Henderson Island is about the most remote place you can visit without leaving the planet. It sits squarely in the middle of the South Pacific, 3,500 miles from New Zealand in one direction and another 3,500 miles from South America in the other. And yet, somehow, Google Street View has been there. The whole place was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations in 1988. The nearest settlement is 71 miles away, and has just 40 people on it. And yet, seafaring plastic has turned it into yet another of humanity’s scrapheaps. Lavers took virtual strolls along two of the island’s beaches before she made her epic journey. That’s when she realized just how much plastic there is. Lavers, a researcher at the University of Hobart, have been documenting the extent of plastic pollution on the world’s far-flung islands for years. She and her colleagues spent three months counting its junk. On those beaches, the team ended up finding more than 53,000 pieces of human-made debris. By their estimate, the island’s 14 square miles are home to more than 37 million pieces of junk, weighing a total of 17,000 kilograms. Every square meter of Henderson’s beaches has between 20 and 670 pieces of plastic on the surface and between 50 and 4,500 pieces buried in the topmost 10 centimeters. Also, the junk keeps on coming. Lavers estimates that every day, at least 3,750 fresh pieces of litter wash up on the island’s north beach—an accumulation rate that’s 100,000 times greater than what’s been reported at other places.
The surface layer of the oceans now contains more than five trillion pieces of plastic, mostly in the form of tiny millimeter-wide fragments. Once plastic washes up, it tends to break apart. The sources of the debris are manifold. Lavers and Bond traced the items to 24 different countries from every continent except Antarctica. For Henderson, “clean-up is not an option,” she says. It’s too hard to get to, and too hard to live on. The only way to stop this problem is to cut the plastic off at its source.