When researchers traveled to a tiny, uninhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, they were astonished to find an estimated 38 million pieces of trash washed up on the beaches.
Almost all of the garbage they found on Henderson Island was made of plastic. There were toy soldiers, dominoes, toothbrushes and hundreds of hard hats of every shape, size and color.
In a report published Tuesday, the researchers say the density of trash was the highest recorded anywhere in the world, despite Henderson Island’s extreme remoteness. The island is located about halfway between New Zealand and Chile.
“The quantity of plastic there is truly alarming,” said lead researcher Jennifer Lavers. “It’s both beautiful and terrifying.”
Lavers said Henderson Island is at the edge of a vortex known as the South Pacific gyre (pronounced JIE-ur), where ocean currents tend to capture and hold floating trash.
She and six others stayed on the island for 3½ months in 2015 while conducting the study. They found that the trash weighed an estimated 17.6 tons and that more than two-thirds of it was buried on the beaches.
Lavers said she noticed green toy soldiers that looked identical to those her brother played with as a child in the early 1980s, as well as red motels from the Monopoly board game.
She said the most common items they found were cigarette lighters and toothbrushes. One of the strangest was a baby pacifier.
Lavers also said they found a sea turtle that had died after getting caught in an abandoned fishing net and a crab that was living in a beauty-product container.
By clearing a part of a beach of trash and then watching new pieces accumulate, Lavers said they were able to estimate that more than 13,000 pieces of trash wash up every day on the island, which is about six miles long and three miles wide.
Henderson Island is part of Britain’s Pitcairn Islands group. It is so remote that Lavers said she missed her own wedding after the boat coming to collect the group was delayed.
Luckily, she said, the guests were still in Tahiti, in French Polynesia, when she showed up three days late, and she still got married.
Lavers said she is so upset by the amount of plastic in the oceans that she has taken to using a bamboo iPhone case and toothbrush.
“We need to drastically rethink our relationship with plastic,” she said. “It’s something that’s designed to last forever, but is often only used for a few fleeting moments and then tossed away.”