An Estimated 414 Million Pieces of Plastic Have Piled Up on Australia's Best Beaches

Beach debris along the north side of Direction Island, Australia.
Photo: Silke Stuckenbrock

Human trash continues to pile up on every corner of the Earth at an alarming rate. And new research published on Thursday in Scientific Reports chronicles yet another frontier in our increasing plastic pollution crisis.

Researchers looked at the Coco (Keeling) Islands, two small islands to the west of Australia with some of the best beaches in the country, and found those pristine locales are smothered in plastic. The researchers estimate that their soft yellow sand is now littered with an astounding 414 million piece of plastic, all of it washed up from far away lands. And with no way to clean up that much debris, the findings show single use lifestyles are rapidly wiping out nature.

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Jennifer Lavers, a plastic researcher at the University of Tasmania who led the study, had previously done work on extremely remote atolls. But she told Earther she wanted to look at a place a little closer to home so people could truly understand how big the scope of the plastic problem is. When an opportunity to visit the Coco (Keeling) Islands with activist organization Sea Shepherd arose, she took it as a chance to do some research there.

To get their plastic estimate, Lavers and her team took samples along 15 transects on the beaches from the water’s edge to the start of vegetation. They dug up 10 centimeters (4 inches) of sand at various points along those transects and cataloged how much plastic debris they found. The surveys turned up 23,227 pieces of plastic.

On its own, that’s a lot of plastic. But the researchers then extrapolated out for the islands as a whole and found that the two tiny islands islands are home to an estimated 414 million pieces of plastic. Of that, 383 million pieces sit below the surface, forming a new kind of bedrock.

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“In my 15 years working as a marine scientist and traveling to some of the remotest corners of this planet, I sometimes feel like nothing surprises me anymore,” Lavers said. “Certainly, I’ve grown to expect plastic, and lots of it, everywhere I go. But the quantity of plastic on the otherwise remarkable and pristine Cocos (Keeling) Islands is truly devastating. The human footprint is everywhere, and it runs deeper than most of us imagine.”

Lavers said when writing the paper, “we put out a call to other scientists and friends for other remote, sparsely inhabited places with high accumulation of plastic debris.” They found similar stories playing out on islands around the world. While there are plenty of clearly identifiable pieces of junk and single-use items on Cocos (Keeling) Islands and other remote locations, much of the plastic consists of bits and pieces that have been broken down by arduous trips across the ocean. Because plastic can take centuries to degrade, these pieces won’t go away but will instead just get smaller and smaller.

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That breakdown means that the tiny bits of plastic can end up nearly anywhere, from tropical islands to the Arctic. It evens up blowing in the air around us and the water we drink.

Cleaning up these bits and pieces is hard to do without disrupting the environment. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do it, but it points to the urgent need to turn away from plastic and disposable lifestyles. There are some signs the tide is turning against plastic like the European Union’s single-use ban, but as the paper notes, half of all plastic the world has produced has been made in the past 13 years alone. So there’s still a long way to go.

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