Environment

Plastic waste increases tenfold within a decade on remote Atlantic islands

Accumulation of plastic waste on the remote Atlantic island of St Helena
Accumulation of plastic waste on the remote Atlantic island of St Helena
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Accumulation of plastic waste on the remote Atlantic island of St Helena
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Accumulation of plastic waste on the remote Atlantic island of St Helena

Humanity's penchant for single-use plastics is beginning to manifest in some truly ugly ways. As we start to really get a grasp on the magnitude of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, elsewhere in the ocean plastic waste is mounting on the shores of some of the most remote islands, with a new study revealing the true extent of the mess and the threat it poses to local species.

The work was carried out by scientists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), who completed four research cruises between 2013 and 2018 investigating the scope of marine plastic pollution in some Atlantic Marine Protected Areas. This involved taking samples of the water surface, water column and seabed in the Southern Atlantic, as well surveying beaches to tally up plastic waste and examining more than 2,000 animals.

Among the findings was a startling rise in the density of plastic waste along the beaches of the East Falkland and St Helena islands. Here, the team recorded up to 300 plastic items per meter (3.2 ft) of shoreline, which is 10 times higher than the figures recorded a decade ago.

"Three decades ago these islands, which are some of the most remote on the planet, were near-pristine," says lead author Dr David Barnes. "Plastic waste has increased a hundred-fold in that time, it is now so common it reaches the seabed. We found it in plankton, throughout the food chain and up to top predators such as seabirds."

Earlier research has previously shown how easy it is for animals to mistake plastic debris for food. One study in 2016 described how seabirds that rely on a distinctive smell to hunt down krill for dinner could easily mistake that for a sulfur compound expelled by floating plastic debris and chow down on that instead. Beyond that, there is also the problem of entanglement, and the BAS scientists raise the issue of non-indigenous and potentially invasive species making their way to these remote islands on these floating plastic "rafts."

This new research calls to mind a similar study published last year, where scientists discovered the Earth's highest density of plastic waste washed up on an uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean. And new research expeditions carried out by the Ocean Cleanup Project indicate the Great Pacific Garbage Patch covers an area three times the size of continental France and includes 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, somewhere between four and 16 times higher than previous estimates.

Currently, millions of metric tons of plastic wash into the world's oceans each year, and most of it is broken down into smaller fragments that are hard to track. These visible representations of plastic waste are therefore stark reminders of the magnitude of the problem and the threat it poses to biodiversity, along with the wellbeing of the planet.

"These islands and the ocean around them are sentinels of our planet's health," says study author and biologist at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Andy Schofield. "It is heart-breaking watching Albatrosses trying to eat plastic thousands of miles from anywhere. This is a very big wake up call. Inaction threatens not just endangered birds and whale sharks, but the ecosystems many islanders rely on for food supply and health."

The research was published in the journal Current Biology.

Source: British Antarctic Survey

7 comments
Brian M
All courtesy of the marketing departments! With this amount of plastic waste its highly likely that nature is going to find a way to cash in on it. There is a lot of energy out there in the plastic products that some organism is going to evolve to utilise.
owlbeyou
>millions of metric tons of plastic wash into the world's oceans each year We know that the weight of a single bit of plastic is so little, and to have a million metric tons of the stuff is a hell of a lot of it. Stupid humans won't do anything until it's not pretty anymore or affects the food supply. We crap in the ocean and the air like there's no tomorrow, and if we keep this up, there won't be a tomorrow worth living in. Instead of fretting about the results of our indulgence, we should be attacking these problems at the source: the corporations have to stop producing so much unnecessary packaging and they need to chip in on the recycling efforts (that are no longer being conveniently shipped off to be processed by the Chinese).
christopher
"up to 300" ... "which is 10 times higher" ... aren't these journals supposed to be peer-reviewed? That's not any kind of scientific measurement. You'd need "average grams per square meter" if this was real science. Not "up to" comparisons and "per linear meter" measurements as they've put. I love how everyone sits in their armchairs or writes journals and berates inaction... the solution is blatantly obvious - do to packaging what the container industry did to shipping. Complaining is not solving.
ljaques
I'm wondering how much of this is apparent instead of measured, as Christopher mentioned. And marketing is surely the source to all of this, as everything changes several times a year. But the amount of crap people toss into the waters of the world and onto the streets of the world is just obnoxious. It has to stop, but many cultures assess no meaning to neatness of environment or concept of trash in general, it appears. (That or they can't afford it so they don't think about it. The net result is global trash.) I was extremely happy to welcome in the first Earth Day, and I learned eco tricks way back then. My footprint is light, but I don't give a d*mn about carbon as touted today. I'm really happy to see the Great Ocean Cleanup, but until we net the crap at the mouths of rivers and harbors, it will continue to grow. We need tactics to make the guilty feel guilty about all their trash and do something about it. Make it SO!
CdR
Further, from whence is the plastic waste originating? What areas are creating the bulk of the problem? I am pretty sure that the stuff I have here in my recycling trash in the midwest portion of the United States isn't in any oceans and I'd be further surprised if either of our two coasts were a major source... unless, of course, our large coastal cities have continued the practice of towing scows of garbage out to sea and dumping it. Thus pushing the alarm button in my computer will not get you much further. So please, when you ring this alarm include the unmasking of the perpetrators.
jerryd
I'm not sure it is true they were pristine 10 yrs ago. Every beach I went to from Florida to So America by the West Indies that wasn't cleaned regularly was 1-3' deep and 20-50' wide back in the early 80s. Since they are all in the same Atlantic current, trade wind blown around the Atlantic , it doesn't make sense these islands were pristine or anything like that. As a sailboat cruiser, diver the plastic problem has to be dealt with as so much more has been added since the 80s.
PB
Perhaps it’s productive to understand where this refuse comes from? Cruise ships, merchant ships, navy ships - all can legally dump stuff in oceans if they are at least 25 miles offshore. But the worst - recycling companies that are paid to accept waste and then they “export it”! The volume that recyclers dump is staggering, yet there is no law, no penalty, to prevent this. Some countries accept waste (Philippines, for just one) and they dump the stuff instead of processing it. Shouldn’t we concentrate on the dumpers rather than the folks at home?
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