Pacific

Pacific island has 38 million pieces of trash, but no people

A tiny island has all the makings of a secluded paradise -- except for the 38 million pieces of trash.

Henderson Island, a UNESCO world heritage site in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, has a higher density of trash than any other spot on the planet, researchers concluded in a study published Tuesday. 

"It's both beautiful and terrifying," lead author Jennifer Lavers, a research scientist at Australia's University of Tasmania, reacted. She said her team estimated more than 13,000 pieces of trash washed up every day on the island, which is about 6 miles long and 3 miles wide.

Photos showed toy soldiers, dominos, toothbrushes and hundreds of hardhats of every shape, size and color scattered on the sand. A crab took shelter in what looked like a cosmetics container.

How could it happen? Lavers said Henderson Island is at the edge of a vortex of ocean currents known as the South Pacific gyre, which tends to capture and hold floating trash.

Still, organizing a cleanup would be no easy task. The island is located about halfway between New Zealand and Chile. It's part of the Pitcairn Islands group, a British dependency, and so remote that Lavers said she missed her own wedding after the boat coming to collect the group was delayed. Luckily, she said, the guests were still in Tahiti, in French Polynesia, when she showed up three days late, and she still got married.

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The report appears in the journal "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."

Lavers said she sometimes found herself getting mesmerized by the variety and colors of the plastic that litters the island before the tragedy of it would sink in again.

Lavers and six others stayed on the island for 3½ months in 2015 while conducting the study. They found the trash weighed an estimated 17.6 tons and that more than two-thirds of it was buried in shallow sediment on the beaches.

Lavers said she noticed green toy soldiers that looked identical to those her brother had as a child in the early 1980s, as well as red Monopoly motels.

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She said the most common items they found were cigarette lighters and toothbrushes. One of the strangest was a baby pacifier.

Lavers said she is so appalled by the amount of plastic in the oceans that she has taken to using a bamboo iPhone case and toothbrush.

"We need to drastically rethink our relationship with plastic," she said. "It's something that's designed to last forever, but is often only used for a few fleeting moments and then tossed away."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.