Expedition to world’s most polluted beach battles adverse conditions to bag six tonnes of waste

James Beard of Valpak, which sponsored an Explorers Club Flag Expedition that bagged six tonnes of waste from the most densely-polluted beach in the world, has concluded that prevention is the only viable option to halt the tide of marine plastic litter.

The expedition targeted Henderson Island, an uninhabited World Heritage site in the remote Pitcairn islands.

Beard said: “Up to two-thirds of plastic lie beneath the surface, and larger pieces are continuously breaking up into ever-smaller fragments. Humanity could spend several lifetimes trying to clean up such problems so, instead, our efforts must turn to preventing plastic from entering the waterways in the first place – a challenge made difficult in a world where a third of the population has no access to effective waste management.”

The primary purpose of the expedition was to generate data that could be used by the scientific community to investigate the scale and impact of marine plastics.

With its coral reefs and razor-sharp coral landscape, Henderson is a particularly harsh environment, which prevents habitation. However, it hosts several endemic species and this, combined with its remote position – even GPS places it 1km away from its actual location – make it an important scientific site.

In 2015, whilst studying the rat population, a science team conducted research in its spare time, confirming that Henderson’s East Beach was the most densely-polluted beach in the world.

In 2019, a 13-strong team of scientists, artists, journalists, diplomats, divers and expert guides returned to the island to collect, log and remove the plastic. While the clean-up team got to work collecting everything from bottle tops to glass floats from 1940s Japan, the scientists collected blood samples from indigenous birds and took images of the seabed to map biodiversity.

Beard said: “Although the clean-up team achieved our main goals, the outcome was bittersweet. Our aim was to collect 10 tonnes of waste but, due to deteriorating sea conditions, we were never able to land directly on East Beach and lost several hours each day to hiking. ‘The unfavourable conditions also meant that what was collected could not be removed from the island – it has had to be stored securely until later in the year when calmer weather may make it possible to land a jet boat on East Beach. The Pitcairn government is looking at the possibility of acquiring a jet boat for this purpose.

Beard concluded: “The most damning thing we saw was the volume of microplastics contained in very small areas of beach. For every large piece of plastic we collected there were many, many more tiny fragments that were once pieces of rope or crates that it simply isn’t possible to collect. The number of fishing aggregation devices (FADs) found was also staggering, especially given the island’s location in the middle of one of the world’s largest marine protected areas, where commercial fishing is prohibited.

Clean-ups can raise awareness and provide useful data, but they are not the solution. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and it will take a collective change in how humanity views plastic to get it back in again.