In 2015, a group of researchers traveled to Henderson Island, a small atoll in the South Pacific. This uninhabited island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, had been remarkable because its pristine beauty had been largely unaffected by humans.
What the scientists found when they visited Henderson has proved that humanity’s capacity for destroying the environment is almost unlimited. Instead of the undisturbed ecosystems they were used to studying, they encountered an estimated 38 million pieces of trash washed up on its shores.
As expected, the mess was negatively affecting the many animals that live on the island. For example, they found a sea turtle that had become entangled in a fishing net and died. They also found crabs living in various plastic containers.
According to the researchers who analyzed the piles of garbage, the vast majority of the trash was made of plastic. They found old containers, plastic toys, and even hundreds of hardhats. The most common items were toothbrushes and cigarette lighters. Altogether, they estimate that the total weight of all the trash on Henderson Island is about 1.76 tons, with most of it being buried underneath beach sand.
What makes this accumulation of garbage so extraordinary is that it is all from human activity that is thousands of miles away from the island. The nearest inhabited landmass to Henderson is Pitcairn Island, but it is home to only 40 or so people. There is no way that so few people caused the massive trash pile on their own. The nearest major population center to Henderson is over 3000 miles away, so most of the garbage must have traveled at least that far. In fact, the scientists identified pieces of trash from as far away as Europe and the United States.
The reason for the pileup of debris is Henderson’s geographical location. The island sits on the western edge of the South Pacific Gyre, a circular system of ocean currents. These currents pushed the garbage onto Henderson.
Unfortunately, Henderson’s trash problem is only the tip of the iceberg. Despite its size, the trash piles are only a fraction of the plastic that remains in the world’s oceans. Plastic in the oceans never biodegrades, so it stays there forever, harming sea creatures, birds, and, eventually, people.
As of now, there are no plans to remove all the garbage from Henderson Island. The task would be too difficult, and more garbage would find its way there anyway. It is estimated that 3500 new pieces of trash wash up on the island’s shores daily. The only solution is to slow the flow of plastic garbage by using less of it in the first place.