James Beard travelled to Henderson Island, the most remote landmass on Earth, and brings us his findings on the plastic pollution taking over the beach…

 

Before and After the cleanup

 

Henderson Island is an uninhabited speck of land in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. About the size of the city of Oxford, the island can lay claim to being one of the remotest places on the planet. It is located thousands of miles from the nearest major landmass, and there are times where other than the 50 people living on Pitcairn Island, the closest other humans are aboard the International Space Station as it orbits overhead.

Henderson Island hides a dark secret.

Whilst it may not be populated with people, it is populated with pollution. Research conducted in 2015 found that Henderson Island’s East Beach to be the most densely polluted beach on the planet with 99.8% of that pollution being plastic-based.

We arrived there on 8th June 2019 – World Ocean Day.

It took a week to reach the Island from the UK, including a night stranded in the ocean following our boat capsizing, and a 90-minute hike wading around headlines, climbing cliffs and trekking across razor-sharp corals each way. Our expedition team was a mix of scientists, artists, journalists, and a beach clean team comprised of conservationists and recycling experts. Our aim was simple:

  1. Clear the Island’s East Beach of all plastic greater than the size of a bottle top,
  2. Analyse each item to work the type and origin of plastic
  3. Set up a system to monitor the return of the plastic

It is anticipated that all of what we cleared would be replaced within 5 years by new plastic being washed ashore.

The Findings 

The visible impacts of the plastic on the local is clear. The images of turtles crossing the plastic to reach the nesting grounds are common. But the first-hand eye witness is far worse. We found a baby turtle that had become fatally trapped in a plastic container.

Entrapment in plastic waste on the island isn’t just a hazard faced by turtles; the science team predict that 61,000 hermit crabs perish each year in this way, in one instance finding 526 dead crabs in a single discarded bottle.

One of the more unusual items we came across during the clean-up was a glass fishing float which was most likely made in Japan in the 1940s. Fishing equipment was a sizeable proportion of what we found and included buoys, nets ropes, crates, and lures, almost all of it made from plastic.

In total, we found precisely 1,200 fishing buoys littering the beach. This is particularly concerning as Henderson Island is in the middle of one of the wold’s largest Marine Protected Areas, where commercial fishing is prohibited. It is a sobering reminder that the issue of marine debris does not respect boundaries that we draw on maps.

Was it Worth it?

After 11 days, the team had collected 6,000kg of waste from the 2.25k long East beach and a further 250kg from two other beaches and the reef around Henderson Island. And yet despite our efforts, all of that waste is still on the island. Due to the large swells and rough seas, it wasn’t possible to remove much plastic and as such it will have to wait until a later date to be retrieved. For me this is the most damning fact about marine pollution; Despite a dedicated team comprised of international experts, it simply isn’t possible to clean up many of these remote places. Clean ups paired with research can help raise awareness and educate, but our attention must turn to preventing waste from entering the oceans. In less than 5 years we expect all of the plastic we collected to have returned, and this is why the work conducted by Plastic Oceans is so important. By raising awareness of the issues our oceans face and working with businesses to improve the situation we can bring about lasting change rather than temporary respite.

Many Thanks To

Every member of the team contributed significant resource to help plan, coordinate, and deliver the expedition. It is also recognised that specific individuals and institutions made financial donations to the expedition, without which it could not have taken place These include: Valpak, Toughsheet Environmental, the Pew Trusts, CEFAS, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Blue Belt Team and Pitcairn Island Office), Architectural and Community Planning Inc, the Zoological Society of London, Howell Conservation Fund and Schwab International.

A special thanks to the Pitcairn community and its Mayor Shawn Christian, without their support and ambition the expedition would not have been possible.

Correction: This article originally incorrectly stated that Marco Graziano went to Henderson Island.

If you would like to read more about the expedition to Henderson Island, then you can read the article posted by Valpak here