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Expedition to world's most plastic polluted place

Expedition returns from world’s most plastic polluted island

In early July, a team embarked to Henderson Island - the world’s most plastic polluted place, to collect data, produce art and clean up waste.


Their key motivation was to reveal the extent of plastic waste on Henderson Island, and to raise awareness of the globe’s plastic pollution problem.

The team is now focusing on communicating the plastic pollution problem to the public through various artistic and technical outreach projects.

Brett Howell helped to lead the expedition, and among others, shares the experience with us.

Below: ‘Silver Supporter’ – © Luke Hosty, Protect Blue. All rights reserved.

Q & A - Brett Howell & team

Please tell us about your background and what inspired this year’s expedition to the world’s most plastic polluted island, Henderson Island.

My mission is to catalyze teams to achieve breakthrough solutions to the systemic sustainability issues we face on our planet, with an emphasis on finding scalable, market-based solutions to environmental issues in the oceans. Since 2018, I have been particularly focused on programs with Corporate America and venture philanthropy focused on solving marine litter / marine debris.

A 2015 scientific analysis (published in 2017) found that one of the Pitcairn archipelago’s four islands, Henderson Island, has “the highest density of plastic debris recorded anywhere in the world.” This is particularly alarming because Henderson is an uninhabited world heritage site and very close to “Point Nemo,” the location in the ocean that is farthest from land on the planet. The closest humans are the ~ 40-person Pitcairn Island community, descendants of mutineers from The Bounty.

Following the findings about the level of Henderson Island’s plastic pollution, the local community requested that something be done about the situation. Over a period of two years, the 2019 Henderson Island Plastic Pollution Expedition was planned.

I was fortunate to receive an invitation to lead the beach cleanup team Expedition efforts. Alignment between my personal mission and the Expedition’s goals, and stakeholder engagement, program management, and fundraising support I provided to the Expedition going back to 2018 led to my participation.

What was the experience like during the expedition? Did the team come across any unexpected incidents or findings?

The Expedition was hands down the most amazing effort I have been involved with in my life! While you can read about the pollution issues on Henderson Island’s East Beach, nothing prepares you for actually standing on the beach and seeing the juxtaposition between the rugged beauty of the tropical uninhabited island, including thriving wildlife, and the litter dump that East Beach has become because of humanity’s inability to manage our waste.

As one of the former British Royal Marines on the Expedition put it, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” In this case, the “enemy” was pollution. On the first go of dropping team members on East

Beach, the Expedition’s Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB) flipped because the prop got jammed with rope that was stuck in the reef. Five members of the Expedition unexpectedly spent the night on Henderson Island with no supplies. This was the first/last time that the boat was used to land on East Beach, a significant, unexpected setback.

Instead, the beach cleanup team had to re-create a trail from North Beach (where there was a more developed reef break and less violent waves) to East Beach. This involved wading through the ocean, hiking cliffs, and traversing sharp coral rock through jungle. The only way to access East Beach ended up being this trail, and team members ended up doing the equivalent of a 10K a day with heavy equipment both directions so that Expedition goals could still be met.

Above: Beach cleanup team – © Brett Howell, Howell Conservation Fund. All rights reserved.

Above: Beach cleanup team – © Brett Howell, Howell Conservation Fund. All rights reserved.

Now that information has been collected by the team, how do you plan to raise awareness of the pollution through different types of media?

While the Expedition itself was only a month, one of the key goals from the very start was providing extended communication efforts around what we accomplished and how people not on the trip can get involved with pollution awareness.

The Expedition included multiple workstreams:

• Beach cleanup of the world’s most plastic polluted beach

• Scientific measurements around plastic density, status of bird populations on Henderson, and the impact of plastic on wildlife

• Capturing artistic images of plastic pollution

• Collection of data about Henderson’s underwater habitats – including modernizing maps of the island and capturing extensive underwater imagery

• Updating Google Street View imagery of Henderson Island

• Professional storytelling through participation of journalists

All of these workstreams have significant post- Expedition work to be done with upcoming participation in conferences, peer-reviewed scientific journals, new art pieces, and media stories still to come.

The team was honored to be a “Flag Expedition” of The Explorers Club, an international multidisciplinary professional society founded in 1904 that is dedicated to the advancement of field research and the ideal that it is vital to preserve the instinct to explore, of which I am a member.

Only 850 explorers and 1,450 expeditions in the Club’s history have achieved the Flag Expedition status. As a result of this achievement, our findings will be submitted to The Explorers Club in an Expedition Report and will become part of the Club’s century-old archive for scholars and contemporary explorers to use as a resource for related fieldwork.

In what sense does Henderson Island represent the globe’s plastic pollution epidemic, and how can more of us take action on the issue?

We found every kind of litter imaginable on the beach, including toothbrushes, bottles, shoes, toilet seats, sports equipment, fishing buoys, rope, barrels, and plastic crates, to name a few. What we found reflects all the goods humanity has made out of plastic in the few decades since the material started being used commercially.

To take action on plastic pollution, begin where you are. I’ve found that small actions dramatically increased my “awareness” about plastic pollution. Give up single-use plastic items to impact source reduction, solving at the “root cause” of the problem. Forgo straws entirely or use reusable ones, carry your own reusable grocery bags, bring coffee tumblers and reusable water bottles with you.

Go for “package-less delivery” of your consumer products. Recycle everything that you can, while recognizing that the global recycling market is very complicated and that what is put in the recycling bin doesn’t always actually get “recycled.” I’ve personally given up seafood entirely after removing more than 1,000 fishing buoys from the beach – join me!

Vote with your wallet – consumer brands make decisions based on revenue. If enough people change what they buy, the world’s largest brands will hear us and change their delivery mechanisms away from single-use plastic.

Support the brands that have become corporate environmental leaders. Volunteer for litter cleanups, and use apps like #2minutebeachclean and Litterati to tell the world about it. Engage your governments about policy options (e.g. plastic bag bans). Join campaigns like #breakfreefromplastic in your online engagements.

Final thoughts

Upon returning from an expedition to the world’s most plastic polluted island, Henderson Island, the team have collected some diverse footage and data on the extent of plastic pollution found. Next, this will be shared to the public through creative projects. We congratulate the expedition on becoming a ‘Flag Expedition’ of The Explorers Club. As plastic pollution is a growing concern, Brett Howell urges us to take action, no matter how small the action seems, even if it is just taking reusable water botles around with us.


Brett Howell mobilizes environmental and business leaders around shared opportunities, and builds and manages teams that can get products and ideas into the market.

He has extensive experience developing, implementing, and managing innovative conservation and sustainability-related programs worldwide.

Brett is a member of The Explorers Club, an international multidisciplinary professional society with the goal of promoting scientific exploration and field study.

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