Just off the Caribbean island of Roatan lies a massive pile of floating garbage.
It spans kilometres of ocean and consists of everyday plastic items like chip packets, cutlery and ziplock bags and even thongs.
The emergence of this rubbish patch is likely due to recent hurricanes that struck the region, one of Australia’s top scientists has said.
“It is shocking and it’s very confronting”, said Dr Britta Denise Hardesty, the principal research scientist for oceans and atmosphere at the CSIRO.
“I wish I could say that I’d never seen anything like that before.”
Dr Hardesty has worked in the Caribbean, which was “scoured” by wild weather during Hurricanes Irma and Maria last month.
She said the floating rubbish would contain everything from building waste and household waste to “all sorts of things” coming off the land.
And Dr Hardesty said Australia was not immune to the perils of plastic marine waste.
“No matter where you are in Australia you will still find trash on each and every single beach,” she said, adding that three quarters of this rubbish is plastic.
High concentration of plastic pollution at Great Barrier Reef
The CSIRO completed a survey at more than 200 sites, every 100 kilometres around Australia’s coastline, with some areas so remote scientists used sea planes to reach the beaches.
“Even in places that are as remote as the Kimberly, every single one of those beaches had trash on it, whether it’s tyres or fishing gear, toothbrushes or balloons and things like that,” Dr Hardesty said.
“Some of the highest concentrations of plastic pollution floating in our ocean were just inside the Great Barrier Reef.
“Is that because of the runoff that’s coming into those areas?
“Is it because there’s an outer Barrier Reef that helps keeps things trapped in there? Is it because we happen to have surveyed that area recently after large rains?
“I can’t tell you the answer to that.”
Dr Hardesty said even Antarctica was showing evidence of plastic pollution, which she saw first-hand when she visited the continent in December 2016.
“As we were walking on some of the most remote places in the entire world, we still found plastic debris.”
Indonesia proves transformation can be quick
But Indonesia’s success in removing vast amounts of plastic waste from 2014 to 2016 has shown the situation is not hopeless, Dr Hardesty said.
“In under two years they transformed these canals that were literally full of trash and junk and choked with plastic bags, water bottles and things like that.
“They went in there, cleaned it up and really turned the entire city around.”
Dr Hardesty said the Indonesian Government tackled 12 major canals and are now working to restore more than 1,000 minor canals and waterways.
“They created jobs and dealt with a tremendous, huge, long-standing waste issue in their canals,” she said.
“Jakarta is an amazing story of hope and inspiration. And it’s really about how quickly transformation can happen.
“It’s made it a cleaner, safer place. It’s completely transformed those areas and become a source of pride for the communities living there.”
Dr Hardesty said she was often asked if working in the field of plastic pollution was depressing.
“It’s not,” she said.
“Because most of the trash that gets out there into our oceans was in someone’s hand at one time.”
So the question at the centre of it all is always, “what do we really value?” she said.
“Do we want to live in a clean world? Or do we want to live in a world that’s disposable and full of throwaway items?”