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All-Female Crew Open Eyes to Plastic Pollution Crisis on Round the World Sailing Expedition

All-Female Crew Open Eyes to Plastic Pollution Crisis on Round the World Sailing Expedition content piece image
Analyzing microplastic data. Credit: Copyright Erica Cirino.
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Whilst the problem of plastic pollution and microplastics in our oceans is gradually receiving more attention, there is still so much that we don’t know and so many solutions that need to be found. Where does it come from, how much of a problem is it, where does it end up, what effects is it having on wildlife and people, what happens to it in the food chain, how do we get rid of it…?

, a not-for -profit all-female team, are hoping to address some of these questions. The research expedition crew are sailing around the world, investigating plastic pollution, gathering samples for scientific analysis, and helping to educate the people they meet on their journey about ways to reduce plastic pollution and protect the environment. Whilst some analyses must be done back in the laboratory, the team also have on board a portable Fourier-transform infrared (FT-IR) spectrometer thanks to a partnership with PerkinElmer, enabling them to identify what is and is not plastic, and what types of plastic they are from their samples as they go along. Even awkwardly shaped plastics are no barrier to the “magic plastic-definition device”!

We spoke to Emily Penn, Co-Founder and Mission Director of eXXpedition, and Dr Winnie Courtene-Jones, Science Lead at the University of Plymouth and eXXpedition, about their mission, the voyage and what has come out of the project so far.

Karen Steward (KS): Can you tell us about how the eXXpedition initiative to sail around the world investigating causes and solutions to plastic pollution came about?

Emily Penn (EP): My journey to tackle plastic pollution began over 10 years ago, when I hitch-hiked around the world on a bio-fueled boat to get to a new job in Australia. It was a job I didn't end up taking. Instead, shocked by finding plastic in some of the most remote places on our planet, I chose to live on a group of Pacific islands for six months to organize a community cleanup. I then travelled to California to learn more from some of the experts in the field of ocean plastic. Since then, my career has been dedicated to raising the profile of ocean plastic pollution, which has taken me all over the world facilitating science at sea. I’m also always working on education, outreach and solutions back on land such as: serving as an ambassador for Sky Ocean Rescue whose #PassOnPlastic efforts include events and education to fight single use plastics and do ocean restoration projects; and creating the SHiFT Platform with technology leaders SAP to help individuals and businesses navigate hundreds of solutions and to find their role in taking action on ocean plastic pollution.

In 2014, I co-founded eXXpedition with Lucy Gilliam – organizing all-female research expeditions to investigate the causes of and solutions to ocean plastic pollution. Since 2014, it’s been running voyages taking multidisciplinary women from different backgrounds sailing together.

While on board, the women carry out citizen science for our partner scientists all over the world. We collect data and samples for a large number of projects
to feed into leading global studies on the nature and impact of microplastics, microfibers and toxic chemicals in the ocean. The manta trawl samples are analyzed onboard using the FT-IR instrument and software from PerkinElmer- see our full science program here.

Each eXXpedition voyage also provides an experience, platform and learning opportunity for our amazing multidisciplinary crew. While on board, each member of the crew shares their own experiences on how they became interested in microplastics and the environment and participate in workshops to find where they fit in creating solutions and exploring collaboration opportunities with other members of the team. After completing their voyage, each guest crew joins our already thriving network of eXXpedition ambassadors, taking the message of ocean plastic and achievable actions back to their own communities. Some
examples include starting The Ocean Plastic Speakers Series at Method to design more sustainable packaging, founding the Gala Cabinet Project which hosts kids workshops at schools and festivals on zero waste, making feature films, launching new research and clean-up programs like Impact Blue in Aruba and the Living River Foundation in London; influencing policy changes around single use plastics on the Isle of Man.

In addition, back on shore and all over the world, eXXpedition runs outreach events in collaboration with local organizations and activists - although right now these are being done mostly digitally!

In October 2019, we launched our biggest project yet, eXXpedition Round the World. This project will see 300 multidisciplinary women sail across 30 voyages and 38,000 nautical miles.

KS: Why have you chosen to go for an all-female crew and what sort of backgrounds are participants from?

eXXpedition began as an all-women venture when I was learning about the potential toxic implications of chemicals used in the production of plastic, and other pollutants in our environment. These chemicals are endocrine disruptors which can disrupt hormones during pregnancy and can be passed to our children in the womb or through breastfeeding. Women are also underrepresented in both sailing and science, which we are passionate to address by promoting the positive female role models. But since the first voyage, I have also been blown away by how key the “all women” aspect of these voyages has become. There is something unique about taking a passionate group of women to sea. Boundaries are let down, as we overcome challenges together. Bonds form fast and last for life.

We look for multidisciplinary women to take part – they don't need to be sailors! – with a diverse range of backgrounds, experiences, skill sets and nationalities. On previous voyages, we have had scientists, teachers, artists, product designers, journalists, filmmakers, businesswomen and more!

