Expedition to clean up uninhabited island littered 
with plastic waste

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Packaging compliance scheme Valpak, which was recently acquired by outsourced recycling services company Reconomy, is to join world-renowned scientists in a unique expedition to clean up 10 tonnes of plastic and assess the impact of litter on a Pacific island boasting one of the highest densities of plastic rubbish on the planet.

Henderson Island, which is part of the Pitcairn group, is a UNESCO World Heritage site located between Peru and New Zealand. Although it is one of the most remote places on Earth – 3,000 miles from the nearest major land mass –  up to 13,500 pieces of plastic litter wash up each day.

James Beard, recycling services manager at Valpak, said: “Henderson Island plays a unique role in showing the scale of the marine litter problem. Despite its isolation, it is estimated to contain 38 million pieces of plastic litter which have been swept into the South Pacific Gyre.” 

Beard will be part of the 13-person team which departs in June, spending four weeks in the Pitcairn Islands and culminating in the beach clean up. The aim of the expedition is to clear plastic from the beaches, monitor the impact of litter on local wildlife, and provide scientific data on the rate of plastic accumulation.

International experts Dr Jennifer Lavers and Dr Alex Bond will be leading the science team, looking at the impact on sea birds that eat the plastic, to hermit crabs that turn it into homes. Beard added: “It goes far beyond cleaning the beach, everything will be logged. We will be using bar code scanners to try to identify the source of the plastic pollution and Mandy Barker, the artist who is joining us, plans to photograph everything which is collected. We are also working to transform the waste plastic locally into a useful product.”

The island is home to 10 endemic flowering plants and four endemic bird species. Turtles visit the beaches to lay eggs, and the remote coral atoll has become an internationally important breeding site for many species of sea birds. 

The expedition has been made possible by a range of partners, but especially: global research and public policy organisation the Pew Charitable Trusts; the Pitcairn Island Government; and the UK’s Blue Belt Programme, which supports delivery of the UK government’s commitment to provide long-term protection to over four million square kilometres of marine environment across the UK Overseas Territories. 

Beard concluded: “Plastic has become a cornerstone of our society because it is so versatile. However, it is also viewed as a cheap commodity, when it should be treated as something that is unique. Stopping plastic from entering the oceans is key, because once it starts breaking down into microplastics, cleaning it becomes much, much more difficult.

“The scale of the problem in such a remote location as Henderson Island helps to demonstrate that plastic litter is a global challenge. It is true to say that only a fraction of the plastics in the world’s oceans originate from the UK, we still need to consider our responsibility. Designing plastic for recycling is the first step. We expect the litter on Henderson to have returned within six years; only a sea change in the way people use plastics will prevent this from happening.”