Henderson Island in the South Pacific is an isolated one. It’s one of the few places in the world whose ecology has been practically untouched by a human.
That is, at least, according to its description by a United Nations group, which named Henderson Island a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988.
“The inhospitable nature of the island, together with its remoteness and inaccessibility, has so far effectively ensured its conservation,” UNESCO stated. “As a near-pristine island ecosystem, it is of immense value for science.”
In reality, the remote island has become the final resting place for an estimated 38 million pieces of garbage. According to researchers who arrived on its shores in 2015 and were stunned to find once-undisturbed white-sand beaches covered with trash. Nearly all of it was made of plastic.
Researchers believe that about 3,500 pieces of trash are continuing to wash up there daily and that Henderson Island now has the highest density of plastic waste in the world.
Images provided by Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania show thousands of brightly coloured items strewn upon Henderson Island’s sands. Water bottles, pieces of netting, plastic helmets, garden containers and others were found
The dramatic accumulation is the result of human activity from thousands of miles away. Henderson Island is uninhabited and its closest neighbour, Pitcairn Island, lies about 70 miles to the west and is home to only about 40 people. The nearest major population centre is more than 3,000 miles away.
However, Henderson Island also happens to be situated on the western edge of a circular system of ocean currents called the South Pacific Gyre. Because of its location and the movement of those currents, the island naturally becomes a repository for floating debris from around the world – despite not being home to a single human.
Among the more shocking discoveries was an adult female green turtle that had become ensnared in some fishing line and died. There also were crabs that had taken up residence in various plastic containers.
The trash on Henderson Island is indicative of how much plastic debris there might be in the oceans.
Plastic in the oceans can entangle marine mammals and fish, or be ingested by seabirds. It also never degrades and can float around in the oceans for years or decades.
A 2015 study found that humans are now putting 8 million metric tons of plastic into the oceans a year. Ocean current systems have also carried floating plastic to other far, formerly untouched corners of the planet
“It’s only been about 60 years since we started using plastic industrially, and the usage and the production have been increasing ever since,” Carlos Duarte, director of the Red Sea Research Centre at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, said.