An all-women 'eXXpedition' into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Courtesy eXXpedition
eXXpedition mission director Emily Penn at the helm.

If you’ve ever wondered what the intersection of women in science, adventure and leadership looks like, here’s a prime example: a multidisciplinary crew of 20 women sailing for a month in a 72-foot research vessel called the Sea Dragon. Covering over 3,000 nautical miles, their journey from Hawaii to Seattle includes a pit stop at the densest ocean plastic accumulation zone on the planet: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

While stemming the tide of plastic waste may seem an intractable problem to many, it hasn’t stopped renowned British skipper Emily Penn from leading just such an expedition. Or, rather, eXXpedition North Pacific, to be specific, a cheeky nod to the female chromosome makeup. The journey, endorsed by the U.N. Environment Clean Seas Initiative, is focused on diving deep into micro-plastics and toxics, and the links to environmental and human health.

As a young woman whose personal journey of sustainability stewardship began with a deep love for the ocean and passion for science, it was an honor to connect mid-expedition with Penn. Here’s a window of insight into what’s happened so far, and the north star guiding their mission.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Shana Rappaport: Emily, let's set the stage. You're in the midst of a major expedition to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Where are you now? Where are you coming from? And what's your next stop along the journey?

Emily Penn: We've just arrived in Vancouver, having spent three weeks at sea crossing the North Pacific Ocean from Hawaii. We have gone through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or what we also call the North Pacific Gyre, which is this accumulation zone where so much of our plastic ends up due to the ocean currents.

Rappaport: And where are you headed next?

Penn: We're about to set off this weekend on the second leg of the voyage from Vancouver, around Vancouver Island, to Seattle. The first leg of our mission was all about trying to better understand what was going on in the center of this gyre. The second part of the voyage that we're about to set off on is looking much more at the coastal implications of the plastic.

Along the way on both voyages we're doing a lot of scientific work where we're collecting samples both from the surface of the water and the seabed, the air and also looking at some of the toxics in our ocean.

Rappaport: Talk a little bit about eXXpedition North Pacific? What's the goal of the expedition? What are you hoping will happen as a result?

Penn: The voyages — we've now just completed our 10th — are all-women expeditions. We're sailing with a group of women from all over the world, different nationalities but also different skills, to explore plastic pollution and also the toxic chemical pollution that's in our oceans. We're looking at how much plastic is out there, but also what impact it's having on both the marine life and also us and our bodies, chemically, as well.

Rappaport: Why all women?

Penn: The more I was learning about the potential toxic implications of these chemicals — persistent organic pollutants we call them — they are pesticides, flame retardants, that are in our ocean. We're finding that we also have them inside our bodies.

For us girls, a lot of those chemicals act as endocrine disruptors; they mimic hormones. So, for us girls having them inside us during pregnancy and the potential to pass them on to our children, is a very big deal. Hence, we wanted to tackle this women's health issue with an amazing all-women crew.

Rappaport: What have you discovered so far? And how does that compare to what you expected? Have there been any surprises along the way?

Penn: I think the biggest surprise on this trip so far has just been the sheer amount of plastic we've seen. So, I mentioned it's our 10th voyage that we've completed. The samples that we pulled out of the water on this trip were higher than anything to date, which is pretty scary because we're seeing a huge increase in awareness about the issue.

Courtesy, eXXpedition
Surface water sample from the Pacific Gyre, showing hundreds of fragments of microplastics.

We feel like on land we're all starting to do things. We're getting good at taking our reusable plastic bags to the shops and using our reusable water bottles. But when it comes to seeing what's happening out there at sea, there's still an increase in the pollution that's finding its way there.

Rappaport: The GreenBiz audience is made up of executives primarily from the private sector — large companies, start-ups, and also progressive government agencies. What's the message you'd like to impart to our audience?

Penn: One of the biggest things we realize from being at sea is mostly how small these fragments of plastic are. Every 10 seconds passing the boat we're seeing something big like a bottle, or a container, a bucket, a washing basket, a cigarette lighter. You know, some sort of recognizable object.

But then when we put the trawl through the water, we pull up 500 fragments of plastic. More and more we realize that we're trying to clean up our ocean when there's trillions of fragments over this very vast, remote area. It seems like a really hard place to start.

So, the main message is we need to be solving this on land. We need to be working as far upstream as we possibly can. By that, we're talking about both the behavior and actions of you and I as individuals.

But, also we're talking about what is industry's role here. How can we redesign our products? How can we redesign our systems in society? And, how can we legislate those both to incentivize industry to do it in the first place, and also so that we can sustain that long-term?