Courtesy of Silke Stuckenbrock
When a marine biologist from Australia traveled to a distant Indian Ocean island to see how much plastic waste had rinsed on the shores, here's just part of what she found: "373,000 toothbrushes and about 975,000 shoes, in largely flip-flops, "says Jennifer Lavers of the University of Tasmania in Australia.
And that was just what was on the surface.
Cocos Keeling Islands make up nearly 6 square miles of land, about 1,300 miles northwest of Australia's coast. It was a good place to measure plastic waste because almost no one lives there. This meant that the plastic debris was not local – it floated in – and no one picked it up. It gave Lavers a good idea of how much was bobbing around the sea.
She was flabbergasted.
"Therefore, more than 414 million pieces of plastic debris are currently estimated at Cocos Keeling Islands, weighing a remarkable 238 tons," Lavers said.
There are 27 of these islands, most just a few hectares in size. Lager's team of researchers studied seven of them, mostly 2017, by marking transect on beaches and counting all plastic in each transect. They multiplied that number by the total beach area on all islands. Lavers had done this earlier on other remote islands. "You come to the point where you feel that not much will surprise you anymore," she says, "and then do something … and that something [on the Cocos Keeling Islands] was actually the amount of debris buried."
Lavers not only counted the stuff on the surface, she dug four inches into the sand. "What really was amazing was that the deeper we went," she says, "the more plastic we actually found." What happens is that the sun breaks down the plastic on the surface, and the waves pummel it into small pieces and drive it into the sand.
"It's the little things that are perfect bite size," says Lavers. "The things like fish and octopus and birds and even turtles can eat."
In fact, most of the plastic waste was below the surface. "We estimated that what was hidden under the sediment was somewhere in the range of 380 million plastic parts," says Lavers – but it will not stay there. In the end, she predicts, high tide or storms will do it at sea.
Lavers describes what her team is in the journal Scientific Reports .
It is becoming increasingly clear that no place on the planet seems to be immune to plastic debris. Ecologist Chelsea Rochman at the University of Toronto studies microplasty and says that different sites simply have different types of plastic.
Take the Arctic, for example. "Pollution is transported via air streams except sea currents," Rochman explains. "And there [in the Arctic] we see high concentrations of small microfibers and small particles, and it is absolutely you expect different things in different places. And what you find tells you something about where it comes from. "
Rochman says she's not exactly surprised at what Lavers found." It's just kind of sad to read about it and think, "Yes, this is, it I suppose normally. "
" And we never wanted such a thing to be normal. "