One would assume that an uninhabited tropical island would be devoid of most human debris. One would assume wrong, though. Especially if one were assuming about Henderson Island, a tiny little speck of land in the South Pacific. If it weren’t for the mounds of garbage, it would be a paradise worthy of a storybook.
For the last 600 years, no humans have called Henderson Island home. It’s about as far away from everywhere else as a place can get–it’s more than 3,000 miles to New Zealand, and South America is farther away. It’s about 15 square miles, has one brackish water source, and soil that’s not exactly great for growing edibles. It is, though, stunningly beautiful. The ragged coastlines contain the last two raised coral atolls in the world that are basically untouched by humans. In the middle lies a raised lagoon, and the outer edge is ringed by a tangled web of undisturbed forest. It is almost exactly what pops into your head when you think of a deserted island.
Back in 1988, UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site, mostly because it was untouched by the filthy, grasping hands of man. Recent samplings show that those hands have very long fingers, though. Of the 15-square-miles, an average of 239 pieces of plastic was found per 22-square-feet. And that was just on the surface. The first 4 inches of sand had nearly double the amount of plastic.
Dr. Jennifer Lavers, from the University of Tasmania, studied the island to see just how much our rampant overuse of plastic is affecting some of the most untouched places on earth. What she found was pretty horrifying: by her estimates, the island has somewhere around 38 million pieces of plastic on it, weighing nearly 20 tons.
So why is it so bad on Henderson Island? Well, it’s the same reason why there are those giant “garbage patches.” Gyres, a system of rotating currents, create huge floating accumulations of trash that we throw into the ocean, and Henderson happens to be right smack dab in the middle of the South Pacific Gyre. If Henderson happened to be in the middle of the North Pacific, things would be much, much worse. The South Pacific Gyre runs north from eastern South America, and countries like Peru and Chile use less plastic than North America.