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With plastic waste reaching far isles, experts call for int'l countermeasure body

A purple hermit crab carries a piece of plastic garbage as its shell on the uninhabited British Henderson Island in the South Pacific in 2015. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lavers)

BRUSSELS -- The scourge of plastic waste has now reached the island furthest removed from human activity. With the expansion of the pollution dire, and information yet to be clarified, experts are calling for urgent international inspections and countermeasures on par with climate change to battle plastic waste.

In the South Pacific Ocean 5,000 kilometers west off the coast of the South American country of Chile, lies one of the most isolated and uninhabited islands in the world -- British-controlled Henderson Island. The island's ecosystem, which includes unique flora and fauna that has evolved independently, remains almost entirely untouched, and in 1988, it was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites. Permission is required to make a landing on the island, and access to the location itself is difficult, so onsite surveys are only carried out every several years.

When Jennifer Lavers, a marine biologist at the University of Tasmania in Australia, looked upon the plastic garbage engulfing the white beaches of the island when she first visited Henderson in May 2015, she was at a loss for words. Purple hermit crabs were carrying plastic on their backs, while green sea turtles had been caught in fishing nets and strangled.

Lavers has researched the ecosystems of isolated islands all over the world. However, there was no location where she did not see plastic waste, and while she had estimated that there would be some amount of damage done to Henderson Island, the "quantity of plastic was really bad. That really caught me off guard." she said.

Dice, a bicycle pedal, a toothbrush, fishing gear, a helmet used at construction sites... There was a small toy figure of a solider that she remembered her younger brother playing with more than 30 years earlier. "From far countries or from the distant past -- I was just fascinated by the randomness of all these items," Lavers said. "Where did they come from? How did they get there?"

During a survey spanning two and a half months, Lavers and others estimated that there were a total of 37.7 million single pieces of garbage weighing over 17 tons covering the white-sand beaches of the 3,700-hectacre Henderson Island. In an academic paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States last year, it was reported that "the density of debris was the highest recorded anywhere in the world."

Riding on the ocean currents of the South Pacific, Lavers and others estimated back then that at least 3,570 new items of garbage per day were arriving at the island's north side alone, but what has happened since then is unknown. That is because no scientists have visited Henderson Island since Lavers and the 2015 research team. "It was really sad and shocking," she continued. "Here you are on one of the most remote islands in the world, which should be pristine and completely removed from human impact, and at the same time, it's actually surprisingly beautiful, because the island itself is stunning." The experience left her with mixed emotions.

-- International cooperation needed to prevent plastics entering oceans

A large amount of plastic garbage is seen washed up on the sandy beach of the world's most isolated island, British Henderson Island, in 2015. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lavers)

The pollution of the world's oceans is rapidly progressing. Roughly 350 kilometers east of Henderson Island lies Ducie and other uninhabited islands. In the beginning of the 1990s, the density of garbage per square meter came in at 0.1 to 0.3 pieces. Now, over 25 years later, the density of garbage recorded on Henderson Island in 2015 was more than 200 to 2,000 times that. "We all have a responsibility," said Lavers. "We all do."

With current technology, there is no way to safely remove plastic washed into the ocean in a way that both takes large quantities and does not harm the natural environment, and Lavers says that "the focus has to shift to preventing all new plastics from getting out into the ocean." However, is it already too late? "The honest answer is 'yes,'" she said, but then continued with determination. "You do not wave the white flag. You do not stop fighting, because it's the good fight and it's what defines us as individuals. It's what defines us as a society," and there is no other option, she said.

In order to deal with the problem of plastic waste in the world's oceans, international cooperation on the level of global warming countermeasures is needed. Like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), some suggest that an organization working together with the world's top researchers and evaluating plastic pollution from a scientific point of view should be created.

"There are no simple solutions that fix the entire problem. So, we need to figure out where the most obvious intervention points are. And for that, we need scientific evidence," pointed out Erik van Sebille, associate professor in marine biology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. "We cannot cure the problem if we do not have the right diagnosis."

Van Sebille stands firm that an organization like the IPCC is needed to examine the current state of pollution and its environmental effects, as well as future risks, and to consider effective policies to reduce plastic garbage. The IPCC, in which several thousand experts participate, summarizes the newest knowledge concerning scientific analysis of climate change and its effects on society and the economy in a report put out every few years. The activities by the panel form a foundation on which international global warming countermeasures can be considered.

It is still unknown what becomes of the majority of plastic that does not degrade when it ends up in the ocean. According to projections by van Sebille and his research team, some 200,000 tons of small plastic particles are floating on the surface of the world's seas. However, that amount only makes up only 1 percent of the amount of plastic that is estimated to have been dumped into the ocean so far, he said. In other words, 99 percent of the world's plastic garbage has gone "missing."

In order to come up with truly effective measures to counter the global plastic problem, is it essential to figure out where the majority of that waste has gone. While van Sebille believes that the majority has washed up on beaches, there is no reliable data about how much has sunken to the bottom of the ocean or just how much has tangled up ocean life.

"I fear that if we don't do anything about new plastic, then the situation will get much worse," said van Sebille. In order to track the course of plastic washed into the ocean, his team developed a 3-D simulation model. They hope that it will lead to future measures for the entire world by promoting international cooperation. "I think there is still time to act," he said.

(Japanese original by Kosuke Hatta, Brussels Bureau)

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