Located more than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) off the northwest coast of Australia, the far-flung Cocos (Keeling) Islands may not have much in the way of human population but lead the world in terms of plastic accumulation.
According to a new study published in Scientific Reports, the remote beaches found on the Indian Ocean islands are littered with an estimated 414 million pieces of plastic waste weighing around 238 tonnes – including almost 1 million shoes and 373,000 toothbrushes.
"Islands such as these are like canaries in a coal mine and it's increasingly urgent that we act on the warnings they are giving us," said study author Jennifer Lavers in a statement. "Plastic pollution is now ubiquitous in our oceans, and remote islands are an ideal place to get an objective view of the volume of plastic debris now circling the globe.”
It really makes you think twice about that impulse vacation flip-flop buy.
Lavers first made headlines when she revealed Henderson Island in the South Pacific was engulfed in plastic waste. Virtually untouched by humans, the UNESCO World Heritage atoll has the highest density of plastic anywhere on Earth. The Cocos (Keeling) Islands dwarf that purely in total volume.
"Our estimate of 414 million pieces weighing 238 tonnes on Cocos (Keeling) is conservative, as we only sampled down to a depth of 10 centimeters [4 inches] and couldn't access some beaches that are known debris 'hotspots’,” said Lavers, adding that remote islands lacking large human populations to deposit trash highlight the extent of plastic circulation in the planet’s oceans.
Roughly a quarter of all plastic surveyed comprised single-use items. Ninety-three percent of debris was buried up to 10 centimeters (4 inches) below the ground's surface.
"Unlike Henderson Island, where most identifiable debris was fishing-related, the plastic on Cocos (Keeling) was largely single-use consumer items such as bottle caps and straws, as well as a large number of shoes and thongs," Lavers said.
Researchers note that the global production and consumption of plastic continues to increase. An estimated 12.7 million tonnes of plastic was dumped into the ocean in 2010 alone, with 40 percent of all plastics entering the waste stream in the same year they’re produced. Altogether, estimates suggest that there are now more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic debris in our oceans.
"Plastic pollution is a well-documented threat to wildlife and its potential impact on humans is a growing area of medical research,” said study co-author Annett Finger.
For six decades, our oceans have served as a catch-all for plastic waste. It’s been documented at all levels of the marine food web and from the deepest parts of the ocean to the most remote beaches. Amazingly, nearly half of all plastic manufactured during the last 60 years was produced in the last 13 years.
"The scale of the problem means cleaning up our oceans is currently not possible, and cleaning beaches once they are polluted with plastic is time-consuming, costly, and needs to be regularly repeated as thousands of new pieces of plastic wash up each day,” explained Finger.
Once in the ocean, plastic debris breaks down into smaller particles known as microplastics, which can persist for decades – and potentially even centuries.
Without meaningful change, the authors note that plastic waste will only continue to build up rapidly on beaches across the world, presenting challenges for any wildlife that mistakes garbage for food or has difficulties nesting, reproducing, and living in polluted ecosystems.
"The only viable solution is to reduce plastic production and consumption while improving waste management to stop this material entering our oceans in the first place," Finger said.