Sitting in middle of southern Pacific Ocean around 5,000 km, (3,100 mi) from the nearest major population center, you might think that the uninhabited Henderson Island would appear relatively untouched. It is, after all, only visited by humans every five to ten years for research. The latest scientists to set foot on the remote coral atoll found a nasty surprise, however, discovering the highest density of plastic waste reported anywhere on the planet.

The amount of plastic waste washing around in the ocean is a huge problem, one that the Ocean Cleanup Project hopes to help solve when it tackles the Great Pacific Garbage Patch next year. The world produces more than 300 million tons of plastic each year, according to Jennifer Lavers, a research scientist at the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, much of which is never recycled and ends up bobbing about in the ocean instead.

Lavers led a research team to Henderson Island to find its beaches awash with vast amounts of trash. Counting the rubbish, the team calculated a concentration of 671 items per square meter (10 sq ft), the highest density ever recorded, which equates to an estimated 37.7 million pieces spread over the whole island.

University of Tasmania research scientist Jennifer Lavers led a team to Henderson Island to find its...

“Based on our sampling at five sites we estimated that more than 17 tons of plastic debris has been deposited on the island, with more than 3,570 new pieces of litter washing up each day on one beach alone,” Lavers says. “It’s likely that our data actually underestimates the true amount of debris on Henderson Island as we were only able to sample pieces bigger than two millimeters down to a depth of 10 centimeters (0.08 and 4 in), and we were unable to sample along cliffs and rocky coastline.”

The scientists say that the island’s location close to the center of the ocean current known as the South Pacific Gyre is what places it in harm’s way, catching debris that floats over from South America or pieces of plastic trash left behind by fishing boats.

“What’s happened on Henderson Island shows there’s no escaping plastic pollution even in the most distant parts of our oceans,” Lavers says. “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.”

The team’s research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, while the video below provides a snapshot of the damage.

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