Travel 3,400 miles off the Chilean coastline to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and you’ll see where the world has been hiding its dirty little secret. Henderson Island, one of the four Pitcairn Islands, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is almost never visited by people. There are no human inhabitants, no industrial facilities. The nearest settlement is on an island 71 miles away with a total population of 40. In fact, the Pitcairns are so small, their government is based in New Zealand, more than 3,000 miles to the southwest. Yet despite its extreme isolation, this tiny, uninhabited island is home to the most polluted beach on the planet.
Henderson Island rests on the western boundary of the South Pacific Gyre, an ocean current that flows counterclockwise around the southern Pacific Ocean. Although this island is among the most remote in existence, its geographic positioning makes it a natural repository for ocean plastic pollution. Indeed, a 2017 study found that the density of debris on Henderson Island was the highest reported anywhere in the world. Researchers discovered roughly 37.7 million items of debris along the beach — mostly tiny bits of plastic smaller than five millimeters in size. This debris weighed in at a whopping 17.6 tons. Moreover, the researchers estimated that every day, about 27 new items per meter end up on the shores of Henderson Island. That means that nearly 40,000 pieces of debris per meter of land have washed ashore since this data was collected in 2015 — all on an island with a population of zero.
The staggering amount of waste on Henderson Island is a testament to the world’s pollution problem. It serves as a stark reminder that our waste never truly disappears. Even more concerning is that these numbers actually underestimate the real amount of pollution on the island; the researchers could not access debris along the island’s rocky coastline or buried even just ten centimeters beneath the sand. Research has found that about 65% of beach debris is buried below the surface, so there likely is a substantial amount of waste that has gone unaccounted for. While the effects of ocean plastic on marine life is well documented, it is difficult to tackle this issue in a systematic way, in part because there is so little data on the patterns of global marine plastic accumulation.
Enter Brett Howell: a lifelong environmentalist, certified diver, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. Howell has spent his career working with organizations to think through environmental solutions on a systemic level, rather than chipping away at small-scale efforts. His projects have ranged from leading Coca Cola’s World Without Waste Initiative, to working with The Loon Preservation Committee on removing lead fishing tackle in New Hampshire. Howell’s next major project is a visit to Henderson Island to lead a clean-up of the island’s 1.2 mile-long East Beach.
Now, this is no ordinary, backyard beach clean-up. Rather, Howell will travel on a multi-disciplinary expedition with a group of 12 activists, researchers, and artists in search of new and valuable data on ocean plastic. Over three weeks, the team expects to remove 10 tons of waste from the beach surface, about 85% of which they anticipate will be rigid plastics. This all-star crew will live aboard a hybrid scientific research vessel called Bravo Supporter and will collect empirical data on ocean debris and local biodiversity. The research will be cutting-edge and difficult to obtain. However, their rigorous data collection methods — including an extensive plastic ‘audit’ — will provide critical insights into global plastic accumulation rates, as well as the types and typical mass of plastic pollutants.
“Empirical data is a huge part of this expedition,” Howell said to SeaHive in an interview, “but a significant portion [of the work] is communication.” While their research will be published in peer-reviewed journals and presented at industry leading sustainability conferences, the team also will document their findings through photography, film, and art. For instance, one of the core team members is Mandy Barker, an internationally-acclaimed photographer. Mandy’s work underscores the marine pollution crisis through intricate yet disturbing imagery of ocean plastics. The work that will result from this trip is intended to “communicate the source, scale, range and impacts of ocean debris on Henderson and the Pacific Ocean,” according to the team.
This voyage is no small undertaking and will have a lasting impact on the field of ocean science. But as Howell describes it, “The expedition is just normal people who are passionate about the environment.” When asked how other normal people could make such an impact, his response was simple: “Start where you are. If you have a love for the environment, think of one small thing you can do and make it a habit. Through becoming more self-aware, you start seeing more things that you want to do.”
The Henderson Island Expedition will depart from Tahiti on June 2, 2019 and will take the team on a multi-leg journey through the South Pacific to the Pitcairns. You can follow their adventure on Howell’s Twitter and Instagram accounts, both under the handle @BrettWHowell.
For more information about how you can help combat plastic pollution in our oceans, visit us at www.seahive.com.
Written by Kirsten Midura, Head of SeaHive Operations and Media. All images provided by the Pitcairn Expedition.