Remote island beach plastics point to greater waste problem

Australian islands home to 414 million pieces of plastic pollution
Dr. Jennifer Lavers with Cocos (Keeling) Islands plastic debris washed up on a beach. Credit: Silke Stuckenbrock

The world may be seriously underestimating the amount of plastic waste along its coastlines, researchers said Thursday as they unveiled findings showing hundreds of millions of plastic fragments on a remote Indian Ocean archipelago.

A team of experts travelled to the Cocos Islands, a group of 27 small atolls 2,100 kilometres (1,300 miles) west of Australia and found an estimated 414 million pieces of plastic.

In all, the plastic fragments would weigh around 238 tonnes, the team said.

Images taken from the survey show white sand beaches blanketed with plastic waste.

But according to lead study author Jennifer Lavers, the fragments on the surface of Cocos Island beaches—and beaches around the world—may just be the tip of the iceberg.

"I've been working on remote islands as a marine biologist for 15 years or so and all of them have at least some debris, so I've come to expect it," she told AFP.

"One of the big surprises was that when I was digging down in the sediment to look at how much was buried and where, the quantity sometimes did not drop off with depth."

Lavers and the team dug multiple holes across beaches on the Cocos Islands, and found plastics, mainly in the form of small or microparticles, throughout the sand layers.

They estimate that the true amount of plastic pollution on the beaches surveyed may be as much as 26 times greater than the fragments visible on the surface.

The study, published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, concludes that global plastic waste surveys "have drastically underestimated the scale of debris accumulation".

Australian islands home to 414 million pieces of plastic pollution
Dr Jennifer Lavers with washed-up plastic debris on Cocos (Keeling) Islands beach. Credit: Silke Stuckenbrock

'Change all aspects'

Plastic production has exploded worldwide in recent years, with half of all plastics produced in the last 13 years.

Mankind throws millions of tonnes of plastic into the sea every year, and much of it gets washed back ashore onto beaches where it poses a risk to wildlife.

It can also enter the food-chain in the form of microplastics, which have been found at all ocean depths and latitudes.

Lavers, from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania, said such plastic concentrations found on a remote group of islands was deeply concerning.

"While the five oceanic gyres or 'garbage patches' tend to garner a lot of research and media attention, the Cocos Islands are not located near or within one of these gyres," she said.

"Plastic is everywhere, in all corners of the ocean, being distributed by current systems big and small."

Significantly, the team estimated that as much as 25 percent of the plastic items surveyed on Cocos were disposable or "single-use", such as food packaging, straws, forks and knives and toothbrushes.

In March nations failed to agree to a timetable to phase out all single-use plastics, opting instead to "significantly reduce" their production.

Lavers said industry- and society-wide changes in behaviour—from production, to consumption and re-use—were needed to stem the plastic waste epidemic.

"Some islands have significant quantities to the point that it forces one to pause and consider all aspects of their life, from the simple items used each day (eg. to brush one's teeth) to how I communicate the outputs of my research," she said.

"These islands change you."


Explore further

No escaping ocean plastic: 37 million bits of litter on one of world's remotest islands

More information: Scientific Reports (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-43375-4
Journal information: Scientific Reports

© 2019 AFP

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May 17, 2019
Asian countries are despoiling the planet. Their contribution to all forms of pollution is hugely disproportionate.

May 17, 2019
Asian countries are despoiling the planet. Their contribution to all forms of pollution is hugely disproportionate.

Because there poorer. As such they buy cheap which is plastic. For example look at the Philippine's. Even there toothpaste and shampoo come in little plastic packs. Everything there is wrapped in plastic. It impossible to get away from.

May 17, 2019
The issue with plastics does not lay with the general populous of the world. It is the sole doing of corporations and Governments. For example take endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC's). Most of which come from petrochemicals which makes plastic. I might also add that all the EDC's have comparable inert counterparts, that are only a few cents more. Why are they still in production?
Who approves there sale? Who manufactures them? Who lobbies the Governments for there continued sale even thought there destroying us?
Follow the money.

May 17, 2019
good collection points , get of yer ass

May 20, 2019
@snoosebaum.
good collection points , get of yer ass
Not funny, mate. Island 'plastic traps' give indication of the inestimably much greater quantities of plastic going into the oceans/seas waters and food chains that is never 'trapped' by islands; and never recovered/recycled. Now stop being a useless joker and start doing your bit for the natural environment, for your fellow humanity and for just plain reason. Good luck to us all. :)

May 20, 2019
We tend to believe that at least SOME of that plastic refuse is dropped over the sides of passing passenger ships, and possibly military ships. Such ships carry plastic bottles filled with soda and water for the convenience of the shipboard passengers, military or civilian.
All but the tiniest pieces of plastic should be collected easily enough from beaches and those floating on the water's surface.
But my main concern is that the wildlife such as dolphins, orcas, whales and fish that we eat are found to have plastic pieces and even bags in their stomachs - which cause them to die from the inability to digest food. They starve to death.
It appears that humans are still too ignorant to understand the consequences of their stupidity and carelessness with regard to the animals in their care. Even if they are not personally involved in their care, the animals suffer from human stupidity.
Perhaps humans still don't yet understand that the Earth is NOT their own personal playground.

May 20, 2019
Remember, remember RealityCheck
@snoosebaum.
good collection points , get of yer ass
Not funny, mate. Island 'plastic traps' give indication of the inestimably much greater quantities of plastic going into the oceans/seas waters and food chains that is never 'trapped' by islands; and never recovered/recycled. Now stop being a useless joker and start doing your bit for the natural environment, for your fellow humanity and for just plain reason. Good luck to us all. :)

WHAT DO WE DO WITH OUR RUBBISH is this actual real problem
That is, if we do not use up all our oxygen burning fossil fuels, first

May 20, 2019
o the oceans/seas waters and food chains that is never 'trapped' by islands ''

not true , watch sailing vids ,never seen any plastic cept on the beaches . Some points really collect a lot of stuff but no one is interested in getting it to be used as fuel or construction . More to be made whining about it .

May 20, 2019
@snoosebaum.
Island 'plastic traps' give indication of the inestimably much greater quantities of plastic going into the oceans/seas waters and food chains that is never 'trapped' by islands; and never recovered/recycled.
not true , watch sailing vids ,never seen any plastic cept on the beaches . Some points really collect a lot of stuff but no one is interested in getting it to be used as fuel or construction . More to be made whining about it .
Read again the full sentence, mate. Did you misunderstand or just making a troll/bait? The point was that the trapped proportion is indicative of that greater proportion of plastics which sinks and/or gets eaten or is floating in sparser distribution but over vast ocean/sea surface areas around the globe and from pole to pole. Stop your silliness and start doing your bit for the natural environment and human health; for your kids' sake if not for yourself.

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