  • ocean loverSaturday, July 22, 2017 at 10:09 am
                    I feel bad for all those animals that live there we should think of a idea to help them
                    • raebae
                      raebaeFriday, July 21, 2017 at 5:50 pm
                      i hate when this happens

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