A remote tropical island paradise off the coast of Western Australia in the Indian Ocean has become home to hundreds of tonnes of rubbish.
The Cocos (Keeling) Islands are better known as a tropical tourist destination, but a 2017 survey has revealed its beaches are littered with an estimated 414 million pieces of rubbish weighing 238 tonnes.
At least a quarter of the identifiable objects were single-use plastics such as food packaging, report a team of scientists in the journal Scientific Reports,
The mix of items sets the islands apart from other polluted remote islands such as Henderson Island in the Pacific Ocean, which is dominated by discarded fishing equipment.
Jennifer Lavers from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, who led the study, said the composition of the debris on the Cocos Islands is an indicator of the type and amount of plastics circulating the world’s oceans.
“Remote islands can give a good view of the volume of plastic debris globally — acting like canaries in a coal mine,” Dr Lavers said.
Beneath the surface of beach pollution
The Cocos Islands – an Australian external territory – lie 2,100km off the coast of Exmouth, and have long been a tropical paradise getaway for international and Australian tourists alike.
Dr Lavers and her team surveyed seven of the 27 islands that make up the territory, accounting for nearly 90 per cent of the total land mass.
They found that items and fragments on the surface represented less than one tenth of the rubbish present. The vast majority of the rubbish – 93 per cent – was buried in the top 10cm of sand.
Unfortunately, this buried rubbish was not often touched by community groups.
“I’m a huge advocate for beach clean-ups, but they can’t go below the beach surface,” Dr Lavers said.
“If you look at the photos [of Cocos Islands] and think that’s bad, when you find out that’s only about ten per cent of the problem – I don’t even have words to describe it.”
Because Dr Lavers was unable to survey some ‘debris hotspots’ on the islands, the estimates are “conservative”.
Polluted remote islands too far removed
After surveying the even more remote Henderson Island in 2014, Dr Lavers wanted her next site to be one Australians would feel more connected to – and therefore more inclined to act on.
“A lot of the debris on the beaches [in Cocos] is still intact. Thongs, toothbrushes, bottles – things we use everyday,” she said.
“Whereas on Henderson it was fragments of fishing crates and things that the rest of us couldn’t connect with.
Despite the best intentions, highlighting stories of pollution on remote islands might distract people and governments from investing in local actions, said marine ecologist Chris Wilcox from CSIRO, who was not involved in the study.
“The discussion is about the middle of the ocean, which I think makes people feel like the solutions are going to be really hard because it’s so far away,” Dr Wilcox said.
“But also if you’re a government thinking about investing in the problem you don’t see any benefit to you.”
Monitoring of marine debris should be much closer to the source, Dr Wilcox said.
“If you know that it’s your own waste that is making your beaches dirty and reducing tourism income, your council is more likely to spend money on it,” he said.
Cocos locals can’t tackle problem alone
The Cocos Islands have a population of about 700 people, many of whom depend on tourism for their livelihoods.
Beach pollution directly affects their everyday lives, but they have little power to stop the influx of rubbish, or to get rid of what’s already there.
And although tourists could easily avoid seeing the worst affected areas by sticking to the sheltered bays of the islands, local tourism operators are making sure visitors see both sides of the story.
Tour operator Kylie James has seen an increase in the amount of plastic washing up on the beaches since around 2007, which she now shows to visitors as a part of her tours.
“At first we thought, ‘Oh my God, should we take people here?’ but we decided visitors need to be aware of what’s going on and it’s a big part of our tours now,” Ms James said.
“It’s all about education and the more that we can share with people what’s happening here, the better.”
Ms James said the local council and the whole community are doing what they can to tackle the problem, but their waste disposal is limited by the size of the islands and resources available.
“A lot of [the waste] actually gets burnt here,” she said. “They did bring in an incinerator at one point, but it needed too much diesel to run.”
“It’s a bit of a vicious cycle.”
Dr Lavers agreed the solution for the Cocos Islands was complicated.
“They can’t clean it up by themselves, but they’ve struggled to find landfill sites, and getting it off the island proves impossible,” she said.
Exporting any recyclable materials to the Australian mainland is restricted due to complex biosecurity legislation.
“The community has asked for help, I hope we can find a solution to the problem they’re currently dealing with,” Dr Lavers said.
Source reduction the best solution
In the last week, plastic was discovered in one of the ocean’s deepest trenches, a report from the Centre for International Environmental Law highlighted the impact of plastics on human health and climate change, and nearly every country in the world agreed on a new legally-binding famework to reduce plastic pollution.
James Cordwell from the Australian Marine Conservation Society said the plastic problem could be solved if leaders were willing to invest in solutions.
“We’re asking all parties to commit to a single use plastic ban by 2023 and a plastic reduction target of 70 per cent,” Mr Cordwell said.
Dr Wilcox said while bans work for things that are particularly damaging in the environment, but ultimately plastic needs to be worth more.
“I think we should put a fee on plastic, very high up in the manufacturing process,” Dr Wilcox said.
“You could use a fee like that to subsidise recycling, it’s effectively just expanding the container deposit system,” he said.
Dr Lavers said if the true environmental cost of plastic products was factored into the price of those products, it would flip the situation on its head.
“The cost of these products would no longer be borne by the consumer or the environment,” she said.
“Within a matter of years we would treat plastic like we treat aluminium, or copper, it would become a commodity.