An uninhabited island deep in the South Pacific falls prey to a plague – of plastic.
It’s a horror story.
A truly shocking 38 million pieces of plastic have been found on Henderson Island, one of the Pitcairn Islands that make up one of the UK’s last remaining overseas territories.
This island has no one living on it, yet its beaches are now home to 18 tonnes of plastic waste that have washed up from the surrounding ocean. This makes it the highest density of human-made debris found anywhere in the world.
The island is situated in the middle of a giant garbage patch, where pieces of plastic that have entered the ocean are carried by sea currents and accumulate. There are now plastic hotspots like this in all of the major oceans. Last month, scientists warned of the staggering amount of plastic debris accumulating in seas within the Arctic Circle. It’s clear that even the most remote corners of the planet aren’t safe from the blight of plastic pollution.
Closer to home, Greenpeace’s boat the Beluga II is currently on an expedition around the coast of Scotland to investigate the impact of plastic on some of the UK’s most iconic wildlife, like gannets, puffins and basking sharks.
On its first day after setting sail, Greenpeace found plastic waste on the internationally renowned seabird colony of the Bass Rock – home to the world’s largest colony of Northern gannets. Plastic is a choking and entangling hazard for many sea creatures, with studies showing 90% of seabirds and one in three turtles have now eaten plastic. As plastic enters every level of the food chain, it can also travel back to our plates in seafood. Scientists have urgently called for more research into the possible risks for human health.
But we can already see far too starkly that in both UK-governed waters close to home and on the other side of the planet, plastic pollution is mounting up. A rubbish truck’s worth of plastic enters the oceans globally every minute, with researchers estimating about 13,000 pieces of debris are washing up on Henderson Island daily. This is a global problem, requiring global solutions, but the responsibility of the UK government is clear. Whichever party wins the election, the next UK government must take concrete action to reduce the amount of plastic entering the ocean and causing such harm to marine life.
The government designated the ocean around the Pitcairn Islands as a fully protected marine reserve in 2015, vowing to protect the precious biodiversity that inhabit the surrounding ocean, but it’s clear much more needs to be done at source to protect these creatures from the plastic threat.
This can take the form of targeting particularly polluting plastic items, like throwaway plastic packaging. We know plastic bottles are a huge part of the problem, with 16 million ending up in the environment every single day in the UK alone. To stem this flow, we need to see action from major soft drink companies like Coca-Cola, which produces a whopping 3,400 single-use plastic bottles a second, to ditch throwaway plastic and embrace reusable packaging (call on the company to do so here!). Governments can also help by introducing deposit Return Schemes to increase the number of bottles which are collected, and we can all try to reduce our plastic footprint – stopping plastic from ending up in the ocean in the first place.
The sight of plastic overwhelming some of the most precious and remote parts of the world must act as a huge wake up call. We must urgently bring to an end the era of throwaway plastic, because our oceans simply cannot stomach any more plastic.
About Louisa Casson
I'm a campaigner in Greenpeace UK's oceans team, leading our campaign to create the world's largest protected area in the Antarctic ocean.