Project Report:
Clean-up expedition to plastic-polluted Henderson Island.
- Investigates the causes of economic imbalances.
- Explores and develops market-based solutions.


1. Return site visit to Henderson Island to complete work interruped by COVID Pandemic.
2. Support efforts around "circular economy" solutions for plastic waste.
3. Speaking engagements to message need to reduce plastic pollution at the source.


Henderson Island is a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site, and part of the Pitcairn Island group in the South Pacific. The island sits thousands of miles from the nearest continental landmass. Uninhabited by humans, Henderson is known for the 10 plants and four land birds that are endemic to the island. In fact, with no major land mass within a 5,000 km radius, the island is one of the few atolls in the world whose ecology has been practically untouched by a human presence - other than massive accumulation of plastic pollution.

Despite its remoteness, a 2017 study by Lavers et al. - based on 2015 field work - found that Henderson Island’s East Beach was the most densely polluted beach on the planet with approximately 650 plastic pieces per square meter of beach.

The 2024 Henderson Island expedition set out to not only record information on the plastic, but also to remove the plastic from Henderson Island’s East Beach, which had never been done before. The expedition team also conducted a brand audit and an analysis of effective technologies and strategies for remote beach cleanups. Through the expeditions’ innovative approaches to removing plastic debris and repurposing it in the Pitcairn Island community, the expedition underscored the critical need for action in combating this worldwide issue.

2024 Objectives & High-Level Outcomes
1. Beach cleanup and removal of plastic debris (waste): Cleanup of 2.25 km/1.4-mile East Beach, collecting an estimated 9 tons of waste (including collected but unremoved waste from 2019 expedition). Remove plastic debris from beach, using innovative techniques to take waste off of one of the most remote and inaccessible islands of the world.

Ultimately, the team cleared all of the 2.25 km/1.4-mile East Beach of plastic down to bottle-cap size, collecting 9 metric tons (9,320 kg) of waste in total.

All waste removal approaches worked, including:
• Small boat / RIB landing - Used for transporting people to/from island and pulling waste off island using various transport methods
• Floating catamaran - The catamaran consisted of two stand-up paddle boards lashed together. This solution was the first technology that allowed members of the 2024 expedition team to land on East Beach.
• Floating pontoon - The team used a floating pontoon to load bags and transport them to the Plastic Odyssey vessel. This ended up being the “workhorse” solution for the expedition and should be considered the most feasible option for future expeditions in similar environments.
• Fishing buoy garland - Fishing buoys were tied together with rope to form a garland. These were towed to the Silver Supporter, the expedition vessel used in 2019 that unexpected helped support the 2024 expedition as well.
• Parasail - Removal of waste off island by flying wasting over waves. For this solution, a parasail was winched by motorcycle pulley system that was affixed on a vessel – specifically, on the Plastic Odyssey small support craft for test 1, and on the Plastic Odyssey vessel for test 2. This solution worked after some trial and error.

2. Plastic pollution research: Plastic accumulation rates, types and weights of plastics, brand audit of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles, sand and water samples, analysis of techniques to remove and recycle plastic to be published in peer-reviewed journals.

The primary research objectives of the 2024 expedition were to assess the state of pollution on Henderson Island, and to conduct an analysis on effectiveness of technologies to recover and recycle plastic collected from remote islands. The research is being led by Dr. Hanna Dijkstra from Howell Conservation Fund. Specific research objectives included the following:
• Creating a framework of relevant criteria to assess litter removal and processing technologies for remote island including environmental implications, feasibility, and cost-effectiveness.
• Mapping the state of pollution on East Beach in a simple but legitimate matter to understand how debris has accumulated since the last cleanup.

3. Demonstrate how to convert plastics locally into resources: working with the Pitcairn Island community and the unique recycling lab on the Plastic Odyssey vessel. Empower Pitcairn Island community with knowledge about how to monitor, manage and recycle plastics.

A key goal of the expedition was to find a constructive use for the plastics collected, rather than burning or burying them. This approach is currently referred to as the “circular economy,” in which discarded materials are recycled or reused instead of becoming waste.

Some of the waste was processed aboard the Plastic Odyssey vessel, which is a recycling lab for rigid hard plastics and processed 1.5 tons of rigid plastic turned it into beams, which were transported onto Pitcairn Island and turned into a giant chair (for tourist photos), garden boxes, bee hive stands, and benches.

4. Communication: Raise awareness about the dire consequences of plastic pollution globally, using the unique storytelling potential of the remote ecosystem of Henderson Island.

Scientific articles: The expedition aspired not only to address immediate concerns on Henderson Island, but to serve as a catalyst for worldwide action and consciousness towards mitigating the pervasive threat of marine plastic pollution. Dr. Dijkstra is in the early stages of writing scientific articles about the Henderson Island expeditions. She plans to submit the expedition’s data, results, and assessment to at least one peer-reviewed academic journal such as the Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Work with government agencies and private sector: The Howell Conservation Fund team is currently working on articles and blogs about the 2024 Henderson Island with in conjunction with The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Marine Debris Monitoring and Assessment Project (MDMAP) network, and Trimble, an environmental technology services company who provided geo-location systems to the expedition.

