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It wasn't so long ago that landing on a remote, uninhabited island would offer an unadulterated scene. Maybe a few coconuts, some shells—nature at her least disturbed. Now, one of the planet's most off the beaten path locations, a small landmass in the eastern South Pacific, is also one of the world's most polluted places.

A new study found that Henderson Island—which sits 3,500 miles from New Zealand and another 3,500 miles from South America—is home to around 38 million pieces of plastic weighing around 18 metric tons. With about 62 pieces per square foot—many tiny and barely visible to the naked eye—Henderson Island has the densest plastic pollution ever recorded anywhere on Earth according to the researchers.

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University of Tasmania professor Jennifer Lavers, the study's lead author, told the Guardian that while she thought the remoteness of the island would have provided some protection from the pollution, she was wrong.

“I’ve traveled to some of the most far-flung islands in the world and regardless of where I’ve gone, in what year, and in what area of the ocean, the story is generally the same: the beaches are littered with evidence of human activity," she said. "However, my thought was the remarkable remoteness of Henderson Island would have afforded it some protection. I was totally wrong."

According to the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a range of factors influence the abundance of beach debris, including local currents, beach topography, and weather. Henderson Island is located near the middle of the South Pacific Gyre ocean current, which means trash from around the region slowly accumulates in the area, according to the study:

The density of debris was the highest recorded anywhere in the world, suggesting that remote islands close to oceanic plastic accumulation zones act as important sinks for some of the waste accumulated in these areas. As global plastic production continues to increase exponentially, it will further impact the exceptional natural beauty and biodiversity for which remote islands have been recognized….

…The isolation of remote islands has, until recently, afforded protection from most human activities. However, society’s increasing desire for plastic products has resulted in plastic becoming ubiquitous in the marine environment, where it persists for decades.

The location of Henderson Island. The boundary of the Pitcairn Islands Exclusive Economic Area is shown in light blue. Arrows indicate the direction of major oceanic currents and the South Pacific Gyre.
Courtesy of PNAS

Lavers said in a statement that it's likely that their data actually underestimates the amount of debris on the island because they were only able to sample pieces bigger than two millimeters and down to a depth of 10 centimeters, and some tough-to-reach areas remained unexplored. She said not only is the plastic an environmental eyesore, but it also causes wildlife a lot of problems.

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"Plastic debris is an entanglement and ingestion hazard for many species, creates a physical barrier on beaches to animals such as sea turtles, and lowers the diversity of shoreline invertebrates," she said. "Research has shown that more than 200 species are known to be at risk from eating plastic, and 55% of the world's seabirds, including two species found on Henderson Island, are at risk from marine debris."

(A) Plastic debris on East Beach of Henderson Island. Much of this debris originated from fishing-related activities or land-based sources in China, Japan, and Chile (Table S5). (B) Plastic items recorded in a daily accumulation transect along the high tide line of North Beach. (C) Adult female green turtle (Chelonia mydas) entangled in fishing line on North Beach. (D) One of many hundreds of purple hermit crabs (Coenobita spinosa) that make their homes in plastic containers washed up on North Beach.
Courtesy of PNAS

Henderson Island was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 1988. Thirty years later this extremely remote tropical island is now becoming famous for its trash piles.