Plastic hasn’t taken much more than a century to conquer the entire world. Since plastic’s invention in 1907, it has infiltrated even the most remote island chains, according to a new study by marine biologist Jennifer Lavers and her associates. When the researchers visited the Cocos Keeling Islands — 6 square miles of land 1,300 miles off Australia’s northwest coast — they found a staggering accumulation of plastic waste.
Because nearly no one lives on the islands, the plastic bags, straws, cutlery, 373,000 toothbrushes and 975,000 shoes must have floated there.
“So, more than 414 million pieces of plastic debris are estimated to be currently sitting on the Cocos Keeling Islands, weighing a remarkable 238 tons,” Lavers said in an NPR report. Lavers is a research scientist at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania.
Lavers and her research team studied seven of the 27 islands, mostly in 2017. They marked off transects of the beaches, then counted the plastic pollution inside the transects. Their estimated total is based on multiplying the plastic waste found in each transect by the total beach area of the Cocos Keeling Islands.
But what surprised Lavers most was how much plastic pollution was buried beneath the sand. Her team dug four inches down. “What was really quite amazing was that the deeper we went, the more plastic we were actually finding,” she said. The sun’s heat breaks down plastic waste sitting on the sand’s surface, then waves drive tiny plastic pieces into the sand.
“It’s the little stuff that’s perfectly bite-sized,” Lavers said. “The stuff that fish and squid and birds and even turtles can eat.”
There’s not a lot of good news in Lavers’ study, which was published in the journal Nature. As the authors point out in their introduction, global plastic production is increasing exponentially, with about 40 percent of items entering the waste stream after a single use. “Unfortunately, unless drastic steps are taken, the numbers and challenges will only grow, with the quantity of waste entering the ocean predicted to increase ten-fold by 2025,” the study warned.
Image via Jennifer Lavers