An accumulation of 414 million pieces of plastic has been uncovered on the shores of the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean. The island group is located 2100 km off the north-western coast of Australia, with a population of 600. Plastic and debris weighing up to 238 tonnes were found on the island groups’ beach surfaces and buried in its vegetation. The study, posted in the academic journal Nature, emphasises the severity of plastic pollution across the globe and highlights the current manufacturing of single-use plastics as unsustainable and damaging. Of the debris collected, 25% was classified as disposable plastics, including straws, bags and toothbrushes. Yet, not all the effects of plastic pollution are clearly visible on the beaches’ shores. The study also estimated that debris buried 10 cm below the beach surface accounts for 93% of all debris present on the Cocos Islands.
Jennifer Lavers, the lead author and a researcher from the University of Tasmania, outlined the extent of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans: “Islands such as these are like canaries in a coal mine and it’s increasingly urgent that we act on the warnings they are giving us. Plastic pollution is now ubiquitous in our oceans, and remote islands are an ideal place to get an objective view of the volume of plastic debris now circling the globe.”
A co-author of the study, Annett Finger of Victoria University, claimed that single-use plastics can account for the rise in plastic pollution: “An estimated 12.7 million tonnes of plastic entered our oceans in 2010 alone, with around 40% of plastics entering the waste stream in the same year they’re produced. As a result of the growth in single-use consumer plastics, it’s estimated there are now 5.25 trillion pieces of ocean plastic debris.”
The study highlights the necessity to implement policy that prevents the unsustainable production of single-use plastic items. Governments across the globe, particularly in wealthier nations, must devise policies that prohibit corporations from producing single-use plastic items on an excessive scale. As plastic debris pollutes the ocean a great distance from the location of its initial production, the consequences of plastic pollution are unequal, impacting those least likely to consume single-use products. For instance, researchers claimed the local population would take 4,000 years to generate this amount of waste. The accumulation of plastic debris in the Cocos is evidently a consequence of developed nations’ unsustainable manufacturing policies and a culture of mass consumption under the neoliberal capitalist system.
The study was published as single-use plastic manufacturing is increasing dramatically. Plastic Oceans claim that we produce over 300 million tonnes of plastic every year, 50% of which is for single-use purposes, while more than 8 million tonnes enter our oceans each year. Yet there has also been growing awareness of the impact of plastic manufacturing on the natural environment. The UN recently reported that nearly all the world’s countries, apart from the United States, have agreed to stop the flow of hard-to-recycle plastic waste into poorer countries. While this marks some progress towards reducing the amount of plastic entering the world’s oceans, national governments must do more to prevent multi-million dollar corporations producing single-use plastics, as these corporations are capitalising on the disposal of indestructible debris on beaches in the Cocos Islands.