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Previously pristine South Atlantic Islands now swamped with plastic waste

Levels of plastic waste on remote British islands in the South Atlantic have increased tenfold compared to a decade ago, when they were in pristine condition.

New research from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has revealed that there is more plastic waste on the shorelines of Ascension, St Helena, Tristan da Cunha and the Falklands Islands than previously recorded. Now the islands have a level of waste similar to that in industrial North Atlantic coastal areas.

The data was collected over four different trips between 2013 and 2018, as researchers sampled the water surface, water column and seabed, surveyed beaches and examined more than 2,000 animals across 26 different species.

Previously pristine South Atlantic Islands now swamped with plastic waste
Jamestown, the capital of the island of St Helena.

“Three decades ago these islands, which are some of the most remote on the planet, were near-pristine,” explains lead author Dr David Barnes.

“Plastic waste has increased a hundredfold in that time, it is now so common that it reaches the seabed. We found it in plankton, throughout the food chain and up to top predators such as seabirds.”

Andy Schofield, a biologist from the RSPB who also worked on the project, said: “These islands and the ocean around them are sentinels of our planet’s health. It is heartbreaking watching albatrosses trying to eat plastic thousands of miles from anywhere.”

71 per cent of almost 300 seabird corpses examined had ingested plastic, which could have been the cause of their subsequent deaths. Even the deepest depths of the planet’s oceans are not safe from the relentless advance of plastic waste, with microplastics found to be ingested by organisms at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, some 10,890 metres below sea level.

It is not only the risk this plastic poses to the food chain, but also the possibility that these hotspots of biodiversity could face invasion from alien species that the plastic has carried from another environment.

This is a major problem for ecosystems, as plastic can travel anywhere, meaning that alien species can use plastic as floating rafts to travel from their natural habitat to a different ecosystem. And it’s not just plastic waste that can transport invasive species – scientists have discovered that microplastics can be transported from one environment to another by flying insects.

The mere quantity of the plastic waste on the shorelines demonstrates the magnitude of this problem. Up to 300 items per metre of shoreline on the East Falkland and St Helena, and more than 90 per cent of this debris is made up of plastic microfibres, plastic bags and plastic bottles.

‘A very big wake up call’

Schofield emphasised how these findings should resonate deeply with the British public. “This is a very big wake up call. Inaction threatens not just endangered birds and whale sharks, but the ecosystems many islands rely on for food supply and health.”

In addition to David Attenborough’s eye-opening series Blue Planet II, and Liz Bonnin’s recent one-off documentary, Drowning in Plastic, this research further reveals the severity of the global plastic problem. Whilst there has been a slow shift in attitude towards the throwaway culture of our society, more and more plastic is reaching the ocean, and contaminating previously pristine corners of the world.

Read the full report in Current Biology to find out more.

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