Plastic Pollution

Imagine if plastic had been invented when the pilgrims sailed from England to North America. What if the Mayflower had been stocked with plastic‑wrapped snacks? The plastic trash would probably still be here, four centuries later.

If the pilgrims had been like many people today, they might have tossed their wrappers over the side of the ship. Atlantic Ocean waves and sunlight would have worn all that plastic into tiny bits.

Plastic wasn’t invented until the late 19th century. Mass production of it took off around 1950. In only 70 years, we have produced a whopping 9.2 billion tons of plastic. Of that, more than 6.9billion tons have become waste. And, of that waste, 6.3 billion tons were never recycled.

No one knows how much plastic ends up in the ocean. In 2015, Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia engineering professor, made an estimate.

Is this a florist's shop in China filled with flowers? Look again. These plants are all made from plastic.

Jambeck projected that between 5.3 and 14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year. It’s dumped on land or in rivers. It’s then blown or washed into the sea. How long will it take for that plastic to biodegrade, or break down? Estimates go from 450 years to maybe never.

Plastic isn’t always “bad”. In fact, it has transformed our lives. It eased travel into space. It changed medicine. It extended the life of food.

Plastic even saved wildlife. In the mid‑1800s, piano keys, combs, and other trinkets were made of elephant ivory. Elephants were at risk. Ivory became scarce. So, a company in New York City offered a reward if someone could come up with an alternative.

Inventor John Wesley Hyatt created a plastic from a substance found in plants. Endless possibilities opened up — because plastic was cheap!

some of the plastic found on Henderson Island

Henderson Island’s Shame

Henderson Island is a tiny, uninhabited island. It sits in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The nearest major population center is some 4,800 kilometers (3,000 miles) away. It is half the size of Manhattan. Yet, more than 19 tons of trash litter its beaches, most of it plastic.  

Researchers estimate that the island has the greatest amount of debris for its size of any place in the world. For every square meter you walk, on average you’ll find 672 pieces of trash. For each piece of debris you see on the beach, two pieces are buried in the sand. How is this possible?

Trash bobs across global seas until it gets swept into the South Pacific gyre. The gyre is a circular ocean current. It functions like a conveyor belt. The gyre collects plastic trash. Then it sends it to Henderson’s shores at a rate of more than 3,500 pieces a day.

Henderson Island is one of the world's most far away places. It is also one of its most polluted.

Henderson Island

an uninhabited island prized for its animal diversity






Henderson Island

  • More than 37 million pieces of plastic on the island
  • More than 3,500 pieces washing up daily