Tech & Science

Remote, Barely Inhabited Islands Are Drowning in Millions of Pieces of Plastic Trash, Scientists Discover

Almost 1 million shoes and hundreds of thousands of toothbrushes are among the millions of pieces of plastic waste that have washed up on the beaches of a remote island in the Indian Ocean, a study claims.

Scientists who surveyed the sparsely populated Cocos (Keeling) Islands, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, estimate it is dotted with 414 million pieces of plastic weighing up to 262 tons. The research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The researchers documented the number of microdebris—measuring between 2 and 5 millimeters—and larger pieces, like wood, metal and plastic, on 25 beaches in 2017. The detritus littering the islands included approximately 977,000 shoes and 373,000 toothbrushes. Other disposable items, such as straws and plastic bags, were found to make up around a quarter of the total debris. And some 93 percent of all pieces were buried up to 10 centimeters (3.9 inches) under the sand.

“Small, buried items pose considerable challenges for wildlife, and volunteers charged with the task of cleaning-up, thus preventing new items from entering the ocean remains key to addressing this issue,” the authors warned.

To highlight the severity of the problem plastic poses, the team pointed to past research showing an estimated 14 million tons of plastic polluted the oceans in 2010 because it was not disposed of and dealt with properly. Almost half of the plastic made in the last six decades was produced in the past 13 years, they wrote, and around 40 percent of plastic products ended up being disposed of in the same year they were created. Another study indicated there were more pieces of plastic in the ocean than stars in the Milky Way.

“Unfortunately, unless drastic steps are taken, the numbers and challenges will only grow, with the quantity of waste entering the ocean predicted to increase ten-fold by 2025,” the authors warned in their paper.

As the researchers collected samples down to a depth of 10 centimeters on the beach, and were unable to access some debris “hot spots,” the estimate is likely to be conservative, explained Jennifer Lavers, the lead author of the study and a research scientist at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania, in Australia.

Lavers explained in a statement that only a few hundred people live on the islands, and so the sheer volume of plastic present there reflects how the material moves around the oceans.

"Islands such as these are like canaries in a coal mine and it's increasingly urgent that we act on the warnings they are giving us,” said Lavers. "Plastic pollution is now ubiquitous in our oceans, and remote islands are an ideal place to get an objective view of the volume of plastic debris now circling the globe.”

In 2017, Lavers in a separate study showed that the beaches of Henderson Island in the South Pacific had the world’s highest density of plastic garbage, at an estimated 38 million pieces.

Lavers said: "Unlike Henderson Island, where most identifiable debris was fishing-related, the plastic on Cocos (Keeling) was largely single-use consumer items such as bottle caps and straws, as well as a large number of shoes and thongs.”

Annett Finger, a researcher with Victoria University in Australia who co-authored the study, expressed concern that, despite such findings, the amount of plastic being produced worldwide was climbing. "Plastic pollution is a well-documented threat to wildlife and its potential impact on humans is a growing area of medical research," she said.

"The scale of the problem means cleaning up our oceans is currently not possible, and cleaning beaches once they are polluted with plastic is time consuming, costly, and needs to be regularly repeated as thousands of new pieces of plastic wash up each day.

"The only viable solution is to reduce plastic production and consumption while improving waste management to stop this material entering our oceans in the first place." 

The team are among the latest scientists to warn of the threat posed to the environment by plastic pollution. Last month, the authors of separate research published in the journal Nature Geoscience studied pollution in a remote area in the mountains of France and concluded tiny pieces of plastic can travel up to 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, through the air.

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