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Six tonnes of rubbish collected on uninhabited Henderson Island

A two-week expedition to clean up plastic debris from Henderson Island has returned home after collecting six tonnes of debris in June.

Led by Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) scientist Dr Jennifer Lavers, the clean-up was undertaken to remove rubbish from the uninhabited island, which is usually only visited for research purposes.

In 2017, research conducted by Lavers revealed that Henderson Island was polluted with the highest density of plastic debris ever recorded.

Part of the UK’s Pitcairn Islands territory, the island’s location near the centre of the South Pacific Gyre makes it a focal point for marine plastic debris.

Lavers’ research found that the island’s beaches were covered with an estimated 38 million pieces of plastic weighing 18 tonnes.

The clean-up expedition last month, which was driven by the Pitcairn Island community and coordinated by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, included research into the impact of debris on hermit crabs, birds and the physical environment.

The data collected will inform understanding of how plastic affects the island’s ecosystem, including analysis of seabird feathers and blood for contaminants, core samples for the presence of nano plastic particles, and valuable new information on whether accumulated debris can alter the physical properties of the beach.

Lavers said the clean-up, funded by Pew Charitable Trusts, was complicated by the lack of a safe mooring at the most polluted beach, East Beach.

“Cleaning up 2.3 kilometres of beach was a huge physical challenge.

“Due to the lack of a safe mooring, the 12 members of our expedition had to battle steep cliffs and thick vegetation each day just to reach East Beach from the other side of the island.

“But by our last day, after a collective effort of more than 350 hours, we had counted, sorted and bagged all of the large debris items on the beach, including 1,200 fishing buoys, 1.2 tonnes of rope and fishing nets, and two tonnes of rigid plastics such as fishing crates, plastic fragments, and a range of single-use items such as drink bottles,” Lavers said.

She said due to the access and mooring issues the team was unable to load all of the debris onto its ship, so the remainder has been safely stored for a future expedition.

Lavers explained that while beach clean-ups are worthwhile, they are not a long-term solution to the problem of plastic debris.

“We estimate that fresh debris equal to the six tonnes that we removed will accumulate on East Beach within 10 years.

“The most sustainable long-term solution is to promote and invest in ways to prevent plastic from entering the waste stream in the first place.”