Thought Leaders

Earth Day 2021: Remote Islands Shed Light on the Extent of Worldwide Plastic Pollution

Thought LeadersEmma NicholsMarine Pollution EcologyInstitute for Marine and Antarctic Studies

To raise awareness of the extent of plastic pollution and to commemorate Earth Day 2021, AZoCleantech speaks to Emma Nichols who has extensively studied Marine Pollution Ecology at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies in Tasmania. Nichols speaks about her team's research on how one of the most remote islands has more than four billion pieces of plastic on its beach, and what each of us can do to reduce the effects of plastic pollution.

Video Credit: AZoCleantech

How did you begin your research into plastic pollution?

Having watched a documentary called ‘Blue’ at my local cinema in 2017, the wonderful Dr. Jennifer Lavers spoke at a Q&A after the showing. I was incredibly inspired by her work, and the film highlighted a lot of issues I knew little about. I reached out to Jennifer and expressed my interest in plastic research and that I wanted to learn more. At the time I was an undergraduate, and so I kept in touch with Jennifer over the years until I could start my Honours project in 2020. I suppose looking back on it now, 2017 was the year I started to seriously think about plastic consumption. It was also the year that Blue Planet II first aired, which too highlighted the plight of plastics within our ocean. As disheartening as it was to learn of the environmental impact of our plastic pollution, there was hope in the creative and visually stunning way these issues were presented, and how they were inspiring real change and raising global awareness.

Can you give a brief outline of what you set out to do during your research?  

Although more research is emerging, there is still very little known on the quantity and accumulation trends of marine plastics, and their effects on marine organisms. Our study aimed to:

  • Determine whether plastic quantities had changed on Henderson Island since the 2015 sampling efforts
  • Compare our findings with that of the South Pacific Ocean
  • Find out whether micro-and nano plastic particles (the smallest detectable plastics sized 1-50 µm [or 0.001-0.05 mm in size]) which had not been achieved for the region before, were present in Henderson’s beach sediment.

We did find that microplastic quantity had increased significantly on the Island since 2015 and that distributions of plastic sizes differed significantly when both beach and open ocean systems were compared. We were able to extrapolate our findings to the 2.2 km-long East Beach that was surveyed on Henderson Island, and estimated over 4 billion micro-and nano plastic particles to be present in just the top 5 cm of sediment on that beach.  

If floating plastic debris only accounts for 1% of all plastic found at sea, what has happened to the remaining 99%?

Several researchers have proposed a range of removal mechanisms that may influence the fate of ocean plastics. Although many commercial plastics are quite buoyant and can float relatively easily, over time, these items can begin to sink. This could be aided depending on the polymer type of a plastic item (high-density plastics are more likely to sink in ocean waters for example). Harsh weather conditions (strong wind, waves, or ocean currents) can then help in pushing less buoyant plastics down into the water column.

Another possible removal mechanism is biofouling, which is the accumulation of marine organisms (such as barnacles, mollusks, and algae) that attach themselves to the outer surface of plastics, causing the weight of these items to increase and eventually sink below the surface. Other processes that could be causing plastics to be removed from the ocean’s surface include plastics washing up on beaches, being ingested by organisms (and defecated into smaller particles), becoming buried in benthic sediments, or resting deeper within the water column. Therefore, it is a much larger task to determine exactly where ocean plastics are going as there is a range of processes underway.

Can you tell us more about the findings of the 2017 study of Henderson Island, one of the world’s remotest islands? 

Henderson Island — listed under UNESCO World Heritage status— was found inundated with plastic debris, with an estimated 37.7 million pieces of plastic washed ashore on the island’s once-pristine beaches. The study lead by Dr Jennifer Lavers and Dr Alex Bond showed that an island over 155 km from the nearest human-inhabited island (Pitcairn ~45 permanent residents), and 2350 km from the nearest urban center, could become plagued with dangerous materials, and serves as a stark reminder that our lifestyle choices have very real implications on the natural world we rely on. The study was able to determine the likely country of origin for several items, which found some plastics to have traveled from as far as Scotland and Germany.

