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Science

This Pacific island is covered in 38 million pieces of trash — mostly plastic

If you wonder where your plastic toothbrushes and cigarette lighters go after you trash them, here’s your answer: many end up in the ocean, which means that they either sink to the bottom or wash up on beaches — like this remote, uninhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Henderson Island, which is located between New Zealand and Chile, was found to be covered in an estimated 38 million pieces of trash, most of it plastic, according to a new study. The density of debris was the highest recorded anywhere in the world, the authors say.

 Photo: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Examples of plastic trash on the island, including a purple hermit crab making its home in a plastic container

“The quantity of plastic there is truly alarming,” Jennifer Lavers, a research scientist at Australia’s University of Tasmania and lead author of the study, told The Associated Press. The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Plastic trash in the oceans is dangerous for animals like sea turtles, seabirds, and seals, which can die from ingesting the plastic or getting entangled in it. Because plastic is made to last, it lives on for decades, sometimes breaking down into minute pieces.

 Image: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
The location of Henderson Island. Arrows indicate the direction of major oceanic currents and the South Pacific gyre.

Henderson Island, which is a UNESCO world heritage site, is particularly hit by the plastic pollution because it’s located at the edge of the South Pacific gyre, an ocean current that tends to pick up trash. Scientists found all sorts of plastic debris on the island, from toy soldiers to the red motels from the Monopoly board game, according to the AP. Overall, they estimated that the trash weighed around 17.6 tons.

The findings make it a bit easier to understand the impact our plastic pollution has on the environment — especially on remote islands like the one described in the study, which “have become reservoirs for the world’s waste.”

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