Business Insider Edition

Alarming photos of the uninhabited island that's home to 37 million pieces of trash

Melia Robinson , Business Insider US
 Apr 17, 2018, 06:07 PM

A small island smack in the middle of the South Pacific has never been inhabited by people — and yet, its white sand beaches are home to more than 37 million pieces of junk. Every day on Henderson Island — one of the most remote places on Earth — trash from every continent except Antarctica washes up its shores. Fishing nets and floats, water bottles, and plastics break into small particles against the rocks and sand.

In 2015, Jennifer Lavers, a researcher at the University of Tasmania, traveled to Henderson in an effort to document the extent of plastics pollution. Her research paper has since gone viral.

Lavers shared images from her trip with us. 

Jennifer Lavers first saw Henderson Island in Google Street View. She's been documenting islands-turned-junkyards for years. Henderson was the epitome of the phenomenon.

Few humans have set foot on the island, which lies halfway between New Zealand and South America, 71 miles away from the nearest settlement. To get there, Lavers joined a freight ship traveling from New Zealand and asked it to change course for Henderson.

When she arrived, it felt "a bit like being the first to land on the moon," Lavers told Business Insider. It became immediately clear that something on Henderson was awry.

Researcher Jennifer Lavers and expedition leader Dr. Steffen Oppel climb a cliff on Henderson Island in 2015.

The trash situation was far worse than she expected. Debris blanketed the beaches.

According to Lavers, major currents carry bits of plastic across oceans. When a shoreline interrupts a current's path, the junk settles there. These materials are made brittle by radiation from the sun and easily break when they crash against hard objects like sand and rocks. Lavers and her expedition team set out to count all the trash on the island.

Because there is no freshwater on Henderson, Lavers and her team spent two days ferrying water from the freight ship to the island. "I hurt in places I didn't even know existed," Lavers said.

They set up tents in the forest and tarps to collect rainwater. Canned foods like corn and beans offered sustenance.

"A few months into the 3.5-month expedition, our team of seven realised we had all really had just about enough of tinned chicken," Lavers said. They had two barrels left over.

She also learned that "one clearly should not [bring] coconut milk when coming to a tropical island," she said. While they had food to last, the conditions of island life were unpleasant.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Lavers described storms that sent coconuts and trees whirling onto their tents. Sharp rocks sliced open their shoes, which they bound with rope.

Source: The Atlantic

The team selected five sites to sample debris from. They used measuring tapes to mark the perimeters of every site and mesh disks to sift through the sand at each location.

A purple hermit crab uses an Avon cosmetic bottle in lieu of a seashell.

They counted, weighed, and sorted the debris by type, color, and country of origin, in rare cases where this was possible. Most items were too small and broken to be examined.

Three and a half months later, Lavers' team counted 53,000 pieces of human-made debris. By their calculations, Henderson's 14 square miles contains more than 37 million pieces of trash.

According to The Atlantic, Henderson might have the highest density of plastic debris reported anywhere in the world. Lavers estimates at least 3,750 new pieces of litter wash up daily.

Lavers said it's impossible to wipe Henderson clean. She hopes people are more mindful about their plastics use and disposal to keep more islands from the same fate.

"If we've learned anything from international strategies [on climate change], it's that global environmental agreements take a long time to negotiate and even longer to implement," Lavers said. "In the meantime, we as individuals can do a lot — and we need to. Fast."

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