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A new paper from researchers, including Dr Alex Bond, the Senior Curator in Charge of Birds at the Natural History Museum, has described how more than four billion plastic particles have accumulated in the top five centimeters of sand on the remote Henderson Island.
What makes this news even more shocking is just how remote this island is. Henderson Island is one of four islands that form the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific Ocean. The nearest large land mass is South America which is more than 4,828 kilometres away.
In 2019 the research team returned to the beautiful yet polluted island, having previously visited in 2015, with a team including researchers from the University of Tasmania's Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies.
The aim was to see how the debris had changed since they last visited, compare it with plastic in the South Pacific Ocean and examine the presence of micro and nano plastic on the beach. They found the island's three beaches covered in litter and debris that had travelled hundreds of miles via powerful ocean currents. The team concluded that microplastics had increased by an order of magnitude from 2.1 g/m2 in 2015 to 23.4 g/m2 in 2019.
Dr Alex Bond says, 'A lot of the rubbish we saw was not new - we found some recognisable toys from the eighties and nineties. Plastic can stay in the ocean for a long time and then end up on a beach.'
This was disturbing as Henderson Island was believed to be one of the last remaining pristine places on Earth free from human contact, affording it its UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
'Pitcairn is the only island inhabited with a human population but none of the trash comes from there,' explains Dr Bond. 'We found pieces of plastic that were from Europe, Africa, North America, South America and Asia. They get into the oceans and are bought here.'
The sources of plastic pollution vary greatly from fishing practices, agriculture and human activities on beaches. However, a lot of the plastic pollution comes from leaks in waste disposal systems. Wastewater disposals are bad at filtering out microplastics before releasing wastewater into waterways that connect to the oceans.
Dr Bond concludes, 'Plastic pollution is a worldwide issue and needs to be dealt with on a cooperative and global level.I think we're going to slowly see a shift from cleaning up plastics to treating it like other contaminants like lead and mercury, where we know they're going to persist in the environment for millennia. Then it'll be how we go about managing it that becomes important.'
The study Assessing plastic size distribution and quantity on a remote island in the South Pacific is published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin.
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The Natural History Museum is both a world-leading science research centre and the most-visited natural history museum in Europe. With a vision of a future in which both people and the planet thrive, it is uniquely positioned to be a powerful champion for balancing humanity’s needs with those of the natural world.
It is custodian of one of the world’s most important scientific collections comprising over 80 million specimens. The scale of this collection enables researchers from all over the world to document how species have and continue to respond to environmental changes - which is vital in helping predict what might happen in the future and informing future policies and plans to help the planet.
The Museum’s 300 scientists continue to represent one of the largest groups in the world studying and enabling research into every aspect of the natural world. Their science is contributing critical data to help the global fight to save the future of the planet from the major threats of climate change and biodiversity loss through to finding solutions such as the sustainable extraction of natural resources.
The Museum uses its enormous global reach and influence to meet its mission to create advocates for the planet - to inform, inspire and empower everyone to make a difference for nature. We welcome over five million visitors each year; our digital output reaches hundreds of thousands of people in over 200 countries each month and our touring exhibitions have been seen by around 30 million people in the last 10 years.