Imagine if, in Danny Boyle’s film "The Beach", Leonardo DiCaprio found plastic instead of paradise? If he had to sunbathe on shopping bags, or swim with floating jars? What if — in a defining moment of the movie — DiCaprio couldn’t kill the shark because it was already on its back, with dozens of discarded bottles found in its belly?
It might have saved it from an abysmal 19% score on Rotten Tomatoes. But that’s only because DiCaprio would have taken one look at the broken utopia, turned around, and dragged the credits down an hour early.
Sadly, the story of a paradise lost is only too true on Henderson Island. It’s one of the world’s most remote islands, yet somehow is also one of its most polluted.
Henderson Island, South Pacific Paradise. We're a bloody stupid lot-the human race pic.twitter.com/zhLWeEfd4c— Whena Owen (@WhenaOwen) May 16, 2017
The tiny island, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, is completely uninhabited by humans, and hidden away in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean.
But despite its locale, Henderson Island is no Eden. The University of Tasmania and the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have estimated that nearly 38 million pieces of plastic litter the British territory's beaches. According to The Guardian, 99.8% of its total waste is plastic — nearly 18 tonnes.
38 million pieces of plastic waste found on Henderson Island, a UNESCO world heritage site in South Pacific Ocean (IMAS) pic.twitter.com/mQu3hnxOcf— CGTN (@CGTNOfficial) May 17, 2017
The destruction is clearly visible — images shot by marine scientist Jennifer Lavers show a crab finding a new home in an Avon cosmetic jar. However, over two-thirds of the debris is buried beneath the sand. Nearly 4,500 items per square metre are lost under 10cm of Earth, with an additional 13,000 new pieces washing up onto shore every single day.
“I’ve travelled to some of the most far-flung islands in the world and regardless of where I’ve gone, in what year, and in what area of the ocean, the story is generally the same: the beaches are littered with evidence of human activity,” Lavers told The Guardian. “However, my thought was the remarkable remoteness of Henderson Island would have afforded it some protection. I was totally wrong.”
“For me, marine plastic pollution is the new climate change, but I would like for us to not make the same mistakes,” Lavers added. “We’ve been arguing about climate change, and whether it exists and what is changing, for the better part of 40 years… Let’s not wait for more science. Let’s not debate it. The rate of plastic in our oceans is absolutely phenomenal, and we need to do something now.”
12 million tonnes of plastic enter the world’s oceans every single year — another tonne by the time you’ve finished reading this sentence. It picks up poisonous materials as it travels all over the world, killing the wildlife that swallows it. Plastic is an almost unbeatable environmental enemy — it can’t be killed, but it can be stopped. You might be outlived by the plastic in your kitchen, but you can still work towards finding alternative sources.
Plastic is a global responsibility. On Henderson Island, products were found from Germany, Canada, and New Zealand. But all over the world, incredible people are finding innovative solutions to solve the problem. Just one in five water bottles are recycled, but what if the bottle itself was edible? And why make products from plastic when you can make it from mushrooms?
That's the thing about paradise. It's only ever as equisite as you can dream it to be. Plastic may have taken over Henderson Island for now, but we can still save it. If Leonardo DiCaprio can come back from The Beach, then there's hope for Henderson yet.