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Inaccessible Island is an extinct volcano and world heritage site rising out of the South Atlantic Ocean. Most of the island periphery is sheer cliff faces, yet a small number of boulder beaches do litter the island providing a small inlet to its terrain.
Yet, due to the difficulty in landing here Inaccessible Island has been largely uninhabited since it was abandoned by explorers and sailors in the 19th Century. However, researchers have recently discovered that this remote islet reveals the magnitude of the problem humanity faces with regards to ‘the plastic problem.’
Between 2009 and 2018 scientists investigated over 11,500 items of waste and debris on the island and discovered that polyethylene terephthalate (PET) drinking bottles – mostly used for store-bought bottled water – were the most recurrent items of waste in their survey.
Surprisingly, whilst a container that dated back to 1971 was found on Inaccessible Island nearly all of the items in the recent 2018 survey were discovered to be dated within the past two years. This news comes from a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) which breaks some new ground on the origins of plastic waste.
Lead author of the study, Professor Peter Ryan, director of the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town, stated, "When we were [on the island, called Inaccessible Island] last year, it was really shocking how much drink bottles had just come to dominate."
What this emergent evidence suggests is that due to the bottles being dated over the past couple of years most of the debris is being cast off ships passing the island. This sheds new light on the way in which plastic pollution is distributed to coastal areas and in the ocean as previous assumptions believed most waste was thought to have come from land refuge contaminating the oceans.
What’s more is that the team discovered a shift in country of manufacture as over 75% percent of the bottles were determined to have come from Asia. "What was really shocking was how the origin had shifted from largely South American, which is what you would expect from somewhere like Inaccessible Island because it's downwind from South America to predominantly Asian,” said Professor Ryan.
The fact the bottles were found to be from the past two-years and originating from Asia, particularly China, meant they could not have been swept to the island via the ocean currents. This led to the logical conclusion that they must have therefore come from the shipping vessels.
My initial thought was that it was going to be fishing fleets. Fishing boats tend to be a little bit more Wild West than the merchant fleets as a rule, but the fact that it's primarily Chinese doesn't really fit with that because the predominant fishing fleets in the South Atlantic are Taiwanese and Japanese.
Professor Peter Ryan
Further evidence to support this idea is the correlation between the waste and the expansion of China’s merchant ships. While disposing of waste at sea by tossing it overboard has been banned since 1989 under the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships.
I think we need to look quite carefully at better monitoring and enforcement of regulations.
Professor Peter Ryan
This opens up the discussion to the international shipping sector as well as inventing political institutions into the frame.
In order for the issue of plastic pollution to be effectively addressed and the impact mitigated more research and action needs to be implemented on controlling the source of plastic waste. While on land there are initiatives such as banning single-use straws, plastic bag charges, and even passing innovative bills and laws concerning the reusing of plastics in industry there is clearly still work to be done.