A big part of our approach to solving the plastic pollution issue is that there’s no silver bullet solution, there’s not one single thing that
alone will end it, but the great news is that there are hundreds of different ways that we can solve it. And so we need experts in every field taking action, so it’s not about everyone becoming a marine biologist or everyone dedicating their lives to this – but it’s about saying, great, you’re an engineer, let’s look at ways we can do better waste management. You’re a chemist, let’s look at ways we can reinvent plastic or a biodegradable material. You’re a teacher, then talk about it. You’re a policy maker, then let’s legislate it.

KS: You are now several months in, how is the voyage going and what are you ultimately hoping to achieve by the end?

We set sail from the UK in October 2019 and the first eight voyage legs have been a huge success. We’ve had 80 women from 28 nationalities on board so far and have sailed over 10,000 nautical miles stopping in nine countries and sailing through two of the five oceanic gyres (ports of call ranged from Azores, Antigua and Aruba to Panama, Galapagos, Panama and Tahiti). We’ve conducted a lot of scientific sampling in some of the remotest parts of our ocean to examine and understand how much plastic is out there and where it’s coming from so we can inform solutions upstream and also what impact it's having on both marine life and on human health.

Ultimately, we’re trying to achieve three things -

To take our all-women crew sailing to carry out and contribute to important scientific research projects. The samples and data we collect feed into global studies on the nature and impact of microplastics, microfibers and toxic chemicals in the ocean.

To shift perceptions on the real problem of plastic pollution using our platform to inform and educate so that people can better understand the challenge of micro-plastics and that clean up alone is not a solution, that the actions and solutions we need start on land.

To provide an experience, platform and learning opportunity for our amazing multidisciplinary crew. While on board, each member of our multidisciplinary crew shares their own experiences, supports novel and innovative scientific research, participates in workshops to find where they fit in creating solutions and explores collaboration opportunities with other members of the team. After completing their voyage, each guest crew joins our already thriving network of eXXpedition ambassadors, taking the message of ocean plastic and achievable actions back to their own communities.

Microplastic analysis at sea. Credit: Copyright eXXpedition and Erica Cirino.

KS: Can you tell us about some of the scientific and analytical techniques that you are using on the trip and what they are telling you?

Winnie Courtene-Jones (WCJ):
During the Round The World voyage we’ve carried out a wide variety of scientific investigations; from studying microplastics at the water’s surface down to the sediment, and from the microscopic (such as studying the bacteria and viruses colonizing the surface of the plastics), to large-scale testing methods to detect plastic litter from space.

On-board we use a manta trawl to sample microplastics in the surface of the ocean and a NISKIN bottle to collect sub-surface water from a depth of 25 m to understand how microplastics are sinking through the water column. We also collect sediment using a grab sampler when we are in coastal waters. The majority of what we find are microplastics: small fragments which have broken off from larger plastic items, however understanding the sources of these small pieces of plastic can be challenging, and the first step is to work out what type of plastic they are.

Also, on-board we have the PerkinElmer Spectrum Two FT-IR spectrometer, and this portable yet powerful instrument plus the Spectrum 10 software allows us to do just that, determine and classify the fragments we find. The FT-IR spectrometer uses infrared light to identify plastic polymers, so we can work out whether the fragment is made of polyethylene, polypropylene or any other type of plastic. The software then allows us to visualize and manage the data and results.

The sediment and NISKIN bottle samples are analyzed using micro-FTIR back in the laboratory at the University of Plymouth.

KS: What have been the biggest challenges so far?

The combination of remote ocean sailing, scientific research at sea and bringing together crews of international multidisciplinary women with mixed levels of sailing experiences makes offshore sailing expeditions, extremely challenging feats to pull off! It is a delicate formula to get right. Happily, we seem to have found the right balance over the years! For us, no doubt, the greatest challenge we've faced is what we're facing right now with the global pandemic of COVID-19.

Like everyone around the world we're working hard to adapt to these changing times.
We paused the sailing part of eXXpedition Round the World for 12 months in Tahiti after 6 months at sea as safety and travel restrictions make it impossible to continue the route as planned and we’re putting our energy into a Year of Virtual Impact program which kicks off with the launch of the SHiFT Platform on World Oceans Day.

KS: Are there plans for future expeditions?

Our next great adventure is this Year of Virtual Impact program we’re working on due to the coronavirus. Working with our industry partners we’ve got some exciting digital tools and initiative launches on the horizon including the launch of the SHiFT Platform on World Oceans Day 2020 (embargoed press release above)!

We're excited to work closely with SAP, for example, leveraging
technology and their Qualtrics customer experience solution to create a custom-built digital platform - SHiFT Platform - that can help people navigate hundreds of ways to solve the ocean plastics issue and explore the solutions that are most relevant to them. Beyond finding their role in reducing plastic waste, we're also inviting people to take action and collaborate with others making an impact around the world.

Also, in the meantime, we are continuing our science on land with PerkinElmer’s FT-IR technology looking to continue analyses of the samples we’ve collected to help feed the global thinking and research around microplastics.

Emily Penn and Dr Winnie Courtene-Jones were speaking to Dr Karen Steward, Science Writer for Technology Networks.