Emma Nichols and her team estimate that more than four billion plastic particles are present in just the top 5 cm of sand from one 2.2 km-long Henderson Island beach. Image Credit: Jennifer Lavers

How can a remote, uninhabited island accumulate such a large amount of plastic?

Henderson Island is located on the far western boundary of the South Pacific Gyre, a gyre being a strong circulating current system, influenced heavily by winds. These global current systems can transport marine debris (man-made or natural debris, such as wood or pumice) from all around the world. The conditions on Henderson are particularly harsh, allowing debris to be washed ashore in high quantities daily, particularly on Henderson’s east and northeast-facing beaches.

Can you tell us about your most recent research paper on plastic size distribution and quality? How is plastic particle size important and what does it offer us in terms of scientific research?

To try to better understand the fate of ocean plastics, our paper looked at whether the distribution of plastics when categorized into defined size classes differed from beach environments to open surface waters. We did find a significant difference between the two systems. This could be an indication of the environmental exposures plastics are succumbed to when stranded on beaches, and that sampling efforts may be more inclined to identify smaller plastic particles from beach environments, where plastics that have fragmented may remain relatively within the same area, as opposed to open surface waters where a variety of mechanisms could cause these smaller plastics to sink or be removed. It is important to improve our understanding of how plastics behave in the marine environment as this can help build an understanding of where plastics are going and improve future mitigation strategies.

What was your main takeaway from the Henderson Island study?

The main takeaway was that such a remote island, where some organisms may have never encountered humans before, or at least very rarely encounter humans, is still at the demise of our hazardous waste products. Having extrapolated billions of micro-and nano plastics from just one beach of Henderson, it really does put this into perspective even more so.

When plastics fragment, their surface area grows, and so they can become more bioavailable for organisms throughout the food chain. Henderson Island is home to a number of unique flora and fauna and is an important stop-over for many seabirds. Each summer the very same beaches surveyed for marine plastic are flooded with female green sea turtles that lay their eggs in the sand. I often wonder how the offspring of these endangered turtles can navigate through these plastic obstacles, where a number of them are likely to become entangled in this plastic debris. The waste washing ashore on Henderson Island should act as a major wake-up call, particularly to big businesses and governments worldwide, that not enough is being done to address this issue, and that we need collective global initiatives to reduce further harm from these materials.

Is there an underrepresentation of current plastic estimates?

There is a range of studies out there that suggest current estimates of plastics to likely be underestimated. The reason for this is the limitations to sampling efforts, where the ability to sample the smallest detectable plastic particles requires specialized and often expensive equipment, with at times limited availability.

Whether micro-and nano plastic sampling can be achieved is often therefore reliant on funding, resourcing, and time restraints. Our study, for example, sampled to a depth of 5 cm given the resources available, and any plastics deeper than this were therefore unaccounted for.

How are your findings important for future studies and mitigation strategies?

As Henderson Island is extremely remote, sampling efforts are widely limited to funding, weather conditions, and available resources. Having two years of plastic data for such a remote island is important in building a greater understanding of plastic quantity and accumulation trends on our remote islands. Our findings highlight the immense quantity of plastics (particularly micro-plastics) in remote islands, and we hope that our research will raise awareness of the alarming problem of plastic pollution.

By raising awareness, we aim to invoke action by manufacturers, policymakers, and consumers. Action may include mitigation strategies such as the banning of single-use plastics, improving storm-water runoff infrastructure, and the development of wastewater treatments that can capture microplastics. Such strategies are necessary to reduce plastic pollution in our oceans.

How does natural environmental behavior affect plastic waste breakdown in oceans and coastal areas?

When plastics enter the marine environment, they can be exposed to a range of natural processes. Marine plastics, whether found in coastal or open ocean systems are exposed to harsh conditions (such as waves and strong wind events that can cause plastics to rub against other hardy debris or sand sediment) which can promote degradation. Beached plastics from coastal areas may experience faster rates of fragmentation due to having prolonged exposure to harsh UV radiation. Plastics that become buried within sediments (whether sandy beach sediment or through sinking into benthic marine environments) can persist for longer periods as they may be more sheltered from these harsh conditions.

