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Hiding down in the South Pacific, halfway between New Zealand and South America, sits Henderson Island; an uninhabited island just about 9 km by 5 km, part of the Pitcairn Islands. It is a World Heritage Site and famous for its pristine environment, which UNESCO describes as “practically untouched by human presence”. The most famous thing about Henderson Island was, until now, the failure of a programme to exterminate the rats in 2011. These were left there by mistake 700 years ago by Polynesian explorers and have been decimating the seabird population ever since.
But after a three month stay by a number of scientists lead by Jennifer Lavers, a research scientist at Australia's University of Tasmania, their recently published report* shows that the most significant thing about Henderson Islands is not rats but plastic. That is correct; although no one lives there, the currents in the South Pacific spin round in circles and deposit tons of the world’s garbage. By clearing an area and counting the deposits over time along with other measures they estimate that there are 38 million pieces of plastic weighing about 18 tons, much of it buried just below the surface.
The hazard plastic debris poses to biodiversity is well established
Her report highlights the frightening amount of plastic produced annually, its durability, its buoyancy and how it floats around the world’s oceans looking for somewhere to end up. She believes Henderson Island is just one of many horrendously unsuitable types of final resting place for this material.
This begs the question about the materials that are being promoted in competition to leather, especially when they and their fans line up to condemn leather on environmental grounds. We have always known that these materials come from fossil fuels rather than sustainable origins and that much of the production of what is widely called “pleather” involves DMF. Workers in Chinese factories knew the problems and received higher pay as it will damage their livers and shorten their lives. Women in childbirth years are not hired as it causes stillbirths and other birth defects. While the plastic and synthetic industry has been steadily improving to eliminate these horrific dangers we now see the other side to the coin. The material does not last in use, but never goes away doing great harm as it gets into the food chain, traps animals and trashes the landscape.
The Associated Press quoted Jennifer Lavers: "We need to drastically rethink our relationship with plastic," she said. "It's something that's designed to last forever, but is often only used for a few fleeting moments and then tossed away."
Properly made leather wins at both ends of the scale. It is not from fossil fuel and it safe at end of life. Most of all articles made from leather last a long time and can be repaired. Leather is truly best for the planet.
17th May 2017
Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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*To access the report: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2017/05/09/1619818114.full