One of the world’s most remote populations must deal with a flood of multinational plastic, much of it tossed overboard by the factory fishing ships hoovering up sea life just offshore

By Jonathan Franklin in Easter Island, Chile

From a distance, the colourful beach at Ovahe seems a postcard-perfect mosaic of natural beauty. Craggy volcanic boulders, pockmarked from bubbling lava, jut from the sand, garnished by a necklace of pastel-coloured corals and seashells pounded to pieces by the wild, crashing surf.

As the waves pull back, however, another reality emerges. The sand holds few corals or shells. Instead, the high-tide mark is a multinational carpet of plastics polished into an array of bleached Coca-Cola reds and Pepsi blues.

“Look at all this,” says Kina Paoa Kannegiesser, 22, using a kitchen sieve to scoop up bottle caps, shampoo bottle shards and disposable razors. The ocean rubbish is crammed into every nook and cranny along this remote beach on Easter Island, a 163 sq km speck of land.

About 2,300 miles west of central Chile, Easter Island (also known as Rapa Nui) is among the most remote spots on Earth – and among the most polluted.

It is estimated that 50 times more plastic washes ashore on these beaches than on the Chilean mainland, largely a result of the vast spiralling current known as the South Pacific gyre.

This current acts like a funnel, sucking in plastic from as far away as the Galápagos Islands and New Zealand and, with every tide, depositing a wave of floating rubbish.

Picking through the sand, Paoa Kannegiesser holds an example of a coral colony forming on the lattice of a plastic fish bin discarded by the industrial fishing fleets that almost encircle this island as they chase the world’s dwindling schools of tuna.

She collects fish bins by the dozen and latelyhas been finding coral that has fused with the debris to form an organic-plastic sandwich.

Seven years ago, when she was 15, Paoa Kannegiesser joined an environmental club at her Easter Island school as she sought to recycle beach plastic into art. She was hooked and now, twice a week, putters the 15 miles from one end of Easter Island to another in her mother’s battered car to fill sacks with plastic pieces sifted from the sand and picked from between the rocks.

“The plastic is in the water for such a long time that animals are attracted to it,” she says. Combing through a tidal pool, she notes, “all these species living and growing on plastic”.

Paoa Kannegiesser takes all the plastic she collects at the beach – 10kg (20lb) on an average mission – to her back-yard workshop in the island’s capital, Hanga Roa, where she grinds it up and pours it into moulds. The debris is then melted into the shape of Easter Island’s iconic stone statues, or moai.

Each 10cm moai is made into a key chain, a fridge magnet or jewellery, which Paoa Kannegiesser sells to cruise-ship tourists, who thereby carry some plastic back off the island.

On the hills above Hanga Roa, the Orito recycling plant receives mountains of rubbish collected by civic cleanup patrols. During the Covid-19 pandemic, when tourism to the island shut down, hundreds of islanders spent months scouring the beaches as they removed an estimated 11 tonnes of waste.

Plastic found at the recycling plant often reveals its origin. One panel carries the name of a Chile-based fishery, El Golfo. Other pieces, from the Wellington Trawling Company and United Fisheries, are from ships out of New Zealand.

“We wrote letters telling them, ‘Your plastic is here. Why is your plastic here? What are you going to do?’ We never had any responses,” says Paoa Kannegiesser.

Workers at the city dump now grind the plastic into beads used to make multicoloured table tops and home furnishings. One inspired project built a music school for the island using 2,500 tyres, 40,000 glass bottles and 40,000 aluminium cans.

Yet the mountain of rubbish grows. A study by the Catholic University of the North in Chile calculated that 4.4m pieces of rubbish a year – or more than 500 pieces an hour – reach Easter Island’s shores.

“The Chilean government must talk to their municipalities to get them to stop dumping trash into their rivers,” says Felipe Tepano, a Rapa Nui elder who presides over the island’s powerful Consejo del Mar (Council of the Sea).

“If they dump it in the river, the river dumps it in the sea, and three or four years later, it arrives here.”

“My legacy to my grandchildren should be that they can still eat fish,” says Tepano, who, while gutting tuna a few weeks earlier, found a bewildering collection of plastics inside it. Had the tuna eaten a smaller fish carrying the plastic? Had it gulped down the ball, thinking it was food?

