Tons of Plastic Garbage Found Covering a Remote Island in the South Pacific

The once-unspoiled beaches of Henderson Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, were littered with heaps of plastic garbage and innumerable bits of other manmade waste.

Henderson Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the eastern South Pacific, is remote and uninhabited. The United Nations uses words like “gem,” “near-pristine,” and “natural beauty” to describe the 14.4 square mile island and its beaches. But when two researchers visited the island a few years ago for a routine survey, they were shocked by what they found.

Henderson’s once-unspoiled beaches were littered with garbage that included plastic bottles, lollipop sticks, plastic bags, polystyrene, pen lids, drinking straws, glass bottles, plastic razors, cigarette lighters, light bulbs, toothbrushes, plastic cutlery, tons of old fishing equipment, and innumerable bits of other manmade waste. The garbage discovery, which the researchers describe in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was so plentiful that the island now has the highest density of debris recorded anywhere in the world.

“You would think that this island, in the middle of the South Pacific and far away from anything, would be pristine and untouched, but the reality is so very different,” said lead author Jennifer Lavers of the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies.

She and co-author Alexander Bond of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ Center for Conservation Science believe that the garbage washed ashore and was not intentionally dumped on the island.

“For some items, encrusting with marine organisms and weathering suggest they have been floating in the ocean for many years, perhaps decades,” Lavers explained.

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The researchers found up to 672 pieces of debris per every 10.7 square feet. The majority of the garbage was made out of plastic and was buried to a depth of about 4 inches. Lavers and Bond estimate that 37.7 million pieces of plastic debris weighing a combined 17.6 tons exist on the small island.

The trash unexpectedly comes from all around the world.

“We found items on Henderson from as far away as France, Japan, the UK, and Ecuador,” Bond explained. “This really is a global problem.”

The scientists found numerous resin pellets known as “nurdles,” which are the raw production stock that are normally melted down to form new plastics. The small pellets are often “lost” during various points in the transportation system, both on land and at sea, Bond said.

“Unfortunately, they look remarkably like fish eggs,” he added, “a feature that may explain why they’re being consumed by a diversity of marine wildlife.” 

The researchers encountered a female green turtle entangled in fishing line on Henderson’s North Beach. When they went to rescue her, they found that she had already died.

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Lavers and Bond also saw partially-eaten plastic items and hermit crabs making a “home” in plastic caps, bottles and other containers. The debris was brittle and old, however, so the researchers believe that it could threaten the crabs’ safety.

Local currents, beach topography, and weather conditions can influence the abundance of beach debris not only at Henderson Island but at other locations around the globe. Henderson is part of the Pitcairn Islands Group, which is surrounded by one of the largest marine protected areas in the world.

“Unfortunately, this affords the islands no protection from oceanic debris, as rubbish can float tens of thousands of miles from where it entered the water and these items do not respect manmade boundaries,” Bond said.

Scheduling a regular clean-up of Henderson Island is currently not possible, according to the researchers. Lavers said that such an effort would be a “Sisyphean task” involving expensive travel to the island and the need to ship the garbage off for recycling or disposal.

“The best way to keep rubbish from washing up on beaches is to use alternative materials where possible,” she noted.

Bond added that it is not only up to the public, but also to manufacturers and to governments “to each do their part in preventing and reducing plastic from ending up in the oceans and seas upon which we all depend.”

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