The Impossible Cleanup science app: Howell Conservation Fund worked with expedition sponsor Mindus to develop an application called “The Impossible Cleanup.” This app allowed users to track the collection and classification of plastic debris in real-time, sharing the expedition with the world as it was taking place. At the time of the expedition, the tool had about 1,300 users, with a peak of 950 users simultaneously for App Store, Google Play, and the web. The engagement time on the app was an average of approximately 23 minutes, meaning that users were taking the time to learn about the expedition, the history of Henderson Island, and following our work.


#1: investigate the causes of economic imbalances – the project focuses on the economic imbalance of “externalities” from plastic production and unaccounted for impacts on ecosystem services in the oceans. Additionally, the project focuses on the overall reduction of plastic production. Most plastic is made from petrochemicals, which negatively impact climate change – reducing plastic production overall (either through “source reduction” or “circular economy” solutions) ultimate lowers the climate change impacts.

#4: explore and develop market-based solutions – the project is heavily focused on market-based solutions for plastics, including ways that ocean plastic pollution cleanups can become self-sustaining, rather than relying on philanthropic dollars to cover the “externalities” of pollution cleanup that plastic producers push to others in the supply chain of plastic consumption.


Please see project description for the high-level scope. Project activities took place in the U.S. and internationally (in the Pitcairn Islands, a U.K. overseas territory) and will work to be a pilot study/demonstration related to solutions for ocean plastic pollution.

We do not yet know the long-term project implications of the expedition, as we are currently working on post-expedition efforts and analysis. That said, the initial, high-level conclusions and implications that we can foresee are as follows:

Henderson Island implications
Researchers encountered significant plastic densities in 2015, 2019 and 2024. Since the 2019 expedition cleaned the beach down to bottlecap size, the 2024 expedition showed that within five years, the beach becomes densely covered in plastic again. This accumulation of plastics likely will continue well into the future.

The primary impact of this pollution on Henderson Island is to local wildlife (e.g. significant hermit crab impacts described by Lavers et al. 2020, local endemic birds, marine life). The island also serves as a reminder to humanity that the impact of plastic pollution covers the entire globe – even uninhabited, protected, remote islands.

Pitcairn Island implications
Thankfully, there is hope for the Pitcairn Islands. The local Pitcairn Island community has focused more on plastic pollution since the 2019 Henderson Island expedition. As such, there is now interest from the Pitcairn Island community in helping to run more regularly scheduled cleanups, and possibly scientific monitoring. This is important because while the Pitcairn Island community does not directly contribute to the plastic pollution on Henderson Island, they are the ones closest to the problem and able to solve it as locally as possible.

Since 2019, the Pitcairn Island community has purchased a jet boat, which can easily get in and out of the reef during favorable weather conditions, with support from the Silver Supporter, the U.K. Government vessel under contract for the Pitcairn Island community. As demonstrated by the 2024 expedition, the boat can be used for waste removal to support locally run cleanup operations. The 2024 expedition team has trained the Pitcairn Island community in waste transformation, and there is hope that the Pitcairn Island community will continue to see the value in cleaning and recycling waste from their islands.

Future expeditions
After undertaking two separate expeditions to Henderson Island, the Howell Conservation Fund team believes that further global expeditions to Henderson Island would be ineffective and cost prohibitive. The format of the 2019 and 2024 expeditions involved pulling together large teams and support vessels, costing $500K+ U.S. Dollars or more each time. As the Pitcairn Island community adopts more local solutions, the need for international expeditions will become less critical in this area of the world.

On a global level, plastic continues to be produced at ever-increasing scales despite the known dangers of the material to humans, the environment, and planet Earth overall. To date, there is virtually no ecosystem on earth where plastics have not been found. If we are truly to solve the plastic pollution problem in places like Henderson Island, plastic production must be stopped at the source, and we must begin to incorporate plastic waste into our society as a circular economy solution.

Information Dissemination

Please see project description, objectives & outcomes #4.

In addition, Brett Howell will also be incorporating the Henderson Island 2024 expedition into upcoming talks and presentations.

As part of scientific articles being published, there will be a plan developed to disseminate information across Howell Conservation Fund's global networks.

Project Link

Amount Approved
$20,000.00 on 1/18/2024 (Check sent: 1/30/2024)

  Related Organizations
Howell Conservation Fund  

1201 W Peachtree St NW Ste 2625, PMB 23298
Atlanta, GA 30309

(310) 944-0757 ext 0757


Brett W Howell
Executive Director, Howell Conservation Fund, Inc.

Posted 1/10/2024 11:47 AM
Updated   4/17/2024 5:41 PM

  • Nonprofit

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