Regardless of how it got there, says Tepano, the plastic had clogged up the fish’s intestines. “That fish couldn’t poop,” says Tepano. “The fish gets confused and eats the plastic. Now it is dangerous to eat fish.”

At a plastics summit held on the island in April, Tepano put pressure on the United Nations Environmental Programme to finance a pilot project to collect ocean plastics. Who better than locals to collect floating plastic as they fished, argued Tepano, who proposed an incentive that would pay 2,000 pesos (£1.75) for each kilogramme of plastic recovered.

The plan would help intercept “macroplastics” at sea before they were pulverised on the rocks. But, as yet, Tepano has received no funding and he can only ask fellow fishers to grab what they can.

Workers at the recycling plant on Rapa Nui Island grind the plastic up to make stools, tabletops and home furnishings. Photo: Jonathan Franklin/The Guardian

April’s summit was part of an international effort to draft a global plastics treaty. This is being hammered out in a series of UN-sponsored meetings, with the latest round of the intergovernmental negotiating committee talks, known as INC-4, ending in Ottawa, Canada, in April amid warnings and doubts. Many participants noted that the proposed text did not commit countries to even slow plastic production.

“The INC has once again failed to ask the most fundamental question to the success of the future treaty: how do we tackle the unsustainable production of plastics,” says Jacob Kean-Hammerson, an oceans campaigner with the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency.

Kean-Hammerson says pro-plastic delegates now “hold the talks hostage”. While the sponsors of the global plastics treaty, including Peru and Rwanda, continue to gather members for the High Ambition Coalition, an opposing force emerged opposing limits on plastics production.

This group, which calls itself the Like-Minded Developing Countries – and whose membership includes China, Cuba, Ecuador, India, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Vietnam – has fought efforts to control the growth of the plastics industry, he says.

“It’s ironic,” Kean-Hammerson says, “that Pacific small island developing states, some of those most affected by the dual impacts of plastic pollution and the climate emergency, are once again vastly outnumbered by representatives from companies that are directly causing them harm.”

Petero Tepano, who served on the Easter Island governing council, says the island is at the centre of several flows of plastics, like rivers branching off the larger South Pacific gyre. “It is obvious that the microplastics come from Chile and Asia, but our fundamental problem is the factory fishing,” he says.

“Look at the trash all around this island, it is from boats. You have buoys, oil barrels, ropes and nets – huge, huge nets.”

So many creatures are injured off Rapa Nui by floating nets that the Chilean government now runs a rehab centre on the island to save birds and animals maimed at sea.

Easter Islanders are so accustomed to finding these “ghost nets” that locals decorate their homes with them.

Petero Tepano, a leader on Rapa Nui, with some of the plastic dumped by fishing fleets. Buoys, bins, nets and other rubbish washes up every day. Photo: Jonathan Franklin/The Guardian

The fishing fleet that dumps so much plastic offshore is estimated at 300 ships. Yet it is an invisible armada, rarely spotted except when when a crew member suffers a medical emergency onboard a ship in this furtive flotilla and requires treatment.

Even an illegal fishing vessel can ask Hanga Roa’s harbour master for assistance. Whether it is a member of the crew with a high fever or facing amputation, access to such remote ports is expected.

When these emergency landings occur, Easter Islanders use the opportunity to surveil the ship, chat with the crew and investigate their activities. At times, the foreigners are amiable and provide tours and access to the fish-holding tanks. It is a gruesome spectacle, says one man, who describes holds packed with different species, many caught illegally.

This deep-water trawling vacuums life from the Pacific, trapping turtles, suffocating dolphins and wastefully killing tonnes of sea life, dismissed as worthless “bycatch”.

Tepano describes with indignation how one ship came to Hanga Roa, anchored offshore to unload an injured crew member, and then headed back to the open Pacific.

Even before leaving the exclusion zone reserved for Chilean fishing boats, the crew had dropped their nets and begun scooping up sealife, leaving behind only a trail of plastic rubbish. “Sometimes,” says one fisher, “the locals go and throw rocks at them.