Science — May 15, 2017 at 7:09 pm

Henderson Island is covered in plastic debris


HENDERSON ISLAND (EON) – Henderson Island is a plastic wasteland.

This remote outcrop in the South Pacific Ocean is home to 55 species found nowhere else on Earth and it also has the unenviable title of most polluted place on the planet.

The island, around 5500km east of Auckland, is part of the UK’s Pitcairn Island territory and is so isolated it’s only visited once or twice a decade for research purposes.

You can see for yourself. Pull Henderson Island up on Google Maps and drag the yellow avatar to the bottom of the eastern beach. Now, start walking. It starts unobtrusively: a bottle here, a bit of tubing there. But soon, the scraps pile up until the sand is carpeted in multi-colored junk.

With all the plastic on the island, you may be surprised to learn that no humas live there, but there are obvious traces of them with a new study showing the island’s once pristine beaches have 671 pieces of debris including plastics per square metre.

t’s the highest density ever recorded and has researchers issuing a stark reminder of how the plastic you throw away which ends up in the ocean can land in even the most remote places on Earth.

“What’s happened on Henderson Island shows there’s no escaping plastic pollution even in the most distant parts of our oceans,” Australia’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies research and lead author Dr Jennifer Lavers says.

“Far from being the pristine ‘deserted island’ that people might imagine of such a remote place, Henderson Island is a shocking but typical example of how plastic debris is affecting the environment on a global scale.”

Much of the debris which has ended up on the island is believed to have come from South America, around 5500km away, or discarded by fishing vessels.

On the latest expedition to the island, led by Britain’s nature conservation charity RPSB, five beach sites were sampled.

Henderson Island plastic debris
Henderson Island plastic debris

The study estimated more than 17 tonnes of plastic debris had made it to land, with more than 3570 new pieces of rubbish washing ashore per day on one beach alone.

But while that sounds like an astronomical amount of trash for an island just 36 square km in size, Dr Lavers says it’s likely they’ve underestimated their figures.

“We were only able to sample pieces bigger than two millimetres down to a depth of 10 centimetres, and we were unable to sample along cliffs and rocky coastline.”

Once plastic washes up, it tends to break apart. “If a milk jug or water bottle washes ashore on a remote island, it’s brittle from UV radiation,” says Denise Hardesty, from CSIRO, Australia’s federal research agency. “It’s in a location where wave and wind, acting against hard physical objects like sand and stones, can break it into smaller pieces. Now that single item has now become hundreds or thousands of very small fragments.” And those become buried—a permanent part of their island homes.

The sources of the debris are manifold. Lavers and Bond traced the items to 24 different countries from every continent except Antarctica. “That told us that no country is more or less to blame for this,” she says. “It’s not just commercial fisheries or cruise ships. A lot of this came from storm drains, and probably litter on beaches in—goodness knows, pick a city anywhere in the world.”

For Henderson, “clean-up is not an option,” she says. It’s too hard to get to, and too hard to live on. The only way to stop this problem is to cut the plastic off at its source.

The total junk on Henderson—all 17,000 kilograms of it—represents just 2 seconds of the world’s plastic production, which has increased by 180 times over the last six decades. “We need to factor the environmental costs into that production, so that it’s not just 1 or 2 cents to buy a straw, or a takeaway container,” says Lavers. “We use plastic in every single aspect of our society, and we can’t just change one or two things.”

Geoff Dann

Geoff Dann holds the Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Waterloo and the Doctorat en Théologie from the Université de Strasbourg, France. He teaches philosophy and religion for the Seniors Program at New York University, and has been Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Geoff has taught in departments of religion, philosophy, and health sciences, including the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto. Along with his teaching, research, and writing responsibilities, from 1999-2007, he also served as the Clinical Ethicist for Grand River Hospital in Kitchener/Waterloo, Ontario.


  1. I’ll never forget being on the shore of the Bering Sea when I was in the Coast Guard back in the 70s, and seeing the beach covered with plastic crap. We are not good to Mother Earth.

