Inaccessible Island tells the plastic truth



We might have been wrong about the plastic waste floating about our oceans, choking fish and spreading the waste-signature of humanity.

This is the conclusion of new research done by a team from the University of Cape Town. “Rapid increase in Asian bottles in the South Atlantic Ocean indicates major debris from ships”, was published in the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States this week.

It starts straight away by tackling what we take to be the truth: “Most plastic debris floating at sea is thought to come from land-based sources, but there is little direct evidence to support this assumption.”

The researchers say that an estimated 12.7-million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans every year. But this figure is only for waste that comes from the land. There is a lot more that comes from elsewhere.

To find where waste really comes from, the researchers took data from Inaccessible Island — a 13 square kilometre extinct volcano in the South Atlantic Ocean, between southern Africa and South America.

The island is covered in steep cliffs and beaches with more boulders and less sand. But it is also covered in plastic waste.

This waste has been recorded since 1984.

In 2018, the researchers found over 7 500 plastic bottles and other containers on the island. In just 72 days of monitoring what washed up on the remote island last year, the team picked up 174 bottles. Each one of the bottles can be traced, because it bears symbols that show where and when it was made.

The oldest container on Inaccessible Island came from 1971. But the majority were polyethylene terephthalate drinking bottles that were made recently — 90% were date stamped as being made in the past two years.

When the researchers first started collecting bottles on the island, two-thirds were found to have come from South America — which meant that they had drifted 3 000km. But, by 2009, the majority of bottles were coming from Asia. By last year, 83% of the new bottles came with stamps saying that they were manufactured in China.

Because it takes so long for items to float across vast distances, the bottles had to be coming from a closer source than Asia.

Given this, the researchers conclude that the evidence “indicates that ships are responsible for most of the bottles floating in the central South Atlantic Ocean”.

There are some 150 000 vessels wandering around the world’s oceans. A third of these — at least 50 000 vessels — are in merchant fleets. Although fishing fleets operate in that part of the South Atlantic, they are predominantly from Taiwan and Japan. And the waste is coming from China and other parts of Asia.

The researchers therefore put the blame for the plastic pollution squarely at the world’s merchant fleet.

These are vessels that, when they pollute, are breaking the law of the seas. They are “in contravention of [the]International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships regulations”.

Inaccessible Island is a World Heritage Site. It is now also the place that reminds us that plastic pollution follows humans wherever they go.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the news editor at the Mail & Guardian

Two dead in new ANC KwaZulu-Natal killings

A Mtubatuba councillor and a Hammarsdale ANC Youth League leader were shot yesterday near their homes

Inside Facebook’s big bet on Africa

New undersea cables will massively increase bandwidth to the continent

No back to school for teachers just yet

Last week the basic education minister was adamant that teachers will return to school on May 25, but some provinces say not all Covid-19 measures are in place to prevent its spread

Engineering slips out of gear at varsity

Walter Sisulu University wants to reprioritise R178-million that it stands to give back to treasury after failing to spend it

Press Releases

Coexisting with Covid-19: Saving lives and the economy in India

A staggered exit from the lockdown accompanied by stepped-up testing to cover every district is necessary for India right now

What Africa can learn from Cuba in combating the Covid-19 pandemic

Africa should abandon the neoliberal path to be able to deal with Covid-19 and other health system challenges likely to emerge in future

Road to recovery for the tourism sector: The South African perspective

The best-case scenario is that South Africa's tourism sector’s recovery will only begin in earnest towards the end of this year

Covid-19: Eased lockdown and rule of law Webinar

If you are arrested and fined in lockdown, you do get a criminal record if you pay the admission of guilt fine

Covid-19 and Frontline Workers

Who is caring for the healthcare workers? 'Working together is how we are going to get through this. It’s not just a marathon, it’s a relay'.

PPS webinar Part 2: Small business, big risk

The risks that businesses face and how they can be dealt with are something all business owners should be well acquainted with

Call for applications for the position of GCRO executive director

The Gauteng City-Region Observatory is seeking to appoint a high-calibre researcher and manager to be the executive director and to lead it

DriveRisk stays safe with high-tech thermal camera solution

Itec Evolve installed the screening device within a few days to help the driver behaviour company become compliant with health and safety regulations