Floating plastic garbage has swamped a remote Pacific island once regarded as an environmental jewel and scientists say that little can be done to save it while a throwaway culture persists.
Henderson Island is an uninhabited coral atoll that lies almost exactly halfway between New Zealand and Peru, with 5,500km of ocean in either direction.
Despite its extreme isolation, a freak confluence of geography and ocean currents means that Henderson has one of the highest concentrations of plastic pollution on the planet.
“We found debris from just about everywhere,” said Jennifer Lavers, an Australian-based researcher who last month led an expedition to the island. “We had bottles and containers, all kinds of fishing stuff and it had come from, well, you name it — Germany, Canada, the US, Chile, Argentina, Ecuador. It was a real message that every country has a responsibility to protect the environment, even in these remote areas.”
Henderson lies at the center of the South Pacific gyre, a vast circular ocean current that runs anti-clockwise down the east coast of Australia and up the west coast of South America.
The gyre should be a boon for the 10km-by-5km speck of land, carrying rich nutrients into the waters surrounding Henderson to feed huge colonies of marine birds.
The atoll’s ecosytem is so rich that Henderson was included on the UN World Heritage List in 1988, with the body hailing it as an untouched paradise.
However, three decades later, the gyre has become a marine conveyor belt dumping endless waves of plastic detritus onto Henderson’s coast, making it the hub of what has become known as the South Pacific Garbage Patch.
Lavers organized a clean-up effort on her most recent trip to the island last month, with her team collecting six tonnes of plastic garbage from the beach over two grueling weeks.
They were unable to take away the rubbish because their ship could not find a safe mooring on the rugged coastline, instead storing it above the high-tide line for future removal.
Lavers admitted it was “heartbreaking” to make such a mammoth effort only to see more garbage floating ashore where they had just cleaned.
“We’d be having our lunch and watching it replenish in real time as things like buoys and bits of rope washed onto the beach,” she said.
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