Henderson Island has no inhabitants. The nearest major population center is more than 3,100 miles away. Yet the desolate Pacific island is one of the densest hubs of plastic pollution on the planet.
Its sandy shores are carpeted with an estimated 37.7 million pieces of plastic debris, new findings show.
With up to 671 pieces of plastic per square meter, this island has the highest density of plastic debris reported anywhere in the world, according to a new study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“What’s happened on Henderson Island shows there’s no escaping plastic pollution, even in the most distant parts of our oceans,” Jennifer Lavers, the study’s lead author and a researcher at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, said in a press release.
Henderson Island is part of the U.K.’s Pitcairn Islands, which look like mere specks in the vast ocean expanse between South America and Australia. The territory is so remote that researchers only visit once every five to 10 years.
Lavers, who is based in Tasmania, Australia, first saw the island’s severe pollution problem by taking a virtual tour on Google Maps.
To see it for herself, she flew to Tahiti, then took a once-a-week plane to the Gambier Islands. She next boarded a freight ship that had already sailed for 10 days from New Zealand and asked the crew to bring her to Henderson, the Atlantic reported.
The plastic garbage itself, on the other hand, had a relatively effortless journey to Henderson. The island sits near the center of the South Pacific Gyre, an ocean current that sweeps up debris carried from South America and deposited by fishing boats.
Worldwide, an estimated 19.4 billion pounds of plastic wind up in the ocean each year, a 2015 study found. Beyond remote islands, ocean currents carry bits of plastic to other unexpected places, too.
Scientists recently reported finding “abundant and widespread” plastic waste in the Arctic Ocean, an area that tends to have more polar bears and seals than people. A Japanese research agency documented plastic bags and soda cans in the Mariana Trench, the deepest point on the planet.
Plastic garbage is a choking hazard for birds and marine wildlife. It also spreads toxic chemicals up the food chain, from microscopic plankton all the way to humans.
More than 200 marine species are known to be at risk from eating plastic, and about 55 percent of the world’s seabirds — including two species found on Henderson — are at risk from marine garbage, Lavers said.
She said her study likely underestimates the actual amount of debris on Henderson, since Lavers and her colleagues could only sample pieces larger than 2 millimeters and down to depths of 10 centimeters. They were also unable to sample garbage along cliffs and rocky coastline.
“Far from being the pristine ‘deserted island’ that people might imagine of such a remote place, Henderson Island is a shocking but typical example of how plastic debris is affecting the environment on a global scale,” she said in the press release.