Joy is a small piece of land located in the middle of the map. This small islet has an area of 10 square kilometers and a special protection that prevents it from being walked on. The island is part of the Chinijo Archipelago Natural Park of the Canary Islands, but in the 1940s it was bought by the Jordán Martinón family. Neither they nor tourists can enter it. However, every time scientists and volunteers visit it, using a specific permit from the Cabildo de Lanzarote, they remove huge amounts of rubbish. In six expeditions that took place between July and October 2020, 321 kilos of debris derived from maritime traffic were collected that were dragged to Alegranza by the currents.
The task of the investigators was concentrated in Caleta del Trillo. In this 100-meter-long stretch of coast, 3,667 objects were found, not counting those made of wood. 97.7% of them were plastic bottles. This is how the study picks it up First inventory of marine debris on Alegranza, an uninhabited island in the Northeast Atlantic, prepared by researchers from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (ULPGC) and members of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
Due to its geographical location, Alegranza is “a hot spot for the accumulation of marine litter”, since all the waste dragged by the Canary Current is deposited on its northeast coast, says the study. Some of the debris classified by the researchers were plastic bottles, lighters, buoys, nets, lobster traps or fish boxes.
The labels of the collected elements have revealed that a good part of them come from the east coast of the United States and Canada and date from 1999 to 2018, which shows how slow it is for plastics to degrade. “This is due to the subtropical gyre of the North Atlantic that builds the famous garbage island, which is not an island as such but a large accumulation of waste. They can stay there floating and then over time they go down to the coast of the Canary Islands through the Canary Current, a descending branch of the Gulf Stream”, explains Alicia Herrera, one of the ULPGC researchers.
According to the study, 400 million tons of plastic are produced each year and 79% remains in the natural environment, since the increase in waste generated is not accompanied by better management. Reducing the production and consumption of waste is the only way to prevent it from reaching the sea. “A percentage of them will always make it to the ocean. There are studies that indicate that, even if all the environmental policies proposed by the European Union are carried out, in 2030 an enormous amount of garbage will continue to reach the sea. There is no other way, you cannot put up a barrier, much less take small plastics out of the sea,” warns Herrera.
The fate of Alegranza plastic
All the rubbish collected by the volunteers and researchers is loaded into bags to the port of Órzola, in Lanzarote. There it is deposited in organic containers because it cannot be recycled. “Ecoembes does not collect this type of plastic because it is quite dirty and contaminated,” explains Alicia Herrera. On the other hand, all the wooden debris remains on the coast due to the impossibility of moving it. “We don’t have logistical capacity, we don’t have space on the ships we go with because they are small,” the experts point out.
Wood is a natural and biodegradable material, and its permanence in the environment is not as harmful as plastic. However, many of the pallets washed up on the Alegranza coast are treated with toxic products. “The ideal would be to have the ability to withdraw it. Not only for aesthetic reasons, since it is sad to find so much garbage on an island that should be virgin, but also because it is a breeding area for birds. The less trash of any kind there is, the better,” says Herrera.
The microplastics that cannot be collected often end up in the stomach of Cory’s Shearwaters, a protected species that inhabits this islet of the Chinijo Archipelago. This group of scientists is now immersed in a new study on the stomach content in these birds. “90% of the shearwaters we studied had plastic in their stomachs. Most derived from fishing nets.”
Another risk for animals is entanglement. “We found a shearwater completely entangled in a rope. Many turtles also die entangled in this waste”, concludes Alicia Herrera.