Henderson Island Plastic Pollution Expeditions

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Key Takeaways

  • In 2019, Howell Conservation Fund (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.
  • In 2024, HCF is returning to Henderson Island to continue the work that we began in 2019. This expedition is The Explorers Club Flag Expedition #235, and also has been honored through the Rolex Expedition Watch Program.
  • While cleaning up Henderson Island through the 2019 and 2024 expeditions are critical, the real story here is that humanity is excessively using single-use plastics without concerns for the impact on the planet. We must raise human consciousness about the impact of single use plastics on the environment.

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

For the 2019 expedition, 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, HCF also supported multiple other expedition teams, including scientists gathering data and a climate artist who creates works of art from plastic pollution.

The 2024 expedition is a continuation of our work, both with regard to cleaning up the world's most plastic polluted beach, and in building a global network of partners dedicated to preserving our oceans and pioneering innovative, regenerative solutions to environmental issues.

Outcomes

The 2019 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 2019 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 2019 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), HCF's original partner up-cycle the plastics from Henderson Island. 

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.

Henderson Island Plastic Pollution Expedition 2024 was awarded flag #235 by The Explorers Club and was honored as part of the Rolex Expedition Watch Program.

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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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