eXXpedition is an all-female sailing voyage and scientific research mission investigating the causes of and solutions to ocean plastic pollution. In a rare epoch when Emily Penn is landbound (due to lockdown), Libby Munford took the chance to interview the co-founder and mission director, to discover all about the mission, ethos of the project, and how the packaging industry can get involved and benefit from the findings.

LM: Can you tell me a bit about your background and explain what eXXpedition is all about?

EP: I had a job lined up in Australia, and I wanted to get there from England without taking an aeroplane, partly to minimize my carbon footprint but also because I didn’t want to miss all of the bits in between. I ended up finding a place on a boat that was going around the world and set off on this amazing adventure across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

What I wasn’t expecting to find was plastic thousands of miles from land, and I started seeing plastic as an issue at a time when people weren’t really talking about it. From there, I was led off in a completely different career direction.

First, I set up a waste management system on a small island in Tonga, then I went to investigate the accumulation zones where a lot of ocean plastic ends up, before setting up eXXpedition a few years later.

LM: Could you tell me a bit more about how the project itself works?

EP: When I originally started, I realised that plastics were breaking up into microplastics, and we weren’t finding these big islands of trash that we thought we were going out there to look for. This brought up the realisation that they might be getting into the food chain and made me think about how we could clean this up.

For example, after a blood test, I found that chemicals used in the production of plastic were actually inside my body. Some of these chemicals are endocrine disruptors that mimic hormones and can particularly impact women when we’re pregnant, giving birth, or breastfeeding – which can affect future generations. This is what led me to the idea of trying to tackle this problem with a team of women.

Our first expedition set out across the north Atlantic Ocean in 2014 to do more research into a pile of unanswered questions around health and microplastics. Our aim is to sail around the world to four of the accumulation zones and the Arctic with a multi-disciplined team of 300 women from across the world.

Our first aim is to conduct scientific research to try and learn about the kinds of plastics that are out there. To do this, we collect samples and analyse them onboard, allowing us to determine the polymer type of the plastic, the industry it might have come from, how it might be moving in ocean currents and where it originated. 

Our second aim is communication. This means going out to very remote parts of the planet and shedding light on what’s going on. The third aim of our project is to build a community of changemakers, because we all need to step up – it can’t just be down to politicians and companies.

LM: It seems like the key to this is collaboration, and you mentioned that eXXpedition involves women from across multiple industries. Are there any participants or sponsors from the packaging industry that you can highlight?

EP: One of our partners is TOMRA, the recycling company. Kristine Berg, who works for TOMRA, has joined a couple of our expeditions to the North and South Pacific and has become really familiar with the issues that TOMRA is trying to solve. We also had a crew member from Mondi who joined us on an expedition to the North Atlantic to see the impacts there as well.

These people can carry really important messages back to their companies and wider communities.

LM: From my perspective, there is a real lack of female professionals in the packaging industry. Why was it so important to you to have all-female crews?

EP: I did a test and found that, out of the 35 banned chemicals that are used in plastics, I had 29 of them in my blood – this was shocking. As I mentioned earlier, these chemicals can be really dangerous when women are breastfeeding or pregnant. This was my initial driver to identify this as a critical issue for women.

The bonding that happened on our first all-female voyage was really powerful, and it was great to see how relationships were formed and have carried on for years afterwards. That’s why we’re still working in this way.

LM: I’d love to hear some anecdotes from onboard the boat – how does it work on a daily basis?

EP: It’s quite similar to lockdown in a way, because there’s lots of people living in a tiny space with nowhere to go! 14 of us will set off for three weeks or a month at sea. We all sleep in bunkbeds, there’s a communal space where we eat and work, and there’s the deck where we sail the boat.

We operate a watch system with three teams, and one of those teams will always be up on deck sailing the boat, keeping watch, updating our hourly log, or taking a lead on science. There’s always something unexpected happening, you’re guaranteed to have some equipment breakages and “all hands on deck” moments, which all adds to the excitement.

LM: That leads us on to my next questions – how are you coping with the pandemic, and have your expeditions been affected?

EP: They have, because of border closures and the confined spaces on our boat which mean that we can’t social distance. The global shutdown actually began when we were about a week into a three-week expedition in the pacific, and we couldn’t have been further from an international airport. So, we had a couple of weeks of making our way towards French Polynesia so that the crew could get the last flight home. We hope to be able to complete that mission around April next year.

