Navigating our way towards a plastic-free ocean
One of the things that I love about being at sea is how you constantly have to react to the changes in the environment around you. If the wind picks up, or the waves change direction, you have to adjust your sails and shift your course – sometimes your life depends on your response.
This idea of reacting and shifting direction has shaped how I’ve lived my life. One morning, during a journey around the world on a biofueled powerboat called Earthrace, I jumped over the side, mid-Pacific, for my daily wash. I saw a toothbrush, then a cigarette lighter, and a bottle top. We were 800 miles from land – it didn’t make any sense.
This is what I like to call my ‘shift moment’ – that point in time when everything changed and I couldn’t look back. It sparked a new career for me – leading sailing expeditions on a 72ft research vessel, on a mission to understand the true problem of plastic pollution in the ocean and, ultimately, how we solve it.
We visited small islands to find communities struggling to catch fish and grow food due to pressures on their local resources. This led to a new reliance on imported food often packaged in plastic. With nowhere for the waste to go it ended up on the beach, in the ocean, or burnt. I also saw plastic washing up on the shoreline with labels in languages I didn’t even recognise. So in 2010 I set sail in search of the so-called ‘gyres’ or plastic accumulation zones to find out more.
We went looking for islands of plastic – but were surprised to find that plastic doesn’t just float around in big rafts out there. That would be something we could easily clean up. It’s only when we put a fine mesh net across the surface of the water and pulled it up on board we realised what’s truly there – hundreds, thousands, and what we now know to be trillions, of microplastics. We find them in every inch of ocean, right down to the seabed.
These microplastics get mistaken for food, which opens up a whole new series of questions. If the plastic is getting into the food chain – our food chain – could this mean toxic chemicals are getting inside us? I decided to have my blood tested, to find out what chemicals I have inside me. We chose to test for 35 that are banned by the UN because they are known to be toxic to humans. Of those 35 chemicals, we found 29 of them in my blood.
I went on to learn about the impact these chemicals can have, particularly on women during pregnancy, and that we can pass them on to our children. This is when, in 2014, we started eXXpedition – a series of multinational, multidisciplinary all-women sailing voyages to explore solutions to plastic and toxic pollution from the equator to the poles.
It’s become clear that microplastics are fairly impossible to clean up. Instead we now have to ask ourselves how we can stop plastic getting into the ocean, and our bodies, in the first place and essentially ‘turn off the tap’. If, through our scientific work at sea, we can identify what plastics are present in the ocean and trace them to where they’re coming from, we may also be able to pinpoint where the solutions lie.
Sometimes we find plastic at sea where the source is obvious, or literally written all over it – a brand name or a country of origin! But most of the time, this plastic soup is so fragmented it has become anonymous and no longer resembles what it once was. So we work like detectives to pick up on clues to lead us to the source.
We run the samples through our FTIR (Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy) machine which determines the polymer type. Is it PET that may have come from food packaging? Or polyamide fibres that have come from our clothes? Or tyre dust shed from our vehicles when we go for a drive? There’s still lots of analysis to be done, but the preliminary data is already showing some interesting results. Polyethylene stands out, making up the majority of plastic found in our samples. Close behind is polyamide and polypropylene.
Our research has shown us that the sources of plastic pollution are endless. This means the solutions are too. There is no silver bullet. We need to tackle the problem from every angle. For many people this message can feel overwhelming. Should I switch my packaging to biodegradable plastic, glass or paper, or do I need to redesign my product completely? Should I put a filter on my washing machine, or make clothes from bamboo, or rethink the way we sell clothing all together? We know we need all these solutions, but many of us need help to work out which one to use and when!
So we built an online platform called SHiFT.how to help people and organisations navigate hundreds of ways to tackle plastic pollution, and find their place to start. You apply filters to help find a solution that’s right for you, from simple consumer choices to more complex industry action. It’s been used in 146 countries and new solutions are added all the time.
Using technology in this way has allowed us to scale up our impact by making solutions accessible and relevant to a larger number of people and ultimately helps to drive change ‘upstream’. By getting businesses involved in innovating and implementing new and diverse solutions we can build a circular economy and get closer to the source of the problem.
Plastic pollution doesn’t know political or cultural borders. We share one planet and global problems transcend all boundaries, which means the solutions need to as well.
For me, navigating our way through this global problem comes down to three things; diversity of solutions, working across boundaries, and being prepared to grab opportunities and adapt like a decade at sea has taught me. We need to shift our sails and adjust our course as if our life depends on it… because it does.
We don’t need everyone to do everything, but we need everyone to do something. It’s time to find your role. It’s time to act.
Visit emilypenn.com to learn more about Emily's work.
Emily Penn is an ocean advocate, skipper and impassioned expert on plastic pollution. For 15 years she’s been at the helm of change: putting the plastics issue on the map, shaping the conversation and catalysing action.
Emily founded eXXpedition, a series of all-women sailing voyages, on a mission to help people grasp the true challenge of ocean plastic pollution, so they can use their skills to solve it from sea to source.
She’s sailed 80,000 miles – from the tropics to the Arctic – leading voyages that have changed science and lives. She’s inspired and worked with everyone from community leaders to CEOs and scientists to heads of state. In 2021 she was awarded the British Empire Medal by the Queen.