This Plastic-Covered Island May Be The Saddest Place You'll Ever See

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This story is part of a series on ocean plastics.

Roughly 3,000 miles from any major population center, there’s an uninhabited island in the eastern Pacific Ocean that, curiously, has the highest density of plastic waste reported anywhere in the world 

The shores of Henderson Island have amassed a staggering 38 million pieces of trash ― and that’s with human beings rarely stepping foot on it, according to a new study. 

“Henderson Island has the misfortune of being located adjacent to the South Pacific Gyre, a large area of the ocean which (like the other four gyres in the world) accumulates significant quantities of plastic pollution,” Jennifer Lavers, a lead researcher for the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, told HuffPost by email Wednesday.

Jennifer Lavers

Trash is piled up on Henderson Island’s East Beach.

The raised coral island, which is one of four British-owned islands known as the Pitcairn group, is the focus of a report co-authored by Lavers and published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday. Its findings highlight the powerful effect that plastic pollution has had on the planet in just the last half century.

In the case of Henderson Island, where colorful plastics slather its East Beach like seashells ― in some cases serving as makeshift homes for hundreds of crabs ― the accumulation of debris is proving to be unstoppable.

Jennifer Lavers

Hundreds of crabs make homes out of plastic debris on Henderson Island. This crab inhabits an Avon cosmetics jar.

Approximately 68% of the beach’s debris is buried in the sediment. Altogether, there are an estimated 37.7 million items, weighing 17.6 tons, accumulated on the island. 

In addition to sullying the island’s natural beauty, wildlife has been found eating the plastic and getting entangled in it. Plastic barriers are also being created, which have reduced sea turtles’ ability to lay eggs, the report states.

Most of the trash found on the island has been linked to fishing activities or drifting trash from China, Japan and Chile, the report noted.

Dr Jennifer Lavers

Arrows pointing counter-clockwise around Henderson Island indicate the direction of major oceanic currents that carry the trash.

Lavers emphasized that, no matter the source of the trash, we all play a role.

“As far as I’m aware, there is virtually nowhere in the world that isn’t being impacted by marine plastic pollution,” Lavers said. “While some places are worse hit than others, if we did not clean it up, it would indeed accumulate.”

“One of the big ‘take home’ messages here is no country (or individual) gets a free pass ― clearly we all have/had a role in creating the plastic pollution issue plaguing the world’s oceans, so we all have an equal role in cleaning it up AND preventing it from getting worse. Pointing the finger rarely helps,” she said.

Unfortunately for Henderson Island, which is infrequently visited by researchers, there are no cleanup efforts underway. It’s not because no one cares; it’s because it’s “not feasible,” Lavers said.

“If all we ever do is clean up, that is literally all we will ever do. We must change our behaviour, our consumption patterns ― the tap needs to be shut off, urgently,” she said. “Even if we did somehow manage to clean Henderson, my colleague and I estimated (in our research paper) that 13,300 new pieces of plastic wash up on Henderson each day. Within months we’d be right back where we started.”

Henderson Island isn’t the only island affected by such human waste.

On the southern side of Hawaii’s Big Island, Kamilo Point resembles a dumping ground where thousands of pounds of trash collect each year.

“The Hawaiian archipelago acts like a sieve, collecting debris that was floating around the Pacific Ocean and accumulating it along our shores,” Megan Lamson, a survey diver for the state’s Division of Aquatic Resources, told HuffPost earlier this month.

So-called garbage patches are also known to move and congregate trash throughout the oceans. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program, much of the debris is small pieces of floating plastic that are not immediately visible to the naked eye.

“It is possible to sail through the ‘garbage patch’ area and see very little or no debris on the water’s surface,” NOAA’s website states.

NOAA Marine Debris Program

Marine debris accumulation locations in the North Pacific Ocean are seen.

How can you help? NOAA’s website provides a list of small steps people can take to reduce plastic trash from getting into the ocean. It includes using reusable coffee mugs and shopping bags as well as packing snacks in reusable containers rather than in disposable plastic bags.

“These steps are just a start, but they’re all things we can do with minimum impact to our daily lives. Even incorporating one of these actions into your life can make a difference in the amount of plastic pollution in our ocean,” the website states.

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