Ocean skipper Emily Penn: 'You can't capture the plastic problem but it feels endless'

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
Ocean skipper Emily Penn. Photo credit: Sperry
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For years we’ve used our seas to discover new countries, cultures and aquatic species.

Yet modern sailing missions uncover a different story: one of plastic pollution, environmental damage and loss of marine life. With accounts of growing ‘garbage patches’ across the globe, where plastics are broken up to particles no larger than a fingernail, it can often seem as though the damage we have already done to our planet is irreversible.

But ocean skipper and environmentalist Emily Penn is determined to change the tune.

Four years ago, she set up eXXpedition, a nod to its female membership, which has run a series of voyages made up of all-women crews who conduct vital scientific research to better understand the effects and extent of plastic pollution.

She says: “When I started learning about plastics and chemical pollution I wanted to know if there was a potential that we’re getting these chemicals into us through the ocean and various food chains.

“I had my blood tested, and of 35 chemicals we tested for, I had 29 of them inside my body. The more I learnt about these chemicals, the fact they mimic hormones and can affect pregnancy and we can pass them onto our children when we give birth and breast feed, it got me thinking about how much a female issue it is.”

Penn is keen to emphasise that not enough scientific research has gone into explaining the effects and how the chemicals are getting into human bodies. Given that we are exposed to plastic through so many ways including the pillows we sleep on and the packaging our food comes in, it is difficult to establish a cause and effect conclusion.

eXXpedition was therefore set up to find more answers and, as the tagline demonstrates, ‘make the unseen seen’. The crews are mostly made up of non-sailors who are experts in other areas such as waste management, product design and policy, with an aim to bring together a diverse mixture of people.

But this was about much more than plastics. Penn adds: “Our tagline began with the microplastics and toxics which are unseen but, as we went on, we realised that actually women in science, exploration and sport are also areas where we need to make them seen. eXXpedition is about championing women in all of these areas.”

All projects are set up through partnerships with scientific institutions and are focussed around data collecting, which then goes back to institutions to be published. Women who sign up are warned that the sail is no holiday, but the rewards are worth it.

Penn says: “Because we take novice sailors, we have to be really cautious in terms of dangers. There’s definitely times when it’s really uncomfortable and we have a lot of sea sickness when people are getting used to it.”

Taking a group of newbies on the open sea may seem like a daunting task, but given Penn has been sailing since she was five years old, it’s nothing she cannot temper. Brought up in Welsh coastal town Penarth, Penn went on to race for Britain as a teenager before stopping sailing to focus on her architecture degree.

A real mission

After graduating, Penn had secured a dream job in Australia, but having studied an eco-city for her dissertation she knew she didn’t want to fly to get there. Instead she got a spot hitchhiking on a boat named Earthrace, which ran on 100% biofuel and managed to break the world record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe in just 60 days.

She says: “What I loved the most about the trip was getting that experience along the way. It was perfect because it was a lot of the things I’m passionate about ­– not just sailing, it had a real mission.”

It was on this journey that Penn realised the extent to which plastic had infiltrated its way into every part of the earth. “Every time we jumped into the ocean we could see plastic floating on the surface, and at the time we were a thousand miles from land.”

Instead of taking up the job in Australia, Penn lived a nomadic life for the next eight years, setting up clean-up projects across the South Pacific, the first one being Tonga. “There wasn’t even a word for a rubbish bin in the local language so I quickly realised what I thought was going to be a three-week clean-up project would turn into a six-month education product.”

Penn worked for free, lived with a local family and didn’t travel back home for the first three years. Despite her university friends achieving high-flying jobs in London and professors aghast at how she could turn down such a great career, she could see the plastics cause gaining more traction.

She says: “It took years of not getting paid to do something but feeling that I needed to be doing this. I didn’t go on holiday for many years or buy new clothing, but I got to go snorkelling with humpback whales because they were there. There was something really magical about living that way.”

A western problem?

If only there had been a magic wand to get rid of the plastic that was destroying the natural habitat. Instead, local resources were put under pressure through rising sea levels, which were destroying agriculture and the fishing trade, meaning the islands now had to rely on food imports wrapped in plastic.

Penn says: “There’s a sudden reliance on imported food that all comes wrapped in plastic, and then no infrastructure to deal with it. There was no landfill or incineration, so locals would burn it in the back garden or chuck it in the ocean. Every island we stopped at, we would see this going on.”

What shook Penn most of all was the sheer scale of the problem, describing the marine plastic as a soup. “In my last trip, we would sample and bring up hundreds of pieces of plastic in every sample. In the boat you sleep twice and wake up twice every day, yet every time you wake up, you come on deck and again there’s plastic everywhere. I don’t know how you communicate that to someone, you can’t capture it in photos but it feels endless.”

Penn argues one of problems is a lack of connection with humans and their waste. The old adage ‘out of sight, out of mind’ does not work for plastics, so who is to blame?

“There’s no one person, it’s all of us as individuals. The reason we use so much plastic is because it’s so cheap, and the reason you or I use it is because it’s convenient. But responsibility is everywhere, it’s through all sectors.”

According to charity WasteAid, 70% of the plastic in the oceans comes from places with no waste management. Is it fair to place the onus on Western countries to deal with this issue?

Penn adds: “What I learnt in those small islands was that their own local resources were put under pressure by the Western world through sea level rise. They were forced into a situation where they were relying on plastic to feed themselves.

“We invented plastic and that practice has now been taken on by developing nations, but they don’t have the bandwidth, money, infrastructure to be developing solutions ­– but we do.”

As a Sky Ocean Rescue Ambassador and prolific public speaker, Penn is now based in London where she is currently planning the largest-ever eXXpedition. Though the solution is far from straight-forward, she is optimistic positive change is in motion. “It’s billions of micro actions that have got us in that situation and billions of micro actions will get us out of it.”

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