When a party guest told Ben, the protagonist of the 1967 film “The Graduate,” that there would be a “great future in plastics,” he wasn’t kidding. Based on the amount of plastic waste we generate, our future has become plastic-filled, though hardly in the sanguine way envisioned by the movie’s character. The infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch now lurks in the waters of the northern Pacific and its southern waters are no less free of our trash.
Tern Island is the main island in the atoll of French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. So much plastic has now washed up onto its 25 acres that the Environmental Protection Agency is planning to study the area. The E.P.A. could even declare the little island a Superfund site, should initial data collection reveal that the site threatens human health or the environment.
A Breeding Ground for Seabirds Contaminated With PCBs
With their coral reefs and atolls, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands end up being a “fine-tooth comb for wayward trash,” according to MNN.com. Tern Island is about 550 miles northwest of Honolulu and hosts the world’s largest tropical seabird rookeries. Among its inhabitants are the threatened Hawaiian green sea turtle and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal.
Elevated levels of PCBs (whose production has been outlawed since 1979) have been found in monk seals on Tern Island. The source of these could be the myriad bits of plastic now slowly degrading, and contaminating, the ocean.
There is another possible source: during World War II, Tern Island was used as a naval airstrip; it has also been the site of a Coast Guard station and, until it was damaged by a storm in 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service operated a field station there. Asbestos and sewage have been found, and removed, from the remains of some aging government buildings, MNN.com notes. Buried electrical equipment that might harbor PCBs and other chemicals in an old landfill were exposed last year after a storm destroyed a sea wall on the island; these could be further contaminating the environment.
Superfund Designation is a Long Way Off For Tern Island, But…
The Center for Biological Diversity had requested that the E.P.A. list not only a 1,200-mile span of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a federal Superfund site, but also include a part of the Pacific Garbage Patch. In the Los Angeles Times, Emily Jeffers, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, acknowledges that this was a “sort of big ask.”
As Jeffers also comments, the E.P.A.’s agreeing to carry preliminary assessment of Tern Island is “an incredibly important first step towards understanding the hazards plastic pollution poses to wildlife.” It is a hopeful sign that the agency could undertake a consolidated effort to clean up the islands and even start creating policies that would reduce the amount of garbage flowing into our oceans.
Plastics comprise a huge part of the waste we generate today, but we can take steps to ensure that they are not a part of our, and the planet’s, future.
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