Australia’s lush tropical islands are being suffocated by 414 million pieces of plastic

The ‘heavenly’ tropical islands that inspired Charles Darwin’s first paper and book are now almost completely covered in 414million pieces of plastic.

Once famed for their unspoilt beauty, the Cocos Islands off the coast of Australia were an important stop on the biologist’s Beagle voyage in 1836.

However, the islands are now overrun by rubbish, including millions of pieces of plastic, scores of water bottles and hundreds of thousands of toothbrushes.

About 90 per cent of the overwhelming 238 tonnes of waste on the islands is buried beneath the surface.

Scientists from the University of Tasmania collected plastic, glass, wood, and metal items from 25 beaches on seven islands across 110 sq m.

About 25 per cent of the rubbish collected was disposable plastics, including straws, bags, and toothbrushes.

The remote Cocos Islands – also known as the Keeling Islands – are located between Australia and Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. Only two of its 27 coral islands are inhabited. 

Just over half of the rubbish on the islands is made up of small pieces known as micro-debris that are between 2 and 5mm in length.

Dr Jennifer Kavers, who surveyed the islands as part of the study, said they were ‘canaries in a coal mine’. 

‘It’s increasingly urgent that we act on the warnings they are giving us,’ she said.

‘Our estimate of 414million pieces weighing 238 tonnes on Cocos is conservative, as we only sampled down to a depth of four inches (10cm) and couldn’t access some beaches that are known debris ‘hot spots’.

‘The plastic on Cocos was largely single-use consumer items such as bottle caps and straws, as well as a large number of shoes and thongs.’

Report co-author Dr Annett Finger, from Victoria University in Melbourne, called for a decrease in the amount of plastic produced globally.

‘An estimated 12.7million tonnes of plastic entered our oceans in 2010 alone, with around 40 per cent of plastics entering the waste stream in the same year they’re produced,’ Dr Finger said.

‘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.

‘Plastic pollution is a well-documented threat to wildlife and its potential impact on humans is a growing area of medical research.’

Darwin’s visit to Cocos in 1836 provided him with the opportunity to look for support for his theory, and became central to his theory of coral reef development that led to his first paper and book on the subject. 

He argued that volcanic islands in the tropical Pacific Ocean slowly allowed the formation of an living system that included ringed reefs, barrier reef, and a circular island.

The islands are lined with exotic palm trees while its turquoise waters offer world-class diving, snorkelling and excellent fishing. 

Brad Farmer released a book crowning Cossies Beach in the Cocos Islands as the best in Australia, calling it ‘near to perfect’, while travel writers have described the islands as being ‘heaven on Earth’.

Dr Finger said the large scale of plastic production meant cleaning up the oceans was ‘currently not possible’. 

‘The only viable solution is to reduce plastic production and consumption while improving waste management to stop this material entering our oceans in the first place,’ she said.  

The full report is published in the journal Scientific Reports.


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