Stratford company Valpak is joining world-famous scientists to tackle plastic waste on a remote UNESCO World Heritage site in the Pacific. James Beard of Valpak is part of the 13-person team which will clean up 10 tonnes of plastic from the beaches, monitor the impact of litter on local wildlife, and provide scientific data on the rate of plastic accumulation.
Although no one lives on Henderson Island, which is part of the Pitcairn Group, it has one of the highest levels of plastic rubbish on the planet.
James said: “Despite its isolation, Henderson Island is estimated to contain 38 million pieces of plastic litter which have been swept into the South Pacific Gyre. It really shows the scale of the marine litter problem. Once plastics make their way into the oceans, they can travel far away from their original home – scientists visiting Henderson have found litter from as far away as Croatia.”
Packaging compliance scheme Valpak, which was recently acquired by Telford-based outsourced recycling services company Reconomy, is a sponsor for the expedition. International experts Dr Jennifer Lavers and Dr Alex Bond will be leading the science team, looking at the impact of plastic on sea birds that consume it, to the hermit crabs that turn it into homes.
James explained: “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.”
Henderson Island, which is part of the Pitcairn group, is a 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.
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.
“Plastic has become a cornerstone of our society because it is so versatile,” said James. “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. Our first day on Henderson will coincide with World Oceans Day, and it has never been more timely to look at the importance of our oceans and the impact that our actions have on the health of our seas. While 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. 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.”
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.