As It Happens

'It really starts to sink in': Leader of all-female plastic pollution voyage

Emily Penn just set sail with the first of 30 groups of women who will be spending the next two years touring the world's oceans, trying to solve the problem of plastic pollution and studying its effects on marine life.

Female crew members come from all nationalities and walks of life, says skipper and project founder Emily Penn

A group of women take part in a past eXXpedition mission, examining plastic samples pulled from the ocean. (eXXpedition)


Two years, 38,000 nautical miles, and 300 women. Emily Penn hopes if you add that all up, you'll find a solution to plastic pollution. Or more accurately, a whole bunch of solutions. 

Penn is a skipper who founded an organization called eXXpedition back in 2014 to tackle the problem of plastics in the world's oceans by sailing them. 

On Tuesday, she set sail with the first of 30 rotating groups of female crew members who will be spending the next 24 months at sea. Together, they will cruise the globe — taking samples, crafting policy prescriptions and surveying the situation first-hand. 

Penn spoke to As it Happens host Carol Off shortly before leaving port in Plymouth, England. Here is some of their conversation. 

Between Oct. 2019 and Sept. 2021, some 300 women will take part in the eXXpedition mission to study plastic pollution. (Sophie Bolesworth/eXXpedition)

You're about to set sail ... Tell us about the itinerary for the next two years. 

So we're setting off around the world to 30 different voyage-leg locations. So the first one is the Azores, and then we'll sail across the Atlantic onto the Caribbean and beyond. And along the journey, we will visit four of these five oceanic gyres — the accumulation zones where plastic eventually ends up — and also the Arctic.

And through doing that, we will do manta-trawl samples, where we find out what's going on on the surface of the ocean. But we're also going to be looking down into what's sinking ... into the water column and also the seabed. And we're really trying to understand what plastic is out there, which types of waste are being mismanaged, and therefore where are our opportunities on land to solve it. 

There's been studies [and] research on this. What don't you know you want to learn on this trip?

It's really about understanding what types of plastic are there. So we know that we have over five-trillion fragments of plastic in the ocean ... But also it's trying to understand: Is it tire dust? Is it microfibres from our clothing? Is it pre-production pellets that haven't even got into the hands of a consumer yet?

You know, really what is the plastic that's out there? And therefore, where do we need to be focusing our energies on land — with industry and with policy change — to really prevent any more of this plastic going in?

An animated map of the projected route the eXXpedition will follow around the world. (eXXpedition)

The crew members on this voyage are entirely women ... Why just women?

Originally I had a blood test to find out which chemicals I have inside my body. And it turned out a lot of these chemicals are endocrine disruptors that mimic hormones. And those really impact women when they're pregnant in stopping those important chemical messages moving around the body. And also we can pass them on to our children.

So I thought, "Why not tackle this issue with an all-female crew?" and set out in 2014 to do so. And it was such a positive experience of how the crew came together and the powerful experience that they had on board that we've decided to scale it. 

Emily Penn briefs members of her crew prior to departure from Plymouth, England. (Submitted by Emily Penn/eXXpedtion)

This isn't 300 scientists — these are women from different kinds of backgrounds. Why do you want journalists, artists, teachers? What's the point of that?

So we realize that there's no silver bullet solution to solving this plastics issue. But the good news is there are hundreds of things that we can do. But to do that, you need women from all different backgrounds and all different skill sets — or what we call superpowers — to tackle the problem from different angles.

A designer, for example, would really look at how we design our products that are made from plastic. So the fact that at the moment, plastic bags, plastic water bottles, drinking straws, coffee cups — all this packaging that we use in our daily lives — it's all made out of this material that lasts forever. But we use it for things to be used once and then thrown away. And that's simply a design challenge that needs to be modified. So that's a role that they can play. [And] we need chemists to develop new materials. And we need artists and communicators to really be able to shift behaviour and get people thinking differently about the way we do things. 

Do you think that somebody who is on this tour with you — how would it change them? How do you think someone would come back different?

Yeah, it's a really powerful experience, going to sea. And partly when you get out there with a group as women — you're all heading in the same direction, you're all standing night watch, you're driving the boat, you're cooking dinner. You're part of this team that's required to get to your destination. That alone puts you in a really interesting headspace.

Then you might get seasick, and bond heavily with your crew members around you. And then see this pretty shocking sight when we get to these gyres, and we call up trawl after trawl of micro-plastics on board, and we analyze them. And it really starts to sink in.

Emily Penn is the founder of eXXpedition. The double X represents the two X chromosomes possessed by the skipper and each of her fellow female crew members. (Sperry/eXXpedition)

That's happened to you, right? You saw the Pacific Garbage Patch. What kind of a reaction did you have when you first saw it?

Exactly. It happened to me 12 years ago. I was crossing the Pacific — not looking for plastic. And there it was, when I jumped in the ocean.

And, I mean, my life's never been the same since. I've spent every day of the last 12 years working on projects to try and solve the problem.

And so these voyages really do shift your perspective, and also arm you with the knowledge, the story and the community that you need to tackle it when you get back home.

Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A edited for length and clarity. 


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