10th April 2018 Wellington, New Zealand
Henderson Island: plastic pollution in paradise
Henderson Island is one of the most remote islands in the world. Uninhabited, and largely untouched, it was recently found to have the highest density of plastics pollution anywhere in the world. So what has happened, and what can we do about it?
Henderson is one of four Pitcairn Islands and lies bang in the middle of the Pacific, 3,200 miles from New Zealand, 3,300 miles from South America, and 180 miles from Pitcairn (and its 52 inhabitants). It’s hard to imagine a more remote location, a more quintessential desert island.
Henderson is of such environmental significance that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, with strict measures in place to preserve its unique fauna and flora. But despite these measures, Henderson’s beaches have the dubious accolade of having the worst plastic rubbish density in the world. An estimated 37.7 million pieces of plastic litter the island, with an average 671 items per square metre.
So where does the plastic come from?
Henderson is uninhabited and is too remote to get many visitors. So it’s not a matter of littering: it’s the currents. Henderson’s location near the centre of the South Pacific Gyre Ocean current makes it a focal point for debris carried from South America or deposited by fishing boats. As Dr Jennifer Lavers, plastic pollution expert from the University of Tasmania says, “Henderson shows there’s no escaping plastic pollution even in the most distant parts of our oceans”. It is a reminder – if we needed it – of quite how urgently we need to act to rid our oceans of plastic.
Pitcairn Islanders – famous for their Bounty mutineer forefathers, who settled the Island in 1790 – are deeply committed to marine conservation. The Pitcairn Marine Protected Area, designated in 2016, is 834,000 square miles, and part of the UK Blue Belt around UK Overseas Territories. So it is no surprise that the Pitcairners are committed to tackling the Henderson plastic. They already have their own recycling programme, recycling glass into art and road fill, and a new EU-funded recycling centre will open later this year. E ven discarded marine buoys will find a new home.
But the Henderson plastic pollution is a challenge of a different magnitude – well beyond the capability of Pitcairn’s 52 inhabitants. So the Pew Charitable Trusts, which has a long-standing relationship with the Islands, was approached for help. With support from the Blue Belt programme, they have planned an expedition to Henderson, for later this year.
This expedition will allow forensic analysis of the plastics to identify the sources of the litter and will raise global awareness of the marine plastic crisis. It will take scientific readings from the beach and marine environment to track the extent of the impact. It will also clear a section of the beach and set up monitoring cameras to track future plastic build-up. The plastic removed will be converted into a substitute for aggregate in concrete and incorporated into pathways and tourist trails on Pitcairn Island, including the popular Eco-Trail. If this innovative technique proves successful, it could be used on other Pacific Islands.
But the expedition will not clear Henderson of plastic. Nothing will. Plastic degrades and gets broken down into micro pieces, which form part of the sand on the islands beaches and are no doubt present in the sea, poisoning our sea life. What the expedition will do is raise awareness of plastic pollution in our oceans.
There is a clear, global message: if it can happen here, it is happening everywhere. A major focus of the forthcoming Commonwealth Summit is marine conservation, an issue close to the hearts of all Commonwealth countries, and particularly Small Island Developing States. It is an opportunity to share best practice, and work together, urgently, to tackle plastic pollution. There is no time to waste.