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'Find your plastic superpower'

Emily Penn is about to embark on a 3,000-mile voyage to research the impact of plastic pollution. But making a difference doesn't have to be so challenging.

This summer, Emily Penn sets sail for a remote Pacific island.

But she’s not searching for paradise.

Instead, she’s destined for somewhere much more ugly - a mass of manmade junk known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP).

“It’s a bit eerie,” Emily says. “You’ve been sailing for seven days without seeing another human being, then suddenly you find a toothbrush.”

Beyond the toiletries, fishing nets and even hard hats that inexplicably bob about on the surface, trillions of tiny plastic particles float beneath the waves.

There are an estimated 250 pieces of debris for every person in the world here, making the GPGP the densest ocean plastic accumulation zone on the planet.

The impact of this unseen pollution on the environment and human health is what Emily will be researching as part of her eXXpedition mission.

She’ll be joined by 23 other women on board the exploration vessel Sea Dragon - a round-the-world racing yacht turned floating laboratory that’s longer than two London buses.

Asking questions

Emily’s journey of discovery started with a voyage from England to Australia, where she was starting a new job.

“On all these beautiful little Pacific islands that we stopped on, we found plastic on the beaches instead of sand,” she said. “That got me asking more questions about why it was there.”

Now, even more people are asking questions, and awareness of the plastic pollution problem is greater than it’s ever been.

Our plastics programme

The complexity, scale and urgency of the plastic pollution challenge means it’s something we must tackle together — from individuals at home to governments and industries.

Governments are putting taxes on single-use plastics, businesses are searching for more sustainable packaging and most people say they want to do better by the environment.

“We have a big challenge now, which is how to turn that interest and awareness into actual tangible action,” Emily says. “But people have got a lot of energy for it and we’ve got to seize the moment.”

'Find your superpower'

Emily admits the scale of the plastic pollution can be overwhelming.

Every year, for example, eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in the sea - the same as dumping a rubbish truck full of plastic in the ocean every minute.

Her advice, though, is to look beyond the statistics and to find your “superpower”.

“What is it that you’re brilliant at? What makes you unique and where does that intersect with the plastic problem?

“Are you an engineer? Are you great at making little videos for Instagram? Whatever it is, start using that power and have a positive influence. Use it to influence the people around you - your community, your workplace.”

She adds: “It’s billions of micro actions by every one of us that has got us into this situation, and it’s micro actions - not using that bottle, that bag, that straw, that coffee cup - that will help get us out of it.”

'Just do something!'

The time to take those micro actions is unquestionably now.

Our use of plastic is expected to double in the next 20 years, and by 2050 there will be more of it in the ocean by weight than all the fish.

The problem is already pouring into the deepest parts of the ocean, previously untouched by man.

“The world seems like a big place but I’ve been lucky enough to sail across a lot of these oceans and you realise that it’s actually quite small,” Emily warns.

“The ocean isn’t infinite. We’re pushing it to the point where it’s empty of fish and full of plastic, and we need to do something.”

She is, however, optimistic about the future.

“With all of these challenges,” she says, “I see a great opportunity to do something incredible that we’ve not achieved so far.

“I would say, don’t worry too much about [the size of the problem]; just start doing something.”


Follow Emily and track eXXpedition’s North Pacific voyage on Twitter. Emily is an ambassador for Sky Ocean Rescue and Parley For The Oceans.

Images: eXXpedition, Agathe Bernard

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