Easter Island, Chile, Oct. 4 (EFE) – If you bury your hands in Anakena, the most famous beach paradise on Chile’s Easter Island, you will find fine white sand, but also a handful of microplastics. Plastic pollution is a scourge in this remote territory in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and that is why it has undertaken a global crusade to raise awareness.
A study by the Catholic University of Northern Chile calculated that 4.4 million pieces of trash reach the shores of Rapa Nui, the island’s indigenous name, every year.
The Easter Island is known and famous throughout the world for its millennia-old humanoid sculptures, the moais.
Tires, wood, remnants of fishing nets, bottles, containers, cans or nylon rope from fishing boats litter its beautiful shores every day. Many arrive whole, but other plastics are broken into countless pieces from years of exposure to the waves and the sun.
“We are not producers of macro or micro plastics, we are recipients of what the coastal countries of North, Central and South America and Asia produce,” Pedro Edmunds, mayor of Rapa Nui, told EFE.
Located 3,700 kilometers off the coast of Chile and home to the largest marine protected area in Latin America, Easter Island lies in the South Pacific Gyre, a system of circular currents that exposes it directly to two large plastic masses that are floating in the ocean.
“Our beaches have 50 times the concentration of microplastics as the beaches of continental Chile,” laments the mayor.
Edmunds has been in office for two decades and has seen how “plastic has eaten the island.” He now calls for the creation of an international alliance to combat marine plastic pollution, and presented this idea at the High-Level Political Forum held at the United Nations Headquarters last July.
His goal is to gather Polynesian leaders in Rapa Nui in 2024 and call on all countries of the Pacific Basin to “stop throwing plastic garbage into the rivers, because they take it to the oceans, and the oceans bring it to us.”
According to UN Environment, about 11 million tons of plastic waste enters the oceans every year, a figure that could triple by 2040 and devastate local ecosystems.
The Catholic University of Northern Chile found that between 20% and 80% of fish and birds in Rapa Nui have microplastics in their stomachs.
Community beach cleanup
While the international alliance is taking shape, Rapa Nui is concentrating on fighting the plastic infestation on a daily basis, with weekly coastal cleanups involving the municipality, the navy, students and volunteers.
Uko Tongariki, the island’s tourism director, told EFE that during the two years that Rapa Nui was closed due to the pandemic, its 8,000 inhabitants searched for garbage on the rocky areas.
Between 2020 and 2022, they collected 11 tons of garbage and so far this year they have already collected 1,084 kilos.
“We are dedicated to tourism and we spent two years without being able to offer our services,” explained Tongoraki.
The waste is sorted and sent to the Orito plant on the outskirts of Hanga Roa, the capital of Rapa Nui, where cans and plastics are pressed into transportable bundles.
One ally in this joint struggle is Latam, the only airline operating on the island, which recently signed an agreement to increase the amount of waste it takes on its flights to be recycled on the Chilean mainland.
“Our agreement is to take 300 tons a year back to the mainland, more or less one ton of waste a day,” the airline’s general manager, Roberto Alvo, told EFE.