Cleaning the World’s Most Polluted Beach: Howell Conservation Fund

Volunteers clear pollution on Henderson Island, an isolated island in the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific

This Story of Impact is part of our United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) feature series.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity. The 17 SDGs are integrated—they recognize that action in one area will affect outcomes in others, and that development must balance social, economic, and environmental sustainability.

These six Stories of Impact feature the top three most funded and bottom three least funded SDGs by CAF America donors. More information can be found in our upcoming SDG Report, set to be released in January 2024.

The Extraordinary Clean Up of Henderson Island

In the South Pacific Ocean, where turquoise waters meet remote islands, a critical mission to support “Life Below Water” began unfolding in 2019. CAF America supported Howell Conservation Fund (HCF) in their Henderson Island Plastic Pollution Expedition, a journey to the island with the world’s most plastic polluted beach in an effort to combat plastic pollution and preserve marine ecosystems. HCF’s work embodies United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #14, Life Below Water, which aims to conserve and sustainably use ocean, sea, and marine resources for sustainable development. Howell Conservation Fund traveled to Henderson Island (part of the Pitcairn Islands), home to the world’s most plastic-polluted beach due to its location within the South Pacific Gyre. Waves of ocean plastic had been washing ashore for years, leaving this once-pristine paradise littered with waste. The challenge was twofold: to cleanse this island of its plastic scourge, and to address the root causes of the pervasive pollution.

HCF joined forces with CAF America and Exponent Philanthropy to engage a global network of generous donors and fund an international expedition to clean up the island’s polluted shores. Along the 2.5km stretch of sandy beach, an estimated 18 tons of plastic had accumulated at a rate of several thousand pieces each day. The first part of an extraordinary cleanup operation on Henderson Island took place in 2019 and successfully both cleared 100% of the beach and removed approximately 14,000 pounds of plastic waste, down to bottle cap-sized materials.

The expedition was led by Robin Shackell, veteran diplomat and Deputy Governor of the Pitcairn Islands at the time, and the beach cleanup team was led by HCF founder, Brett Howell. These men and a small but dedicated crew of marine conservationists and recycling experts spent eleven days cleaning the island’s coastline. Their intense efforts involved hiking through dense vegetation, navigating coral reefs, and collecting data on the vast amounts of plastic debris, all while removing plastic pollution. The team overcame many unexpected obstacles, including a shipwreck, treacherous terrain, and unpredictable weather to succeed in their mission of cleaning up the island’s East Beach.

Seagull stands among trash-covered beaches of Henderson Island

Image: Seagull stands among trash-covered beaches of Henderson Island

Volunteer team treks through the waters cleaning up trash surrounding Henderson Island beach

Image: Volunteers treks through the waters cleaning up trash surrounding Henderson Island

What’s Next for Henderson Island and HCF?

In 2024, Howell Conservation Fund will launch the “Henderson Island 2024 Expedition, The Impossible Cleanup” to finish the work that they started five years ago. This expedition will be a collaboration with Plastic Odyssey, a French nonprofit organization that is running a three-year effort tackling the urgent issue of plastic pollution in our oceans.

Success for the 2024 expedition will include:

  • Removing the 14,000+ pounds of plastic waste that was collected in 2019, which currently sits in bags above the high-tide line
  • Cleaning and removing new waste that has accumulated since the last expedition
  • Recycling the plastic in a positive and useful way for the Pitcairn Community, using existing approaches developed by Plastic Odyssey
  • Telling the story through global media and a film

Howell Conservation Fund is also involved in various projects beyond their work on Henderson Island. They provide catalytic grants and program support to other nonprofits developing innovative solutions for conservation issues. Past grantees and partners have included organizations such as Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation, which focuses on plastic pollution mitigation for marine health, and the Earth Law Center on Coral Reefs, which worked with HCF to establish a new protection framework for global coral reef success. HCF also recently awarded eight additional grants through their Catalytic Fund, supporting climate tech nonprofits such as Beach Collective, which incentivizes community-run beach cleanups and mangrove restoration through digital tokens, and Blue Latitudes Foundation, which conducts geospatial mapping of fisheries for the development of offshore energy projects.

Team of volunteers that cleaned up the beaches of Henderson Island

Image: Team of volunteers celebrate cleaning up the beaches of Henderson Island

HCF’s expedition to Henderson Island stands as a testament to what collective global action can achieve in our shared mission of Sustainable Development Goal #14 Life Below Water to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development.

You can read more about the 2024 Henderson Island expedition and HCF’s other programs on their website or connect with Executive Director & Founder, Brett Howell.

Sign up to learn more about the upcoming SDG Report here, and learn more about the great work done by organizations we support by viewing our other Stories of Impact.

About the Author

  • Margot Cunningham

    Margot Cunningham serves as CAF America’s Officer of Marketing and Communications. Her responsibilities include planning, creating, and implementing marketing and communications strategies, with a focus on building awareness of our mission and engaging prospects and donors with long-form content and event opportunities.

Make a Gift Today

With CAF America, you can confidently make a contribution to support an established fund or a validated international grantee.

Partner with a leader in cross-border giving

We invite you to ask us about giving through our vetted global network.

Join our mailing list

Stay up to date on the latest trends and stories in cross-border philanthropy.