‘We can stop the pollution at source’: Emily Penn, Exxpedition, on tackling ocean plastic
Image credit: Nick Smith
An all-woman trans-global ocean expedition has just set sail from the UK to investigate how plastic contamination is affecting the state of the oceans. Mission director of Exxpedition Round the World 2019-21, Emily Penn, explains all.
“Because we live on land, it’s easy to overlook problems the world’s oceans face,” says Emily Penn. “I’ve seen enough science on this to show me that people need to change their attitudes to plastic in the sea. But at the same time, I’m aware that when you try to solve something and you don’t really know where to start, the best solution can be hard to find.”
Penn, mission director of the all-female trans-global scientific voyage of discovery ‘Exxpedition Round the World 2019-21’, says that when addressing environmental problems on this scale, she takes an approach attributed to Albert Einstein. The theoretical physicist, when asked what he’d do if he had an hour to save the planet, is thought to have said that he’d spend 59 minutes looking at the problem and one minute resolving it. Whether or not Einstein did say this is immaterial for Penn, who is constantly aware of the perils of “going full pelt in one direction without thinking through the consequences in detail first”.
Penn’s response is ‘Exxpedition’ – the two ‘x’s are there to represent the pair of sex chromosomes denoting ‘female’ – which set sail from Plymouth on 8 October. Over the next two years the 73ft sailing vessel TravelEdge will take 34-year-old Penn and her revolving crew of 300 women through the most important and diverse marine environments on the planet, including four of the five oceanic gyres where plastic is known to accumulate. The voyage will cover 38,000 nautical miles over 30 legs. While its scientific objective is to study marine microplastics and toxins, Exxpedition is also a “celebration of women in STEM”.
“The plastic pollution challenge our oceans face is a global one, and it will take an army of passionate, skilled and experienced people to tackle it,” says Penn. “Our expedition presents an opportunity to build a comprehensive picture of the state of our seas, while conducting much-needed research that will inform practical and effective solutions to ocean pollution.”
While most of us will have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gyre containing trillions of plastic particles over an area at least the size of Texas, the public perception of marine plastic contaminants is that of a marine equivalent to landfill, in which floating food containers and bottles clog up the water from horizon to horizon. Yet the reality is different, with Penn describing the accumulation zones as “more like soup. Every 10 seconds you’ll see a visible piece of plastic on the ocean surface, but the majority of what’s there can’t be seen in that sense.
At its most dense, there will be more than half a million fragments in an area of one square kilometre. The scale of the problem is vast and growing, and because the oceans have highways of currents, debris can get picked up and whisked away, making it very hard to clean up.” The problem is that we simply don’t know enough about oceans. “We know more about the Moon,” says Penn.
The reason for knowing so little is simply that oceans are so big and, until the 20th century, explorers – with some noble and notable exceptions – have tended to be more concerned with discovering where things are to draw maps for political, commercial and navigational purposes. However, the fact that we know ‘where everything is’ doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to explore, and Penn is keen to point out that the minute you go off the beaten track at sea “you’re looking at something that hasn’t been looked at very much. We are exploring in the very real sense that we are a group of women trying to understand the impact microplastics and toxins have on the oceans of the world. We have a tagline: ‘making the unseen seen.’ This can be achieved through science and transformative experiences. For many of the women, these explorations are what they consider to be their greatest achievements.” The key point to remember when exploring the oceans, says Penn, is that even with the most wide-ranging expeditions, “you’re only covering a tiny fraction of what’s out there”.
‘Round the World’ is the latest in a sequence of marine science missions conducted by Exxpedition, a not-for-profit established in 2014 with the aim of investigating causes and solutions to ocean plastic. With 11 voyages already completed under the brand, Penn felt it was time to ‘scale up’ and put together a circumnavigation. Penn’s motive for making it an all-female enterprise is simple: she wants to create role models that will get women into what she sees as male-oriented professions. She insists that the exclusion of men from her projects has no hint of feminist crusading to it: “It’s simply about science. Bringing together women from all over the world and with different skillsets and levels of experience. Having this diversity can only add to the success of the expedition. We’re all there to help each other.” She actively doesn’t want men to feel excluded: “We all have a role to play. What can the company you work for do to get involved?”
Penn’s involvement originates from her interest in how plastics enter the food chain and, ultimately, our bloodstreams. Curious to see how much microplastic was in her own system, she had a blood test and discovered that of the 35 substances she was being screened for – some of them toxic – she had 29 floating around in her. If she was worried to find there were carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, she was shocked to find that these could be passed on during pregnancy and breastfeeding, “and so these plastics get passed on through the generations. As this is a women-centred issue, I set out to start an expedition with just women. The first voyage was a very powerful experience as it brought together a tribe of women, and the bonding was incredible. It’s a powerful way to create change. The times are changing. Our voyages have made a bigger impact than they would have done with just men, and the bonding onboard may have helped this.”
