Henderson Island, an uninhabited atoll located in the South Pacific, once had beautiful, white sandy beaches. Now, almost 37.7 million pieces of trash reside on the former desolate sands.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in its 1988 inscription referred to the island as a “gem” and a “near-pristine island ecosystem” which has been “untouched by human presence.”
Now, the once pristine island has become the home to 17.6 tons of debris, mostly made of plastic. From water bottles, plastic helmets and pieces of netting, to toy soldiers, dominoes and toothbrushes, the masses of debris color the island’s once blank-canvas beaches.
A study released on Tuesday in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the density of debris was the highest recorded anywhere in the world. As global plastic production increases, “it will further impact the exceptional natural beauty and biodiversity for which remote islands have been recognized,” the report claimed. Roughly 68% of the garbage had been buried upon the researchers’ arrival.
“The quantity of plastic there is truly alarming,” Jennifer Lavers, a co-author of the report, told the Associated Press. “It’s both beautiful and terrifying.”
Lavers, along with six others, stayed on the island for three and a half months while conducting research back in 2015. She found herself becoming mesmerized by the litter, and then the tragedy would sink in.
— New Scientist (@newscientist) May 17, 2017
A minimum of 3,570 pieces of trash continue to wash up on the atoll daily, the researchers believe. Local currents, beach topography and weather conditions all influence the massive influx of garbage accumulating on the island.
The location of the island on the western edge of a circular system of ocean currents, known as the South Pacific Gyre, makes the land a perfect repository and final resting place for the floating debris circulating the water from around the world.
The trash poses a severe threat to the wildlife inhabiting the island and its surrounding waters. A deceased adult female green turtle was discovered entangled in fishing line, while many of the hundreds of purple hermit crabs made their homes in plastic containers.
“More than 200 species are now known to be at risk from the ingestion of plastic with evidence that some species exhibit preferences for certain colors or types of plastic while foraging at sea,” according to the report.
Significant volumes of plastic debris on beaches create a physical barrier, contributing to a reduction in the number of sea turtle laying attempts, therefore negatively impacting marine biodiversity.
“We need to drastically rethink our relationship with plastic,” Lavers said. “It’s something that’s designed to last forever, but is often only used for a few fleeting moments and then tossed away.”