Henderson Island Plastic Pollution Expedition

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Key Takeaways

  • In 2019, HCF led a cleanup of Henderson Island, an isolated island in the Pitcairn Islands, and home to the world’s most plastic-polluted beach.
  • The cleanup cleared 100% of the beach, fostered numerous international news articles, scientific studies, and artworks, was recognized with the prestigious classification as a formal “flag expedition” of The Explorers Club. The project won the “Expedition of the Year” award from the Atlanta Chapter of The Explorers Club.
  • Due to a number of global and local issues, the collected materials are awaiting retrieval from Henderson Island so that it may be up-cycled into building materials through HCF’s partnership with CRDC.

The Challenge

Due to its geographic position, Henderson Island is home to the world’s most plastic-polluted beach. The South Pacific Gyre washes ocean plastic onto the island’s shores, and no one is around to pick it up. Our challenge was to clean up this once-pristine beach, and help tackle the root cause of this pollution.

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Our Approach

Through collaboration with Exponent Philanthropy and Charities Aid Foundation of America (CAF America), we connected with a global network of generous donors to philanthropically support the expedition and make this international project a success. Throughout the beach cleanup process, Howell Conservation Fund also supported multiple other expedition teams, including scientists gathering data and a climate artist who creates works of art from plastic pollution.


The cleanup team that we led successfully cleared 100% of the beach down to bottle cap size materials (~14,000 pounds), overcoming countless headwinds and other challenges. The waste is securely stored on Henderson Island, but couldn’t be removed at the time due to factors outside our control. That said, our beach cleanup efforts provided valuable data to the Expedition’s science team. A number of papers have since been published with our findings about plastic impacts on remote beach ecosystems.

International media coverage of the project by the embedded New Zealand media team Stuff quickly went global and was covered by digital, print and broadcast outlets in more than 100 publications in over 20 countries. The New York Times profiled the project in late 2020, demonstrating how the story of Henderson Island remains top of mind in the time of COVID as people reconnect with nature, and as it becomes even clearer that we need circular economy solutions for plastics. 

The funding we secured supported the development of a feasible solution for recycling the collected plastics, time-lapse camera equipment to help track long-term accumulation rates of plastic on the beach and other innovative solutions. We established a solid relationship with the Center for Regenerative Design & Collaboration (CRDC) to up-cycle the plastics from Henderson Island into building blocks that will be used to construct Habitat for Humanity homes. 

Henderson Island Plastic Pollution Expedition 2019 was awarded flag #97 by The Explorers Club and won “Expedition of the Year” from the Atlanta Chapter of The Explorers Club.

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Henderson Island project image copyrights on this page and throughout HCF website: Genya Garrett/Vue Photography, Luke Hosty/Protect Blue, and Iain McGregor/Stuff. All rights reserved.

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