Remote island is 'most polluted place' on earth

Uninhabited Pacific island has highest density of plastic rubbish


MIAMI • One of the planet's most remote islands is polluted with the highest density of plastic articles ever reported, with more than 3,500 pieces washing up daily.

New research published on Monday said it may be the most polluted place on the planet.

Henderson Island is uninhabited and lies far out in the South Pacific - east of New Zealand and west of Chile - some 5,000km from the nearest major land mass. The 3,700ha limestone atoll, one of the United Kingdom's Pitcairn Islands, is prized for its biodiversity.

But it is also littered with an estimated 37.7 million pieces of plastic, said the report, published in the Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences.

"What's happened on Henderson Island shows there's no escaping plastic pollution even in the most distant parts of our oceans," said lead author Jennifer Lavers, a researcher at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania, who co-authored the report with British conservation charity the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds.

She said that the debris on the island weighed a total of 17.6 tonnes, making it the highest density of plastic rubbish anywhere in the world.

She said that the finding should act as a warning that plastic pollution is as big a threat as climate change.

The report added: "Far from being the pristine 'deserted island' that people might imagine of such a remote place, Henderson Island is a shocking but typical example of how plastic debris is affecting the environment on a global scale.

"Its location near the centre of the South Pacific Gyre ocean current makes it a focal point for debris carried from South America or deposited by fishing boats."

About 27 per cent of the items were identifiable as being from South America, including beach equipment and fishing gear.

But Dr Lavers said only around 7 per cent of the junk was connected to fishing-related activities. She said most were household items such as cigarette lighters, plastic razors, toothbrushes, plastic scoops used in detergents or baby formula, and babies' pacifiers.

"It speaks to the fact that these items that we call 'disposable' or 'single-use' are neither of those things, and that items that were constructed decades ago are still floating around there in the ocean today, and for decades to come," Dr Lavers told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Samples were taken at five sites on the island, from as far down as 10cm below the surface.

But because the researchers did not check cliffs or rocky coastline, their report warns that it may underestimate the true scope of the problem.

Since humans do not live there, the pollution on Henderson Island has also never been cleaned up. The nearest settlement is Pitcairn Island, with a population of 40 people.

"Plastic debris is an entanglement and ingestion hazard for many species, creates a physical barrier on beaches to animals such as sea turtles and lowers the diversity of shoreline invertebrates," Dr Lavers said.

"Research has shown that more than 200 species are known to be at risk from eating plastic, and 55 per cent of the world's seabirds, including two species found on Henderson Island, are at risk."

On Henderson Island, the rubbish created a barrier for sea turtles attempting to enter the beach and led to a reduction in sea turtle-laying numbers, while also affecting two native seabird species.

However, Dr Lavers said plastic pollution was also a major threat to human health as the toxic impact of plastic-related chemicals in the food chain were well documented.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2017, with the headline 'Remote island is 'most polluted place' on earth'. Subscribe