Howell Conservation Fund's 2024 Return to Henderson Island

Our 2024 Return to the World’s Most Plastic Polluted Beach

In 2019, Howell Conservation Fund (HCF) founder Brett Howell traveled to the far reaches of the globe to clean up the world’s most plastic polluted beach. Henderson Island - one of the Pitcairn Islands - sits 3,000 miles from any major landmass, located in the center of the South Pacific gyre. The island is uninhabited by humans; however, the combination of ocean currents and society’s excessive use of single-use plastics make the island a repository for the world’s plastic waste. 

The 2019 expedition, recognized by The Explorers Club as Flag Expedition #97, successfully cleaned up the 1.5 mile-long East Beach, collecting plastic waste down to the size of bottle caps. However, due to factors such as inclement weather conditions and the impassability of the surrounding reef, the 14,000 pounds of waste collected from East Beach have had to remain in secure locations above the high-tide line, awaiting a return expedition to finish the job. 

Brett is once again en route to Henderson Island to continue the work that he started five years ago, this time as The Explorers Club Flag Expedition #235. The 2024 expedition is a multinational collaboration aimed at completing the work from five years ago, and continuing to forge new partnerships to address plastic pollution in our oceans.

Henderson Island’s East Beach in 2019. Copyright Stuff.

Henderson Island Expedition 2024 Details

While the 2019 cleanup was part of a British expedition, the 2024 expedition will take place in collaboration with Plastic Odyssey, an international expedition dedicated to combating plastic pollution in our oceans. The Plastic Odyssey ship is not only providing transportation to and from French Polynesia; it also contains a mobile recycling workshop onboard, which will recycle plastics collected from Henderson Island into building materials for the Pitcairn Community.

Plastic Odyssey will facilitate the extraction of the plastic waste through an assortment of technical innovations designed to bypass the island’s reef barrier, including:

Parasail: The first solution to be tested for crossing the coral reef involves an innovative parasailing approach, towed by the expedition vessel.

Fishing buoys: Fishing buoys will be tied together to form a garland which will be towed from the ship.

Floating pontoon: A floating pontoon will be towed directly by a winch on board Plastic Odyssey vessel. 

Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB): In case of adequate weather and wave conditions, a RIB landing could be tested.

More details about the approaches can be found on Plastic Odyssey’s Henderson Island expedition website

This expedition will also allow build on the scientific findings from our 2019 expedition and continue our process scientific discovery, led by plastic pollution scientist Hanna Dijkstra, PhD. The primary research goal of the 2024 work is to assess the state of pollution on Henderson Island, and to conduct an analysis on effectiveness of technologies to recover and recycle plastic collected from remote islands. Details around how the findings will be published will be determined after the expedition is complete.

The 2019 cleanup crew collect fishing debris on Henderson Island. Photo copyright Stuff.

Explorers Club Flag Expeditions

The Explorers Club has long been a supporter of HCF’s work on Henderson Island, honoring our first expedition as Flag Expedition #97. Now, The Explorers Club has recognized the 2024 expedition with two distinct honors: both as a Flag Expedition in its own right, and as an honoree of the Rolex Expedition Watch Program. 

Flag Expeditions area long-standing tradition within The Explorers Club; while all members of The Explorers Club are actively engaged in exploration, only a small percentage are granted the privilege of carrying one of the the 242 historic flags into the field. Since 1918, the Flag has been carried to all of the Earth’s continents, as well as under the sea and into the stars. 

The 2024 Henderson Island project, “The Impossible Cleanup,” will be carrying Flag #235. Moreover, this Flag has additional importance in that it is a new flag. Over the years, The Explorers Club has retired a number of Flags that have been to famous locations, worn out, lost in the mail, or where someone died on an expedition. “The 2024 Flag Expedition is particularly special,” Brett explains, “because we will be the first to write the history of Flag #235.”

The 2024 expedition is also being recognized by the Expedition Watch Program between The Explorers Club and Rolex. The program provides three Rolex watches that The Explorers Club members can apply to take on expedition, similar to Flags. The Rolex Submariner, in particular, has a unique history in the Pitcairn Islands; explorer Luis Marden wore the Submariner Watch as part of his discovery of the HMS Bounty, a ship that was sunk at Pitcairn Island by mutineers.

Brett will be wearing the Submariner Watch for the Henderson Island expedition, capturing photographic evidence of the Rolex for posterity, and then returning it to The Explorers Club so it can head out on another expedition. Rolex and The Explorers Club will add the 2024 Henderson Island expedition to a plaque that keeps a running history of each watch’s use, and the watch will remain at The Explorers Club until its next assigned expedition.

The Expedition Watches on display at The Explorers Club headquarters in New York City. The Submariner watch (far right) is absent in the photo as it is out on expedition. Copyright Rolex.

Follow the Expedition

The 2024 Henderson Island expedition team will be making a concerted effort to provide updates on the trip, and they will share news as satellite internet and other technology allows. In particular, HCF has worked with technology company Mindus to develop a proprietary app that will follow the expedition and provide information about the location of the ship and the progress of the beach cleanup. The app can be found on the Apple App Store, Google Play, and online.

HCF will also post updates where available to our LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. While Brett is on the expedition, any press inquiries or questions can be directed to HCF’s Director or Operations Kirsten Midura

The 2019 Henderson Island expedition not only put HCF on the proverbial map, but it helped to set our organization’s course and the work that we do. We are excited for the opportunity to continue this work and share it with our supporters and followers. A heartfelt thank you to those who have helped to make this happen!

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