Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

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.

Subscribe to the M&G

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them.

Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Subscribers only

Bloated Sassa to make staff cuts

The social security agency has ‘lost’ R2-billion on unnecessary salaries and through wasteful expenditure

SANDF’s ‘dignity’ comes with a R200mn price tag

Find out about the SANDF’s new uniform, which is costing taxpayers close to R200-million, while mission-critical equipment is not maintained

More top stories

Young people call for an end to the terrible legacy...

‘The generation of 1976 did not fight to end the injustices of their time only for there to be the dawn of a climate apartheid’

Honey laundering: Transcontinental scheme puts fake honey into our supermarkets

South African beekeepers compete with cheap honey imports while still using ethical, bee-friendly practices

Gen Z: A joyful life in a damaged society

The moral dilemma of privilege has led to nihilism as well as unprecedented social justice action

Lipstick, blush and Boko Haram: Meet the make-up artists of...

Despite the insurgency, which has killed many people, caused the displacement of millions, confines women to traditional roles and forbids the education of girls, women are fending for their families and starting lucrative businesses. Meet the make-up artists of Maiduguri
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×