Huge Mounds of Plastic May Turn a Tiny Island Into a Superfund Site

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 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, 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.


Photo from Thinkstock


Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Donna Ferguson
Donna F4 years ago

so sad

Mark Donner
Mark Donner4 years ago

NOAA has conducted annual removal missions of marine debris in the NWHI since 1996 as part of a coral restoration effort.

In July 2012 at Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, a team of 17 scientists collected nearly 50 metric tons of marine debris, which threatens monk seals, sea turtles and other marine life in the coral reef ecosystem, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

“What surprises us is that after many years of marine debris removal in Papahānaumokuākea and more than 700 metric tons of debris later, we are still collecting a significant amount of derelict fishing gear from the shallow coral reefs and shorelines,” said Kyle Koyanagi, marine debris operations manager at NOAA Fisheries’ Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and chief scientist for the mission. “The ship was at maximum capacity and we did not have any space for more debris.”

This year, marine debris was collected from waters and shorelines around northern most islands and atolls: Kure Atoll, Midway Atoll, Pearl and Hermes Atoll, Lisianski Island and Laysan Island. Approximately half of the debris was comprised of derelict fishing gear and plastics from Midway Atoll’s shallow coral reef environments.

NOAA cleanup efforts in 2013:

There is also an interesting effort by Project Kaisei which plans to find a way to scoop up the plastic waste and devise a way t

Amandine S.
Past Member 4 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Fi T.
Past Member 4 years ago

No excuse to pollute our home

Rebecca D.
Rebecca D4 years ago

We are disgusting.

Jennifer H.
Jennifer H4 years ago

This is just shameful. Humans are such slobs and it is the oceans and wildlife that suffer for it. Birds die from eating plastics and when their bodies decompose all that is left is a pile of plastic that they ate. EPA needs to get off their keasters and clean up the mess we have created before even more chemicals leach into the ground and oceans and more wildlife die.

But my big question is why, if USFWS was on the island, why did they LEAVE it in such a mess? It claims landfill and electrical was left there. Why do we think burying crap makes it go away? There has to be other alternatives to disposal, re-use, recycle.

Natalie V.
Natalie V4 years ago


John chapman
John chapman4 years ago

This problem isn't going to go away as long as we continue to look on the worlds oceans, as our dump.

Christine Stewart

We must all strive to use as little plastic as possible!