Can you explain the risks that plastic waste poses to the environment and wildlife?

Sadly, there is a wide range of consequences for our wildlife, with some potential impacts still unknown. The first documented case of plastic ingestion by wildlife was from 1966 of Laysan albatross chicks. For such a relatively new age material (first mass-produced in the 1950s), plastics are now impacting a range of wildlife species negatively.

Today, over 900 wildlife species have been documented as being negatively impacted by plastics, from krill, and sea cucumbers, to seals and whales, this list continues to rise with the growing research being conducted.

Physical ingestion of plastic can damage the digestive tracts of wildlife, which could lead to starvation if these items cannot be brought back up. Entanglements are a common issue, particularly due to hazardous ghost nets (fishing nets cast overboard or accidentally lost at sea). Carcasses of turtles have been found on Henderson wrapped in these same fishing nets that had washed ashore.

Then there is the issue of physiological harm, where plastics that have been ingested may harbor a range of chemicals within them (either absorbed pollutants from the waters these items have passed through or added during the manufacturing process) and these can act as endocrine disruptors. This can lead to a range of hormonal changes which may influence an organism’s growth rate, breeding success, behavior, and overall survivorship.

There is a range of indirect impacts plastics have on wildlife, one of those being the physical barriers they can cause, particularly for our smaller organisms. For example, large plastic items scattered on a beach can impede female turtles that need to haul themselves onto soft sand to lay their eggs. Newly hatched turtles will then need to navigate these plastic obstacles all while avoiding being picked off by seabirds in their mad dash to get to the ocean.

What is the extent of the risk to wildlife and humans in terms of plastic consumption?

There are a growing number of studies that suggest chemicals can bioaccumulate throughout the food chain as a result of plastic ingestion. As previously mentioned, plastics can absorb toxic pollutants that may be present in the waters they travel through (for example, heavy metals from industrial run-off), and these items can then become highly concentrated ‘pills’ of toxins. If ingested, these toxins can then leech out into an organism's bloodstream. The chemicals harbored within a contaminated organism can then become more noxious the further it travels up the food chain. As consumers of seafood, humans are at risk of toxin exposure from these contaminated foods. Although plastics are known to have negative impacts on many wildlife species, research into the human health effects of plastic exposure is currently not well understood. 

As part of Earth Day 2021, plastic pollution is being highlighted as a key global problem. What steps do you believe are essential to helping reduce our effect on wildlife and the environment?

“Every time you spend money, you're casting a vote for the kind of world you want.” - Anne Lapp

I believe being conscious of what we spend our money on is key, as every action has a consequence. We can choose every day whether to support responsible businesses by the products we consume. To help our wildlife, we need to cut out single-use plastics wherever possible and ensure that plastics that we cannot avoid are being disposed of responsibly. Look locally for what items are accepted at recycling plants and make sure to follow council guidelines to avoid causing contamination of waste, which could potentially lead to entire streets worth of recycling ending up in a landfill. As recycled goods are not guaranteed to avoid landfill, it is worth identifying any unnecessary items that could be made from home, purchased in bulk, or purchased using your own bags or containers from home.

Image Credit: Andrew Stripes/Shutterstock.com

Have a look online for what stores in your local area may have soft plastics recycling and make it part of your weekly/monthly routine to take your soft plastics to these drop-offs to avoid waste. Have a chat with your schools or work businesses on steps that could be taken to reduce waste. There are some great initiatives out there (such as Lids4kids, or Terracycle), that provide drop-off boxes for specific items that are often too difficult to recycle locally. It is worth taking a look at what drop-offs may be in your local areas, and some local councils may provide similar drop-offs (think stationery, cosmetics, and blister packs).

When you are disposing of your waste, consider best practices to prevent animals from becoming entangled if those items were instead to end up in landfill, or if they were blown out of the bin by accident (for example, snip the little plastic ring that’s on the tops of your plastic milk bottles to prevent wildlife becoming caught in it). Look for your local representatives and write to them about the need to ban single-use plastics, and to enact more stringent policies around waste management. The more emails received by local and state representatives, the more likely those queries would be acted upon.

