What the world's most polluted beaches look like today

Written by:
June 3, 2019
Alexandre Rotenberg // Shutterstock

What the world's most polluted beaches look like today

Beach vacations bring to mind long stretches of sand against tranquil oceans, sunshine, and water sports. What travelers don't expect are piles of trash, dangerously polluted waters, and marine life that faces the threat of extinction because of contamination of their habitats.

Ocean pollution has grown into a worldwide problem, and beaches everywhere are an unfortunate showcase of what has become a crisis for the planet. Plastic waste is one of the biggest issues, and of the billions of tons of plastic produced globally, less than a fifth of that gets recycled. Ocean plastic is also a threat to marine life, killing millions of animals every year and causing harm to plant life and the ecosystem. Lack of proper disposal facilities have led major cities in developing countries to discharge waste directly into the ocean, causing contamination to the point where it is unsafe to swim. As the ocean plastics break down, they become microplastics, which fish and humans inadvertently consume. And natural disasters such as hurricanes and tropical storms only exacerbate the problem, as bad weather causes a rise in ocean waves and currents, which deposit more trash on coastal areas.

While many countries are working hard to change this, with bans on single-use plastics, regular beach cleanup programs, and community education, the problem of trash drifting in the world's oceans continues to plague us.

Stacker collected images and data on various beaches around the world, and researched what caused the ongoing accumulation of debris on what used to be the most-stunning beaches on the planet. Take a look at the photos, see what some of the world's beaches look like today, and read about the steps being taken to solve the pollution problem.

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Santa Teresa Beach, Costa Rica

The natural beauty of Costa Rica draws in millions of tourists every year, and while tourism is a huge boon to the economy, it also means more trash and pollution. To combat this problem, Santa Teresa has a monthly recycling program, and some plastics that wash up on shore become part of retailer H&M's bionic yarn program, where plastics are converted to usable yarn for clothing. Costa Rica also continues to expand their marine protection areas and are working on a plan to replace single-use plastic with renewable materials for all municipalities and businesses.

Botafogo Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Once known for beautiful beaches, Rio de Janeiro has unfortunately had to ban its own residents from enjoying them due to the excessive pollution in Guanabara Bay. Primarily the result of most of the city's untreated sewage being dumped into the ocean, the government has made only minimal efforts to clean it up. A recent study from Brazil's Fluminense University's marine biology department determined that wild and farmed mussels off the coast are contaminated with microplastics, which can affect both humans and marine life. Rio de Janeiro banned plastic straws, and stopped allowing free distribution of plastic bags at stores, but the beaches facing Guanabara Bay remain among the world's most polluted.

Duong Dong, Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam

Located off the coast of Vietnam, Phu Quoc Island is Vietnam's largest island and is home to approximately 100,000 people. Unfortunately, it is also home to large amounts of trash. A lack of waste-treatment centers, alongside a fast-growing tourist trade, has led to mountains of garbage, much of which finds its way onto the beaches or into the ocean. Vietnam was recently cited as one of the biggest contributors to the growing problem of ocean pollution, along with China, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines.

Manilla Bay, Philippines

A hub for industries such as shipping, fishing, and tourism, Manila Bay faces serious issues regarding pollution and waste. Another country where there is a lack of proper waste management and minimal resources for waste disposal, the bay has suffered from deterioration of water quality, erosion, and a degradation of animal habitats. Recently, the Philippine government has made greater efforts to bring the pollution under control, with the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources citing that businesses will face stiff fines if they are found violating environmental laws. Cleanup efforts by student groups have also been underway for some time now, with volunteers working to clear trash from the bay.

Tarutao National Park, Thailand

Ko Tarutao is an island off the coast of Thailand, part of Mu Ko Tarutao National Marine Park. While the island itself is a protected part of the park, its beaches still suffer from tidal trash deposits and pollution. To combat additional accumulation, Thailand's Department of Natural Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation imposed a ban on all single-use plastics and Styrofoam on the island.

Cape Town, South Africa

The beaches of Cape Town entice hordes of tourists every year, but they might not be safe for swimming. Tons of sewage gets pumped into the ocean daily from nearby pipelines, with only minimal treatment to remove waste and trash. As a result, fecal contamination has been found in the ocean waters surrounding the beach areas. Despite an outcry from environmentalists and scientists, so far minimal efforts have been made to fix the problem.

Juhu Beach, Mumbai, India

Part of one of Mumbai's most-affluent areas, Juhu Beach is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. Pollution from plastics and insufficient waste collection has clogged both Juhu and neighboring beaches with trash, which threatens marine wildlife and human health. Recently, residents banded together to do regular beach cleanups, collecting upward of 12,000 tons of plastic in the last few years and reducing the amount of trash on the beaches.

Bang Saen Beach, Thailand

Near Bangkok, Thailand's Bang Saen Beach is considered a premiere vacation spot for locals, despite ongoing issues with trash and pollution. Thai officials say that trash dumping by ships, and poor waste management has contributed to the problem, as well as monsoon season's rain and winds bringing in even more trash to shore. Thai residents have started regular cleanups of the beach areas, which has helped reduce trash and improve the overall appearance of the beach.

Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Australia

The Cocos Islands of Australia seem to have a shoe problem, which comprises nearly a million plastic flip-flops and other debris piled up on the beach. Researchers found that ocean currents are to blame, carrying tons of plastic to beaches over time and potentially getting buried deep in the sand. While volunteers have worked to clean it up, scientists remain concerned about the effects on wildlife and natural resources.

Isola delle Femmine, Sicily, Italy

A small, vacant island just off the coast of Sicily, the beaches of Isola delle Femmine often have trash washing up on their shores, a problem that has plagued much of Italy's coastlines. Plastic waste is the main culprit, polluting both marine life and shorelines, and making what used to be pristine stretches of white sand a home for trash. To combat the problem, areas such as the island of Capri have banned non-reusable plastic and volunteer groups have organized cleanup days across more than 200 beaches.

Northern Cyprus

The beaches of the Mediterranean island nation of Northern Cyprus have been found to have very high levels of microplastics, second only to Guangdong beach in China. The plastic waste that regularly washes onto Cyprus' shorelines has created a crisis for marine wildlife there, as two threatened species of turtles nest on the island, and the microplastic levels can hurt hatchings. While studies and research are underway to find solutions, the bigger issue of plastic pollution remains.

Lekki Beach, Lagos, Nigeria

Nigeria's Lekki Beach is home to a huge resort area, bringing in tourists from around the world. Unfortunately, with the tourist trade comes pollution. Like many of the Lagos beach areas, Lekki has suffered from high levels of plastic trash washing up on its shores, creating polluted waters and affecting marine life. Recent efforts to clean up the beaches has led to more public awareness of the problem, with volunteers working to remove and recycle the trash littering Nigeria's beaches.

Lima, Peru

Peru has long been challenged by excess amounts of trash clogging its shorelines, due to severe pollution of the Lima Sea. Unfiltered sewage being dumped into the waters has resulted in high contamination levels. Efforts to resolve the problem include volunteers collecting litter, and the Peruvian government has charged local wastewater-treatment facilities with creating purification systems for waste being dumped into the ocean.

Zouk Mosbeh, Beruit, Lebanon

Near Beirut, the coastal town of Zouk Mosbeh has had huge deposits of trash land on their shores. While storm surges have been named as the reason behind the influx, as well as the failure of an old oceanic retaining wall that surrounded a landfill, residents have complained for years that the government in Lebanon is not working hard enough to fix what is an ongoing problem. Officials have implemented cleanups of the beaches, but haven't created any permanent solutions such as recycling programs or improved waste-treatment facilities.

Prasonisi Beach, Rhodes Island, Greece

Prasonisi cape is part of the island of Rhodes, located off the coast of Greece. A popular tourist destination, the carbon footprint of so many visitors has been a heavy one and has caused extensive environmental damage. Trash and litter is only one facet of Greece's pollution problems, however, with cities such as Athens dealing with heavy industrial smog, vehicle exhaust, and overuse of wood-burning stoves for heat. In Jan. 2019, the European Commission in Brussels issued a formal warning to Greece, stating that officials needed to work to improve air quality.

Portixol, Mallorca, Spain

The beaches of Mallorca, Spain, are considered some of the most-beautiful in the world, but some of them are also the most polluted. In areas such as Portixol, sewage treatment plants pump waste into the sea, turning the waters from swimmable to toxic. Trash that has washed up on shore piles up on the beach areas, which has led to a reduction in seagrass growth and increased greenhouse gasses. As a partial solution, Mallorca's current government has started working with Madrid's Environmental Ministry to construct a new waste treatment plant that will filter sewage properly.

Athens, Greece

While a number of beaches in Greece won coveted “Blue Flag” awards for environmental cleanliness, the beaches of Athens didn't quite measure up to the standards set by the rest of the country. Out of over 300 beaches, 71 were found to have toxicity levels in the water that were deemed dangerous, the result of an inspection by the Panhellenic Center for Ecological Research. Greece also has a history of high rates of single-use plastic consumption, the waste of which has found its way into the sea beds, impacting the ocean environment and marine life. Recently, the European Union started a campaign for all of its states to reduce plastic waste and make all plastic packaging recyclable by 2023, and reducing the use of plastic bags. As a part of this, Greek businesses now charge for plastic bags used by consumers.

Gili Air, Lombok, Indonesia

Indonesia's Gili Islands were once tranquil and little-known getaways, places only the most seasoned and savvy travelers ventured. As the islands' popularity increased and tourism numbers skyrocketed, so did the buildup of trash and pollution. The nearby mainland of Lombok has introduced island-wide waste-management controls to help ease the problem, and the island communities have joined forces in working to recycle and properly dispose of waste.

