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This Remote Island Is Covered with 37 Million Pieces of Your Trash

Immaculate no more, the island now looks more like a dump than a pristine paradise

Henderson Island, world's garbage can. (Jennifer Lavers - University of Tasmania)
smithsonian.com

The ocean contains lots of trash—more than 250,000 tons of it. Once it leaves inhabited shores, it swirls in eddies, is caught up in ocean currents and eventually crashes in waves on far-away shores. Now, reports NPR’s Camila Domonoske, a new study shows just how bad the plastic debris problem has gotten.

Henderson Island, a once immaculate southern Pacific island, is now covered with over 37 million pieces of plastic. Despite its remote location, the uninhabited island has become a resting place for the world’s plastic debris. 

When scientists analyzed the quantity and source of the plastic, they found more debris density than anywhere else in the world. They detail their findings in the journal PNAS, and the results are sobering. Since the island isn’t occupied by humans and is thousands of miles away from any town or factory, it’s safe to assume that all of the trash there is generated by humans elsewhere. The island is located in the South Pacific Gyre, a huge circulation center that sucks water in from all over the Pacific, leaving the island covered in garbage.

And there’s a lot of trash. When researchers sampled the debris, they found tens of thousands of pieces of plastic. They extrapolated their findings out to the entire surface area of the island, and the numbers are staggering. Plastic is on the island’s surface and clogs its shores. It’s buried in the sand. It’s everywhere.

Over 99 percent of the debris is made of plastic—most pieces are unidentifiable fragments. When researchers analyzed its origins, they found that most of it came from China, followed by Japan and Chile. The researchers say that fishing-related activities and land-based sources seem to have produced the majority of the debris.

The debris isn’t just ugly: It dangerous for wildlife. Creatures can become entangled in plastic and eat it, and plastic can erode and break apart animals’ homes. The Pitcairn Islands, where Henderson Island is located, are known for their biodiversity—but human-generated debris puts that rich ecosystem at risk.

“What’s happened on Henderson Island shows there’s no escaping plastic pollution even in the most distant parts of our oceans,” says Jennifer Lavers, who co-authored the study, in a press release. Her words ring with bitter irony—especially given that when Unesco designated the island a World Heritage site in 1988, it did so because it “is one of the few atolls in the world whose ecology has been practically untouched by a human presence.”

Nearly 30 years later, those words are no longer true—and prove that humans’ plastic obsession has far-reaching consequences.

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