Is­land par­adise lost un­der a wave of plas­tic waste and the painstak­ing bat­tle to clean it up

The Daily Telegraph - - War On Plastic - By Sarah Knap­ton SCI­ENCE ED­I­TOR in Roatán, Hon­duras

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

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