There are three clearly defined aspects to Penn’s voyage. First, there is the science programme that will gather data from water surface sampling, air sampling, as well as data on microplastic count and weight density, material types and so on: “It’s like a forensic exercise in marine plastics.” The programme is led by Dr Winnie Courtene-Jones of the University of Plymouth and developed with ocean plastic experts Professor Richard Thompson, head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at Plymouth, and Professor Jenna Jambeck, Associate Professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia. Second is simply “communicating the story of the plastics issue to a wider audience”, (Penn eagerly informs me that as a journalist in the field of the public understanding of engineering and technology, I’m “already helping”). Third, there is education outreach into communities and schools: “We’ll be stopping to talk to people, explaining the situation in a relatable way – we’re not all necessarily scientists, but we are passionate people, everyday women. Story-telling is an important part of the expedition.”
Penn goes on to outline that this three-pronged approach will create the opportunity to do land-based community science with groups she meets on the voyage, where “we can discuss challenges such as why plastic is ending up in the ocean. We can investigate what is mismanaged at a local level and exchange knowledge. Beyond that, we can extend the reach of our story through wider communications via blogs and social media, the media and so on. We will be building an army of women who understand the situation and its solutions, along with how they can transfer this knowledge to local communities or their fields of work. Creating change is the legacy of the project.”
It was probably inevitable, says Penn, that she would eventually do “something involved with the sea”. Born in Swansea on the Welsh side of the Bristol Channel, she started dinghy sailing at the age of six, got into racing a few years later, and by the time she was in her teens, was representing Wales and Great Britain in competitive sailing. Yet, despite a childhood spent surrounded by water, she then went up to the University of Cambridge to read architecture – “everyone should study architecture at some point in their life” – and wrote her dissertation on carbon-free cities. On graduation in 2006, she got a job as an architect in Australia and, because of her environmental principles, decided to hitch there by crossing the oceans. Her ‘ride’ was the Earthrace conservation vessel (the fastest biodiesel-fuelled boat on the planet) aboard which she put her logistics and organisational skills towards her goal of sailing to Australia. En route she became aware of ocean plastic, and on making landfall shunned the opportunity to become an architect in favour of “a series of projects and expeditions that have led to today. It was one gap year after another.”
One of these projects took Penn to Tonga, where she had already witnessed widespread environmental pollution. Walking past a local school one day and barely believing her eyes, she saw some people disposing of unwanted computer terminals by burying them in the ground. “I remember thinking: ‘I don’t know the answer to this, but it doesn’t look good.’ But what I did know enough about was computers, and they could contaminate fresh water. It was at this point I realised that I was never going to be an architect and that I was going to continue with what I was doing. In Tonga I saw huge piles of waste and no waste management system in place, collapsed fisheries, salty land created by rising sea levels where no crops would grow, and large importation of plastics.”
It was the project in Tonga that was to pave the way via a series of interrelated expeditions and projects to the Round the World expedition. “I lived on Tonga for six months, during which time I became more interested in gyres, which in turn led to the ‘accumulation’ project. After that, the next big project was to study gyres.” At the time, gyres had been mathematically predicted but, apart from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, remained unstudied. “The aim of this project was to study the other four gyres. It was then I realised the scale of the issues involved and the unanswered questions.”
Penn believes that you can’t even start to create solutions until you’ve reached a deep understanding of the problems, and the best way is to see for yourself. “These voyages are doing that – taking others to see first-hand what’s going on, by bringing the net in and seeing the plastic.” In that way we will reach an understanding of “the gravity of the issue, and how something has to be done”.
What can be done? Penn admits that cleaning the ocean is probably realistically “too difficult” to be done: “Something you can really appreciate when you’re out on the ocean. But we can stop putting things in it. We can stop the pollution at source. There’s no reason to keep manufacturing non-recyclable plastics.”
However, even a change in the materials is not going to have the sort of effect that Penn is looking for, as the problem is essentially one of economics. “It’s simply not financially viable in many parts of the world to recycle. Some companies will argue that virtually anything can be recycled, but the harsh reality is that with a lack of standardisation on plastics in general, some will be better suited for recycling than others.”
It’s a sombre note to end on, but for Penn “it’s not too late for the ocean”. She remains undeterred by negative thoughts while being sufficiently self-aware that her optimism has “idealism in there”. Ultimately, Round the World is a science expedition “designed to advance a better understanding of the plastics issue as a whole” and the further aim of “working with industry to pinpoint solutions and policy at a global level”. The scientific returns from her expedition will help to “address knowledge-gaps and deliver evidence to inform effective solutions.”
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