How Is This Uninhabited Tropical Island Among the Most Polluted in the World?

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Every day, 3,500 pieces of trash wash up on the soft, white sand beaches of Henderson Island, but there isn’t anyone around to clean it up. Located in the South Pacific, Henderson Island is completely uninhabited, and yet it currently has the highest density of plastic waste on the planet.

The United Nations named Henderson Island a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988 for its rare ecological state that was “practically untouched by a human presence.” But looking at it now, you would’ve never guessed. Every inch of the beach is covered in litter — buoys from ships, cigarette lighters, nylon ropes, plastic bags, bottles, and debris of all types mar what could be a tropical paradise. According to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Jennifer Lavers and her colleagues, there is currently 17.6 tons of debris on the shores of the tiny island. The world produces that amount of plastic every 1.98 seconds, the researchers wrote.

Because of its location within the Pacific Ocean, Henderson Island happens to be situated right on the edge of a circular current system known as the South Pacific Gyre. When litter is picked up in the current, pulled into the circular system, and finally pushed out along the edges, the trash just happens to land right where Henderson Island lies. So even though it’s uninhabited, the human impact on this ecosystem is greater than even the most populated cities in the world.

According to the research, scientists were able to determine that that the 1.7.6 tons of garbage that has been carried to Henderson Island by ocean currents is from China, Japan, South America, Europe, the United States and Russia, despite the nearest major population being 3,000 miles away from the island.

“I’ve been fortunate in my career as a scientist to travel to some of the remote islands in the world, but Henderson was really quite an alarming situation,” study author Lavers told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “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.”

“More than 3,500 new items arrive every day,” Alex Bond, a conservation scientist who co-authored the PNAS report with Lavers, told The Washington Post. “Because Henderson is just so seldomly visited, a beach cleanup for lack of a better phrase is just not feasible. Plastic is a global problem. The pieces that we found on Henderson — none of it was from Henderson… so to tackle it we need global cooperation.”