  2. n the early 1970’s we were on a beach in County Donegal ireland, at the bottom of a high grassy hill dotted with with sheep and a lone border collie. We counted debris that had country of origin on it, seven different countries had washed up in the form of shoes, bags, plastic containers and whatever else had survived the waves. I shudder to think what it might look like over 40 years later with the proliferation of plastic

  3. plastic man

    I’m just back from tiny islands in the Celebes Sea. We were scuba diving and island hopping. Unfortunately this image of dirty plastic crap on the beach is what is sticking with me. Remote, pristine water with diapers, plastic bottles, flip-flops, Styrofoam containers, plastic bags, shampoo bottles on and on. I did an early morning walk completely around one island with a marine biologist one morning to look for evidence of turtles…. no turtles, just garbage. 

  4. Tom Servo

    When they look back at us and they write down their history
    What will they say about our generation?
    We’re the ones who knew everything and still we did nothing
    Harvested everything, planted nothing.
    Well we live pretty well in the wake of the goldrush
    Floating in comfort on waves of our apathy
    Quietly gnawing away at Her body
    Until we mortgage the future, bury our children
    Storehouses full with the fruits we’ve been given
    We send off the scrag-ends to suckle the starving
    But still we can’t feed this strange hunger inside
    Greedy, restless and unsatisfied.

    I was never much one for the great “Big Bang” theory
    Going out in a blaze of suicidal glory
    Not foolish and brave, these leaders of ours
    Just stupid and petty, unworthy of power;
    Just a little leak here and a small error there
    Another square mile poisoned forever
    A series of sad and pathetic little fizzles
    And out go the lights, never to return.
    The affair it is over, the passion is dead
    She stares at us now with ice in Her eyes
    But we turn away from these bitter reproaches
    And take up distractions to forget what we’re doing

    I stand on these hills and I watch Her at night
    A thousands square miles, a million orange lights
    Wounded and scarred, She lies silent in pain
    Raped and betrayed in the cold acid rain
    And I wish and I wish
    We could start over again
    Yes I wish and I wish
    We could win back Her love once again

  5. This has to rank up there with climate change and is indisputably caused by humans. Are there special interest groups/scientists working on cutting back on plastics production/use and finding recycling options? How do citizens help other than reducing/refuse/recycle which isn’t happening fast enough.

  6. This story sounds a bit”fishy” It sounds like one of these stories that eco weenies LOVE to SCREAM about
    (followed by a rant on the EVILS of civilization, corporations, Republicans, etc.). Don’t get me wrong.. I have
    been recycling since the 70s (SUCK on THAT millennial losers). I would like to see a conformation report
    form a second source (independent of the primary one) that does NOT use the exact same photos. You know
    that alot of this probably came from Mexico, But what do the liberals care, they just use it to justify giving
    governments more power (and tax money) to solve a problem that could easily solved if liberals just pissed
    off. You know, if the eco weenies were NOT such a bunch of idiots, we could be using more paper bags,
    and less plastic bags, and that would of solve part of the problem.

  7. I volunteer to live there for a month and pick up trash to be transported off. Who is game to do the same? We just need a non-profit to help us. And figure out how we can get there…and how much volunteers will have to pay to get there and live for a month. A great experience it would be! And a benefit to Mother Earth.

  8. You people are nuts… the article!!! “Remote, uninhabited islands…” are collecting this crap. Whom do you think will EVER see it? Oh, by the way, people, very nice of you to put your dog poop in plastic bags before throwing them away! Putting a biodegradable substance in a container that has the half life of forever!

  9. This has to rank up there with climate change and is indisputably caused by humans. Are there special interest groups/scientists working on cutting back on plastics production/use and finding recycling options? How do citizens help other than reducing/refuse/recycle which isn’t happening fast enough.

  10. It’s a pacific island thousands of miles from our coast… it’s trash from Southeast Asia or possibly South America. Are you suggesting we dictate how every country around the world disposed of their trash? Or should we force their governments to ship products in biodegradable containers? Or did you just wake up pissed and want to rant against Americans who didn’t vote the way you did..

  11. Proud to be part of Juice Amour, raw juice bar selling juice in glass jars which are credited when returned. Every plastic bottle we don’t use is important . Raising awareness is all of our responsibility.

  12. Living next to a beach on the East coast of Ohau in the mid 90’s was a sad experience. I watched as a slew of locals from the other side of the island and those near by show up on a holiday. The beach was left littered with diapers and trash. I could fill a large black bag of trash off the beach and it would be back in days.

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