Island paradise lost under a wave of plastic waste and the painstaking battle to clean it up
Abercrombie & Fitch, Crocs, Pepsi, Listerine, Nivea, Pantene, Colgate. Brands you would expect to find on British high streets are now just as likely to be seen polluting the shores of islands in the Caribbean. Among the mangroves surrounding the Honduran island of Roatán, a toxic soup of plastic regularly washes in after the monsoon rains, brought over on strong tidal currents.
In some areas it is impossible to see the shallow sandy sea bed because refuse covers the surface of the water.
On land, hermit crabs pick gingerly over the mountains of rubbish. Some now make their homes in toothpaste lids and bottle caps. Plant shoots are crushed beneath the weight of thousands of abandoned shoes, toothbrushes, bottles, toys, cigarette lighters, plastic bags, styrofoam cups and hypodermic needles.
Although the locals regularly organise beach clean-ups they barely scratch the surface. Scrape away one layer and more plastic lies beneath. It has been accumulating for years and, on Sandy Bay on the island’s south side, each wave brings a fresh dump.
The Daily Telegraph joined environmentalists and the company Sodastream, who have sent out 150 employees from 15 countries this autumn to help clean up the mess.
Within seconds of stepping on to Sarah Jean Key, a mangrove island covered in plastic waste off the coast, we spotted an abandoned flip-flop emblazoned with the branding of clothing firm Abercrombie & Fitch.
Nearby, the lid from a tub of Nivea face cream was wedged into a mangrove root alongside a discarded stick of Brut deodorant. A plastic doll’s head, one eye missing, peered up at us from the mud while DUPLO blocks floated in the water.
Chris Jordan, the filmmaker behind the award-winning documentary Albatross, spotted a discarded bleach bottle disintegrating on to the sand and called us over. “This is what happens,” he said, picking up its crumbling handle. “The plastic is swallowed by the animals and then breaks down inside of them into these sharp little shards and they poke through their stomachs. It’s what kills a lot of them.”
In the Islas de la Bahia national park, 40 miles off the northern coast of Honduras, Roatán should be a tropical paradise. Hummingbirds flit about with the frequency of butterflies, while monkeys swing from verandas, and capybara – the world’s largest rodent – trot along the beaches.
Its history is equally romantic. Parts of the island were founded by British pirates, and the main town Coxen Hole is named after notorious buccaneer John Coxen who terrorised the Spanish Main in the 17th century.
Many islanders are the descendants of pirate crews and still speak English. Some communities have kept their fair hair and blue eyes and have surnames like Armstrong or Gough. It is still possible to sail through the escape tunnels that the pirates cut into the dense mangrove swamps and it is said entire communities once lived in these eerie hideaways. Now plastic bottles are the main inhabitants.
Islanders fear the plastic will put off visitors. For a community that relies almost entirely on tourism the result could be devastating. A recent documentary highlighting a two-mile garbage patch off the coast was viewed with dismay by locals.
But plans to outlaw plastic bags by January have been met with some resistance. It’s not hard to see why. The villagers are not to blame for the mounds of trash but will be penalised with more expensive products. Most of the waste washes into the sea from the Rio Motagua in Guatemala.
Mauricio Cordoba, a diving instructor, says islanders must do all they can if they want to maintain the tourist industry. “The reef attracts thousands of divers every year, and if they stop coming what will that do to the economy and the life here?”
Yet it is not the plastic on the surface that is causing most alarm. The rubbish breaks down into microscopic particles that fish ingest. When those fish are eaten by animals further up the food chain, the level of microplastic quickly accumulates, a process known as biomagnification.
“Micro-plastic is so small that it is hard to clean up in the ocean,” said Laura Levia, a Honduran doctoral student who is studying the impact of micro-plastic in the North Sea.
“For many animals it causes stomach blockages and alters their feeding, because they have the sensation of being full but they are not taking up any nutrients, which makes them weak and can affect reproduction.”
Micro-plastics act like sponges, soaking up carcinogenic chemicals such as pesticides. Autopsies have shown that long-lived ocean animals now have huge quantities of chemicals in their tissues.
Last year a female orca washed up
‘When I saw how bad it was I felt sick to my stomach. But hopefully we have educated people with shock therapy’
dead on the Scottish coast. Its corpse contained the highest ever level of PCB ever recorded.
Mother whales now pass polluted milk to their babies, meaning fewer calves survive into adulthood. A recent study suggested the decline is so severe, Britain’s killer whales will die out by the end of this century.
And humans are not immune. According to research, the average European ingests around 11,000 pieces of micro-plastic each year.
“We are a top predator, and have a long lifespan, so you have to remember that what goes into the ocean also goes into you,” added Leiva.
Across the globe, 380billion tons of plastic is produced each year, 40per cent thrown away within 20 minutes.
Maria Westerbos, the founder of the Plastic Soup Foundation campaign group, said: “It’s impossible for us to recycle our way out of it. We are running out of time.
“We say, save the oceans, save yourself. You and the ocean are connected. A polluted ocean is a serious threat to human health.”
On our two-day litter pick we collected 4.5tons of plastic, but it is just a drop in the ocean.
“We didn’t make a dent” said Daniel Birnbaum, the Sodastream CEO. “Yesterday I was very down. When I saw how bad it was I felt sick to my stomach. But hopefully we have educated people with shock therapy. This is an evil that you can’t turn your back on.”
Since Sodastream’s visit, more than 2,000 locals have signed up to beach cleaning groups, showing the tide may finally be beginning to turn.
“Grief is the doorway home,” added Chris Jordan. “If humanity could remember that we love our world and feel it at the core of our beings then solving this problem will be so much easier.”
Discarded plastic waste chokes the beaches of Roatan, above. The scenes led British-born firm Sodastream to build The Holy Turtle, left, an ocean-going rubbish collector designed to snare floating plastic waste