The world’s plastic problem persists in hard-to-reach places: human poop, the darkest depths of the ocean, and the internal organs of sea creatures. But as researchers describe in a devastating paper published Thursday, in “Australia’s last unspoiled paradise,” visual reminders of our plastic problem adorn the beaches in the form of familiar household items, piled so densely that they completely obscure the sand. Even worse, they write, is what’s beneath it.
"These islands change you."
In 2017, Jennifer Lavers, Ph.D., a research scientist at the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, spent a year cataloging the waste that washed up on the shores of the Cocos Islands, an external Australian territory made up of 27 islands in the Indian Ocean. Lavers has worked on remote islands for 15 years, but she says that seeing the enormous accumulation of trash on the Cocos islands was particularly striking.
Publishing her observations in Scientific Reports, she reports the Cocos researchers identified 373,000 toothbrushes, 977,000 shoes, and an endless flow of new plastic that is outpacing the efforts to remove it.
“These islands change you,” she tells Inverse. “One of the big surprises was that when I was digging down in the sediment to look at how much was buried and where, the quantity sometimes did not drop off with depth. This seems contrary to what one would naturally think, so I found it remarkable.”
The Perils of Buried Plastic
In 2016, the Australian census found only 544 people living on the Cocos Islands. But those people are far outnumbered by the amount of trash that arrives on their doorstep.
Based on surveys of plastic waste, Lavers estimates that there are 238 tons of plastic trash across all the islands. It would take the local community about 4,000 years to produce that amount of plastic waste, but the global community’s waste has caused it to accumulate much faster.
Though the shoes and toothbrushes in the trash piles are striking, 93 percent of the debris on the Cocos islands is actually beneath the surface, and 60 percent of that material is micro-debris, between 2 and 5 millimeters in size. Those tiny particles, Lavers explains, are the most concerning for several reasons.
On one hand, they’re “perfectly bite-sized” for sea creatures like turtles, who swallow them to their peril. A 2018 Scientific Reports paper showed that once a sea turtle consumes as little as 14 bits of plastic, they have a 50 percent risk of death. On Cocos island, the endless flow of plastic increases those odds significantly.
But Lavers is also concerned about how the plastic accumulation will affect the underlying ecology of the island itself.
As the plastic materials that were once shoes and toothbrushes get buried, they’re becoming a significant part of the island’s sediment that reaches at least 10 centimeters deep in some areas. In short, it’s becoming an entirely new plastic layer of the beach, explains Lavers, and this raises new concerns for wildlife.
“In other words, does the presence of plastic alter the temperature or thermal capacity of beach sediment? Or does it change the flow of water, humidity?” she wonders. “If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then this has important implications for the animals that live in or on the beach, including sea turtles.”
How Can We Get Rid of the Waste?
On one hand, the Cocos islands have a very active community that runs regular beach cleanups. Lavers calls the community spirit “amazing.” The Western Australian government, for its part, has also sponsored beach cleanup projects.
"Until the rest of the world makes significant changes to stem the flow, this will be an endless game of catch up.”
But trash just keeps accumulating as it drifts in from elsewhere. By 2050, some estimates suggest that there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste in the world, and by the time that trash gets buried, it might be even harder to get rid of it.
“Cleanups are still important as every large item you remove prevents it from fragmenting into thousands of microplastics, but until the rest of the world makes significant changes to stem the flow, this will be an endless game of catch up,” says Lavers.
In 2017, the local community in Cocos installed a highly controversial trash incinerator, which, Lavers says, has helped deal with the waste that the few residents create themselves but also releases toxic fumes.
The flow of plastic trash must be stopped in the first place, at both industry-wide and individual levels, says Lavers. She recommends that people take small steps, like switching from a plastic toothbrush to a bamboo one.
“For many of us, this is too intimidating to tackle, so I think it’s important not to be critical of the individual solutions,” she says. “These include the usual things that sometimes sound simple, but scale rapidly when we all make a collective decision to do them: Consume less, and much more wisely.”
She’s hopeful that a lot can be done to protect Australia’s “last unspoiled paradise,” but as long as the trash keeps flowing, time is running out.
For over 60 years, our oceans have been a reservoir for exponentially increasing amounts of plastic waste. Plastic has been documented at all levels of the marine food web, from the deepest oceanic trenches to the most far-flung beaches. Here, we present data on the presence of significant quantities of plastic on the remote Cocos (Keeling) Island group, located 2,100 km off the northwest coast of Australia. From our comprehensive surveys of debris on the beach surface, buried, and beach-back vegetation, we estimate there are 414 million anthropogenic debris items, weighing 238 tonnes, currently deposited on the Cocos (Keeling) Island group. Of the identifiable items, ~25% were classified as disposable plastics, including straws, bags, and toothbrushes. Debris buried up to 10 cm below the surface is estimated to account for 93% (~383 million items) of all debris present on Cocos, the majority of which (~60%) is comprised of micro-debris (2–5 mm). In the absence of meaningful change, debris will accumulate rapidly on the world’s beaches. Small, buried items pose considerable challenges for wildlife, and volunteers charged with the task of cleaning-up, thus preventing new items from entering the ocean remains key to addressing this issue.