The End Plastic Pollution campaign aims to help people to understand the extent and impacts of waste on our environmental and human health. What do you believe is the first step individuals can do to help make a difference? Can the damage we have caused be reversed?  

You do not have to be the perfect “zero-waster” to create positive change. Start with some of the basics, work it into muscle memory, and in no time, these changes will become an everyday habit. Avoid buying new “green” items and use what you already have at home, or look at your local tip shop or second-hand store for any particulars you need. Cut single-use plastic consumption as best as is practicable.

In particular, the 7 R’s as it is often said is a great mantra to repeat for anyone to create some very real change and greatly reduce their plastic/waste consumption (and hopefully fulfilled in this order):

  1. Rethink your choices; do you really need to purchase something brand new? Consider the life cycle of the item you are seeking, if it is single-use plastic, think of the time frame that item would be in use (20 minutes to drink from perhaps) compared with potentially hundreds of years sitting in a landfill.         
  2. Refuse when it is not necessary: for example, refuse a single-use coffee cup and sit in to drink your coffee from a mug instead.
  3. Reduce what you buy; change your consumption habits, if you do need to buy something new, try sourcing it first from a local tip-shop or second-hand store. If after this you decide you still need to purchase something brand new, ensure it is good quality and by manufacturers that support ethical and sustainable production (fair working conditions, animal welfare consideration, recycled materials or sourced responsibly). The better the quality, the longer it will last, and the less waste along the way.
  4. Reuse anything that you already have. For example, take your own shopping bags from home each time you go grocery shopping.
  5. Repurpose; rather than throwing something into a landfill, try to come up with an alternate use for it or think of something creative you could do with it. 
  6. Recycle; this should be our last option when all other options are extinguished, as recycling does not guarantee avoidance of landfill, or even other natural environments (think contaminated recycling bins, overcapacity waste plants, and strong wind and rain events blowing recycling from bins or waste plants).
  7. Rot; turn any organic waste into compost, you’ll reduce your CO2 emissions, and provide some nutrient-rich soil for your garden. If you lack the capacity to compost (if you live in apartment blocks for example) I would recommend looking at sharewaste.com.   

To answer the last part of the question, I do not see us being able to reverse the damage caused by plastic pollution, BUT we can certainly change our consumption habits and put pressure on big businesses/governments to prevent any further damage from occurring. The reason I say this, is that much of the plastic in our oceans cannot just simply be cleaned up. As plastics can break up into tiny micro and nano-sized particles, actions to physically clean the ocean are not practicable. Remote islands are also costly to reach, and, although short-term benefits may exist for local wildlife from clean-up events, these impacts are short-lived without the feasible option for continued removal efforts, and the remote locations will soon be splayed with plastic debris once again.

Plastic pollution, therefore, needs to be addressed at its source. We need to “turn off the tap” so to speak, as the longer it is left running, the bigger the consequences will be. In contrast, local clean-ups of coastal areas can be beneficial to wildlife if conducted routinely and is a great way to enhance community involvement and raise awareness of plastic pollution. As previously mentioned, there are a range of mitigation strategies that if/when adopted more widely could help to reduce the pathways for plastics to enter the ocean.

Where can readers find more information?

  1. sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0025326X21004008?via%3Dihub (free access until June 5, 2021)
  2. https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/news/2021/april/over-four-billion-plastic-particles-beach-sand-of-remote-island.html
  3. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jul/30/henderson-island-the-pacific-paradise-groaning-under-18-tonnes-of-plastic-waste

About Emma Nichols

​​​Emma completed her Honours degree in Marine Pollution Ecology at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies in 2020. Emma currently works as a research scientist at a marine consultancy firm.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited (T/A) AZoNetwork, the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and Conditions of use of this website.

Laura Thomson

Written by

Laura Thomson

Laura Thomson graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University with an English and Sociology degree. During her studies, Laura worked as a Proofreader and went on to do this full time until moving on to work as a Website Editor for a leading analytics and media company. In her spare time, Laura enjoys reading a range of books and writing historical fiction. She also loves to see new places in the world and spends many weekends looking after dogs as part of BorrowmyDoggy.com.

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