Zanzibar, Tanzania

Zanzibar is subject to many environmental issues, from deforestation and soil erosion to a lack of waste management. Sewage systems are few, and the ones they have dump waste from the cities directly into the ocean. Increased tourism has left the area unable to keep up on the waste generated, and plastics from the sea regularly wash up on the beaches. A cleanup during World Environment Day in June 2018 netted 300 kilograms of waste from the shorelines, a drop in the bucket of the tons of plastics invading Zanzibar's beaches.

Semporna, Malaysia

Residents and tourists have been complaining about the pollution on Semporna's beaches for years. Home to popular dive locations that are a draw to tourists, the area has struggled with less than stellar sanitary conditions and poor waste management. Recently, the chief minister of Semporna declared a war on garbage, issuing a directive in 2018 to local authorities to start cleanups. The community has worked to clean up main parts of the town, as well as mandating anti-litter laws to prevent locals from dumping trash.

Jakarta, Indonesia

Indonesia is the second-largest contributor to plastic pollution in the world, and the beaches of Jakarta unfortunately provide visual proof of the problem. Jakarta's Marunda Beach is strewn with litter, and waste from the city is regularly pumped into the surrounding ocean, making it unsafe for swimmers and deadly to marine wildlife. As a solution, the Indonesian government stated in June 2018 that it plans to work with other organizations to reduce marine waste by at least 70 percent by 2025, pledging to spend upward of $1 billion a year on cleanup.

Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia

Another beach decimated by Indonesia's waste problems, Bali's Kuta Beach struggles with ongoing deposits of ocean trash, much of which makes its way from nearby Java. Because the island sits in the middle of a very strong current, waste travels quickly through ocean waters and washes up on the coastlines. In 2017, Bali's government declared a “garbage emergency,” sending out cleaners and trucks in a concentrated effort to clean up the beaches. Other plans to reduce waste include bans on single-use plastics and improvements in waste-management facilities.

Guacalillo Beach, Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Poor waste-management practices and a lack of proper landfill space have been the biggest contributors to the trash accumulating on Costa Rican beaches. Guacalillo Beach sits at the mouth of the Tárcoles River, where waste travels from the bigger cities and dumps into the ocean, then washes up on the beach. In 2017, volunteers removed approximately 2,400 kilograms of waste from the beach, and a 2019 recycling initiative gives virtual money for recyclables, which can be used for other goods and services.

Seal Beach at San Gabriel River, California, United States

Winter rainfall at Seal Beach leaves it looking less like a California oasis and more like a dumping ground. The beach is bordered by the San Gabriel River, which collects runoff from inland cities and carries trash and debris into the ocean. Large storms can also cause an increase in the water's bacteria levels, with the runoff carrying fecal matter and other contaminants.

Montesinos Beach, Dominican Republic

Once considered a premiere beach in the Dominican Republic, Montesinos Beach has found itself buried in refuse in recent years. Tropical storms often bring big waves, which deposit large amounts of ocean trash onto the beach. The waste directly results from people unloading refuse into the nearby Ozama River, and other coastal countries dumping waste directly into the ocean. While city workers and volunteers have worked to remove the debris, it continues to land on the beaches during the rainy seasons.

Mai Khao Beach, Phuket, Thailand

Mai Khao Beach in Phuket, Thailand, used to be the chosen spot for species of turtles to lay eggs, but pollution and development have caused a significant decrease in nesting, and pollution by plastic is one of the biggest decimators of marine life, not only on the shores of Thailand but all over the world. As tourism continues to grow in Phuket, inadequate waste disposal becomes more of a problem, and environmental groups cite Thailand as one of the biggest contributors to plastic waste.

Maya Beach, Thailand

Leonardo DiCaprio's movie “The Beach” made a landmark out of Phi Phi Leh Island's Maya Bay in Thailand, with over 5,000 people visiting daily. This caused a huge influx of trash and pollution, with extensive damage to the environment. As a result, officials closed the bay to visitors indefinitely to allow the area's ecosystem to replenish.

Boracay Island, Philippines

Going from a quiet retreat for snorkelers and sunbathers to a major tourist hotspot has left Boracay Beach polluted and unsafe. The tourist industry grew faster than the island could manage, and without proper waste facilities, businesses were dumping their waste into the nearby sea. As a result, the government mandated a 6-month closure of the beach in 2018 to facilitate environmental restoration. 

Borneo Islands Malaysia

Plastic pollution has left the beaches of Borneo covered in bottles, plastic bags, and other garbage. Improper waste dumping and ocean trash from neighboring countries has contributed to the trash issue, creating an unsafe environment for both humans and marine life. Volunteers have worked to not only clean up the beaches but also to educate residents by holding talks at schools and villages on proper conservation.

Kure Atoll, Hawaii, United States

Northwest of the island of Kauai, Kure Atoll is an ocean island uninhabited by people. Home to nesting seabirds and monk seals, it has also become home to thousands of pounds of ocean debris. The trash can impact nesting areas and is dangerous to sea life, as they sometimes ingest deadly plastics or get caught in discarded netting. Together with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state of Hawaii and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has gathered over 100,000 pounds of trash over the last several years, loading it into shipping containers and taking it to Honolulu for disposal.

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