The Cocos (Keeling) Islands lie in a tiny and remote zone in the Indian Ocean, with 27 small islands comprising a mere 6 miles of land with a population of only 600.
Despite its size, however, the island chain has become a massive waste dump thanks to the vast amount of garbage in our oceans, with marine scientists finding about 373,000 toothbrushes and 977,000 shoes littering the surface of the beaches.
And now, a comprehensive study published in the journal Nature has concluded that the islands, which lie about 1,300 miles off the coast of Australia, are home to 414 million pieces of plastic weighing a total of 328 tons, all of which floated in from other parts of the world.
The sad discovery is just the latest sign of the drastic increase of plastic polluting the ocean and “highlights a worrying trend in the production and discharge of single-use products.”
Lead author Jennifer Lavers from the University of Tasmania’s Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies said that given the tiny population of the islands, the massive presence of plastic debris offers a stark warning of the scope of the problem we face.
“Islands such as these are like canaries in a coal mine and it’s increasingly urgent that we act on the warnings they are giving us. Plastic pollution is now ubiquitous in our oceans, and remote islands are an ideal place to get an objective view of the volume of plastic debris now circling the globe.”
And while a huge portion of the debris found was related to fishing, much of the remaining trash was common single-use items as bottles, plastic bags, cutlery, and straws.
The discovery was especially shocking because the level of trash at the Cocos (Keeling) Islands far exceeded previous surveys of garbage in remote South Pacific islands, which largely relied on trash that was visible from the surface.
In the most recent study, researchers looked at 7 of the 27 islands comprising the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, many of which are only a few acres in size, and marked off transects along the beaches before counting the plastic inside each transect. They then multiplied that number by the total beach area of the islands before coming to their shocking conclusion.
Lavers explained to NPR:
“You get to the point where you’re feeling that not much is going to surprise you anymore and then something does … and that something [on the islands] was actually the amount of debris that was buried.
What was really quite amazing was that the deeper we went, the more plastic we were actually finding.”
And as the sun breaks down the plastic that lies on the surface of the beaches, the waves then smash it into smaller and smaller pieces that are driven into the sand.
“It’s the little stuff that’s perfectly bite-sized, the stuff that fish and squid and birds and even turtles can eat,” Lavers added.
In recent years, experts and conservationists have sounded the alarm on the fact that plastics and microplastics are inundating the world’s oceans and water supplies, leaching carcinogenic toxins and chemicals into the marine environment, with plastic drink containers trapping and confining—and ultimately killing—marine wildlife.
The pollution has reached such massive proportions that an estimated 100 million tons of plastic can now be found in the oceans, according to the UN. Between 80 and 90 percent of it comes from land-based sources. And according to a report prepared for the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, by 2050 it is estimated that plastic waste in the ocean will outweigh all fish.
In their study, Lavers and her team explained:
“Our excessive and unrelenting demand for plastics, coupled with ineffective policy and waste management, has resulted in myriad negative effects on marine, freshwater, and terrestrial environments, including entanglement and ingestion of debris, and subsequent exposure to plastic-associated chemicals.”
The Cocos (Keeling) Islands [are] touted as ‘Australia’s last unspoilt paradise’, with tourism a primary source of income for the local community. However, the impact of debris on tourism and [their] beaches is increasingly difficult to avoid.
Sadly, the situation on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands is not unique, with significant quantities of debris documented on islands and coastal areas from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Together, these islands and coastal areas reflect the acute symptoms of an otherwise rapidly increasing environmental hazard.”
Ecologist Chelsea Rochman at the University of Toronto told NPR that the research simply underscores the inescapable nature of the plastic crisis affecting the global ecosystem.
“Contaminants are transported via air currents in addition to ocean currents. And there [in the Arctic], we see high concentrations of small microfibers and small particles, and so, absolutely, you expect different things in different places. And what you find tells you something about where it’s coming from.”
In the case of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Rochman is sadly unsurprised.
“It’s just kind of sad to kind of read about it and think, ‘Yep, OK, this is becoming, I guess, normal.’ And we never wanted something like this to become normal.”