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Remote island study suggests China most responsible for plastic trash in Atlantic

Martin M. Barillas Martin M. Barillas Follow Martin

INACCESSIBLE ISLAND, October 8, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — Nearly three fourths of discarded plastic bottles found on a remote island in the Atlantic Ocean originate in China and have been dumped into the ocean as trash from Chinese cargo ships. Nor do they originate from land-based sources, according to a new study.

Researchers went to Inaccessible Island, a remote feature of the South Atlantic Ocean approximately midway between South America and southern Africa, and found that 73% of plastic bottles they found washed ashore were made in China and appear to come from Asia. The United Nations and national governments have signed agreements to limit plastic waste and undertaken initiatives such as banning or taxing single-use plastic bags. California, for instance, banned the use of disposable plastic drinking straws by restaurants in the state.

Lead author Peter Ryan told the BBC, “When we were [on the island] last year, it was really shocking how much drink bottles had just come to dominate.”

The researchers’ conclusion contradicted the assumptions of many environmentalists and international organizations. According to the abstract of the study, “Our results question the widely held assumption that most plastic debris at sea comes from land-based sources.”

Researchers from Canada and South Africa visited the island in 1984, 2009 and 2018 to study the plastic debris accumulated on the island. At first, they determined by looking at their labels that about two-thirds of the plastic bottles were South American in origin, travelling 3,000 kilometers by wind drift. The oldest container they found was made in 1971. However, they found that by 2009, Asian sources had overstepped South American origins of plastic trash they examined on the beaches of Inaccessible Island.

“What was really shocking was how the origin had shifted from largely South American, which is what you would expect from somewhere like Inaccessible Island because it’s downwind from South America to predominantly Asian,” Ryan said. Asian trash was in far greater amounts on the island by 2018, when 73 percent of the plastic bottles came from Asia.

Published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, the study explained:

Many oceanic islands suffer high levels of stranded debris, particularly those near subtropical gyres where floating debris accumulates. During the last 3 decades, plastic drink bottles have shown the fastest growth rate of all debris types on remote Inaccessible Island. During the 1980s, most bottles drifted to the island from South America, carried 3,000 km by the west wind drift.

Currently, 75% of bottles are from Asia, with most from China. The recent manufacture dates indicate that few bottles could have drifted from Asia, and presumably are dumped from ships, in contravention of International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships regulations. Our results question the widely held assumption that most plastic debris at sea comes from land-based sources.

There is evidence that the great majority of plastic bottles were dumped by Chinese ships. Ninety percent of the bottles from Asia bore dates within the previous two years. Bottles traveling from land by ocean currents to the island would take between three to five years, leading the researchers to conclude that Chinese ships are responsible. Ryan first thought Chinese fishing fleets were to blame because they often violate international labor and environmental standards. However, he noted that Japanese and Taiwanese fleets, not Chinese, dominate in the South Atlantic.

The researchers found that Chinese cargo vessels had increased since the 1980s, while the number of Asian fishing ships had remained stable. This suggested that merchant vessels are to blame for the plastic bottles. Ryan said evidence is strong that merchant shipping is the source of the plastic bottles. He had assumed that merchant vessels are bound by the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships. He said, “I think we need to look quite carefully at better monitoring and enforcement of regulations.”

In an environmentalist message on the “precious element” of water, Pope Francis released a statement in 2018 that he wanted to see action to address the “emergency” of plastic trash in the world’s oceans. While he deplored the lack of globalized regulation to protect the waters of the Earth, he stated on the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation that he wants the global community to save the God-given gift of the “great waters and all they contain.”

“We cannot allow our seas and oceans to be littered by endless fields of floating plastic,” the pope said. “We need to pray as if everything depended on God’s providence, and work as if everything depended on us.”

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