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. To get there, Jennifer Lavers had to fly from Tasmania to Tahiti, catch a small, once-a-week plane to the Gambier Islands, join a freight ship that had already sailed for 10 days from New Zealand, and ask it to change course for Henderson. No ship travels there unless you specifically ask it to.

And yet, somehow, Google Street View has been there. 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.

You can see for yourself. Pull Henderson Island up on Google Maps and drag the yellow avatar to the bottom of the eastern beach. Now, start walking. It starts unobtrusively: a bottle here, a bit of tubing there. But soon, the scraps pile up until the sand is carpeted in multi-colored junk.

When Lavers actually arrived on Henderson, she found that the situation was even worse than the images had suggested. At her landing site, her team immediately came across a truck tire—so large and deeply buried that they couldn’t move it. “That was a warning,” she said. “It got worse and worse. There’s an area that we call the garbage patch, where you can’t put your foot down without stepping on a bottle cap. The sheer volume really took my breath away for all the wrong reasons.”

Henderson should be pristine. It is uninhabited. Tourists don’t go there. There’s no one around to drop any litter. 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. “It’s truly one of the last paradises left on earth, and one of the least visited but heavily protected bits of land on the planet,” Lavers says. “But I don’t think I’ve stood somewhere and been so utterly and completely surrounded by plastic.”

The team found several purple hermit crabs that had taken to shoving their junk in junk, using bottle caps and other detritus in lieu of seashells. Other island residents weren’t so lucky; at least one sea turtle had become fatally entangled in fishing line. And the team themselves struggled to cope. “After a while, your brain has to shut off,” says Lavers. “You focus on things like a toy solider or some dice—something that reminds you of something fun from your childhood. That’s the coping mechanism.”

A purple hermit crab on Henderson Island. Credit: Jennifer Lavers

Lavers, a researcher at the University of Hobart, has been documenting the extent of plastic pollution on the world’s far-flung islands for years. She and her colleagues, including Alexander Bond from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, arrived on Henderson in 2015, and spent three months counting its junk.

It was not an easy experience. Sure, there were sandy beaches, swaying palm trees, and breathtaking vistas. But the island has no fresh water, and it’s frequently hit by storms that would launch coconuts—or entire trees—onto the team’s tents in the middle of the night. Also, Henderson is a coral atoll, which means that most of its land consists of razor-sharp rocks that sliced their way through the team’s shoes. They ended up scavenging rope from the beach to lash their disintegrating footwear together. “Except for some narrow stretches of sandy beach, the rest of the island wants to kill you,” says Lavers.

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.  

If these estimates are right, parts of Henderson have the highest densities of plastic debris reported anywhere in the world. But Jenna Jambeck, from the University of Georgia, notes that the data are incredibly variable. And Denise Hardesty, from CSIRO, Australia’s federal research agency, says that it’s hard to compare across sites because different sampling methods can produce vastly different results. Still, whether the numbers break records or not, it’s clear from the photos alone that Henderson is home to an ungodly amount of garbage—as are other supposedly pristine islands.

The surface layer of the oceans now contains more than five trillion pieces of plastic, mostly in the form of tiny millimeter-wide fragments. “It’s impressive, the amount of plastic just floating in the middle of nowhere,” says researcher Leandra Gonçalves, who has spent time doing surveys of oceanic plastics. Coasts act as sinks for that floating litter, especially if they sit within circular ocean currents called gyres. Once our trash enters these currents, it can go on an long voyage until a shoreline interrupts its path. Henderson, however, is only on the outskirts of the South Pacific gyre. “It shows that just about any major current can transport plastic,” says Lavers.

Once plastic washes up, it tends to break apart. “If a milk jug or water bottle washes ashore on a remote island, it’s brittle from UV radiation,” says Hardesty. “It’s in a location where wave and wind, acting against hard physical objects like sand and stones, can break it into smaller pieces. Now that single item has now become hundreds or thousands of very small fragments.” And those become buried—a permanent part of their island homes.

The sources of the debris are manifold. Lavers and Bond traced the items to 24 different countries from every continent except Antarctica. “That told us that no country is more or less to blame for this,” she says. “It’s not just commercial fisheries or cruise ships. A lot of this came from storm drains, and probably litter on beaches in—goodness knows, pick a city anywhere in the world.”

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.

The total junk on Henderson—all 17,000 kilograms of it—represents just 2 seconds of the world’s plastic production, which has increased by 180 times over the last six decades. “We need to factor the environmental costs into that production, so that it’s not just 1 or 2 cents to buy a straw, or a takeaway container,” says Lavers.  “We use plastic in every single aspect of our society, and we can’t just change one or two things.”