Rubbish and pollution are a problem at many World Heritage sites. Increased tourism means that more people are leaving trash at the world’s most iconic sites, so we need to learn to visit sites without leaving a trace behind.
Marine pollution is also a problem at many World Heritage sites, where waste—including plastics—wash up on the beach. Birds, turtles and marine mammals get entangled in marine litter or mistake it for food, leading to high mortality rates. Plastic waste even increases damage among corals, as a 2018 study showed that the likelihood of disease increased 20-fold once a coral was draped in plastic.
We must stop using so much plastic, and dispose of waste properly at sites, using trash bins or taking rubbish away with us, to dispose of it properly. Part of the problem for marine sites is the natural ocean currents that bring waste to rest on certain beaches, so it’s important to reduce waste overall.
Several World Heritage sites have created clean-up and awareness programmes, which serve as a model for protected areas around the world.
Papahānaumokuākea, Hawaii (USA) is a remote cluster of atolls where almost no human activity is allowed, and yet one of the biggest threats to the site comes from outside its boundaries: marine pollution. Although no commercial or recreational fishing is permitted in Papahānaumokuākea’s waters, derelict fishing nets and gear, plastics and other ocean-borne debris are concentrated by ocean currents and wash up on its reefs and beaches. An estimated 52 tons of derelict fishing gear washes up in the World Heritage site annually, and since the start of a yearly removal mission in 1996 by NOAA, almost 1000 tons of marine debris has been removed.
In iSimangaliso Wetland Park (South Africa), there are regular clean-ups and awareness programs to protect the beaches along its 220km of coastline. A public works programme, ‘Working for the Coast’, regularly cleans trash from the coast, maintains visitor facilities and removes invasive alien vegetation.
However, we still have a long way to go. Henderson Island (UK) struggles with the problem of marine debris, and in 2017, scientists discovered that Henderson Island has the highest density of debris recorded anywhere in the world. It was estimated that 37.7 million debris items, weighing a total of 17.6 tons, are present on Henderson, with up to 26.8 new items per metre accumulating daily.
We must take action. Cleaning up is just a start—we also need to use less plastic and not put waste in our oceans. Let’s keep our beaches clean, and dispose of plastics properly or not use them at all. The future of our oceans depends on it.
UNESCO World Heritage Centre