In the meantime, we hope to do a lot of work virtually from our homes with our amazing ambassadors across the globe.

LM: I think another issue that this pandemic has highlighted is the public’s view on sustainability. What are your thoughts on this?

EP: I love the idea of nature reclaiming its place on the planet. It’s also interesting to me how this whole experience is shifting our minds. Right now, we’re hugely sacrificing our freedom, which goes against the argument that human nature can’t make sacrifices like this. This gives me hope, because if we’ve done it once then we can start to realise that there are other huge challenges out there that we need to make sacrifices for as well.

I think we are going to be more resilient when we come through this pandemic, and we’re going to be more accepting of changing our behaviour for the good of the wider world. 

LM: Within the packaging industry, we see a lot of collaboration – how are you hoping to use collaboration going forwards?

EP: What we’re hoping to do with eXXpedition is to collect the data that’s needed by all sorts of companies, the packaging industry in particular. We need to look at what we are really finding out there. Is it fragments of PET or HDPE? What is sinking or floating? If we can understand these points, this will help us shed some light on the biggest opportunities for change and innovation here on land.

We’re really looking forward to sharing that data once we have it collected so that we can be constructive.

We also work closely with the Sky Ocean Ventures group, who are focusing on supporting innovation in packaging at the moment. I’d like to highlight two companies they’ve invested in: Sulapac, which is innovating biobased materials that biodegrade without leaving any permanent microplastics behind, a really exciting development. And there’s also Notpla, who have developed algae-based sachets.

LM: I’d like to ask you about what your research has uncovered so far. Is there anything you can share with us?

EP: Lots of our research is in our laboratory, which is unfortunately closed at the moment – although we hope that it will reopen in the next few weeks. We don’t have any findings that are publishable yet, although we should do at the end of the year.

Anecdotally, anyone who has been onboard will be able to tell you about the high levels of HDPE we’ve been finding. That’s what we’re seeing at the moment, but a lot more work needs to be done around understanding where it might have come from. One piece of information doesn’t tell us that much; we get a better picture when we can overlay many pieces of information.

What we really need from our industry partners are any unique polymer signatures that they might be using so that we can enter them into our system. We also need more information on what kinds of polymers are being used in specific countries so that we can further connect the dots.

LM: What do you see as the main causes and solutions to plastic pollution?

EP: Packaging is probably our biggest challenge and one of the biggest causes because it’s usually single-use and doesn’t have much value after it’s been used. In particular, food packaging falls into this category the most. We all know that plastic is in so many useful things in our households, but we generally only find food packaging in the oceans.

That being said, we know that there are other causes. As soon as we look small enough, we start to realise the amount of microfibre that is actually in the ocean, which generally comes from washing machines and other abrasion. Another one of our studies at the moment is looking at air particles, because materials like polyester can shed fibres into the air that can then find their way into the oceans.

In terms of solutions, this is really about trying to eliminate those uses. We do work with a SHIFT method, which consists of four different chambers from sea to source. The bottom-most chamber focuses on minimising damage and collecting plastic. The next phase up is based on the idea of reusing a material, which could mean turning it into a new product or converting it into energy.

The stage after that is the idea of a fully closed-loop system, which companies like TOMRA are aiming to achieve with plastic packaging. This could also include biodegradable packaging if there’s a system for it to enter.

The very top chamber is eliminating plastic completely. This could be achieved due to behavioural change or because there are other systems in place.

LM: Is there any advice that you would like to give to packaging companies?

EP: Whether it’s companies or individuals, everyone has a “superpower” – something that you’re brilliant at that makes you stand out. I would say: ask yourself what you can do that no one else can do. You have to find the point of intersection between what you can do differently and solving this problem.

LM: Lastly, what are the criteria for people who might want to sign up and join the crew?

EP: It’s about bringing as much diversity onboard as possible – whether that’s through nationality or skillset. So, there’s not any specific criteria – it’s more about passion and being committed to creating an impact on the return of the voyage.

Our website has more information on all of this, although we have paused the application process for the moment, because of the pandemic. We’ll be in touch with everybody when we get going again.

Listen to the conversation in full on the Packaging Europe podcast. Available on our homepage, Spotify and Apple Podcasts.