Our Science Programme
The eXXpedition Round the World science programme will carry out research at sea and on land. The research conducted during the mission has been designed to advance a better understanding of the plastics issue as a whole and to work with industry to pinpoint solutions and policy at a global level by addressing knowledge-gaps and delivering evidence to inform effective solutions.
The science programme is being led by Dr. Winnie Courtene-Jones, eXXpedition Science Lead, University of Plymouth. It has been developed with ocean plastic experts Professor Richard Thompson OBE Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth, and Professor Jenna Jambeck, Associate Professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia, and is supported by the eXXpedition Science Advisory Board which includes a mix of leading academics and industry representatives including Dr Daniel Schwaab TOMRA Senior Vice-President for Circular Economy Strategy.
Science at Sea
Three focus areas
understanding our marine ecosystem
Surface water: Manta trawls
Ocean motion is complex and variable, which means the distributions of plastics can also vary over time, therefore continued studies are needed to examine temporal and spatial patterns. This research will utilise standard methods to examine the abundance, distribution and polymer composition of plastics in surface waters. We will also investigate the role of ocean currents and circulation features, such as eddies, on microplastic distribution. These data are important to determine locations of plastic accumulation and how these may change and can also be used to refine oceanographic models used to study marine plastics.
Subsurface water: Sampling with NISKIN bottles
Subsurface sampling is undertaken to study the composition and distribution of different plastic polymer types within the upper ocean, which is currently a data deficient topic. This study will challenge perceptions that microplastics reside only in surface waters while contributing novel data to address gaps in our understanding of the distribution of microplastics within subsurface waters. This is important research as it will have implications on understanding the global budgeting of plastics and developing effective solutions must take into account all plastics.
Subtidal sediment: Van veen sediment sampling
This will form a global analysis of the distribution, abundance and polymer composition of microplastics in subtidal sediments. We are testing the hypothesis that sediments are a ‘sink’ for microplastics and will perform analysis to determine the abundance and polymer composition in coastal sediments. This will enable the identification of global ‘hot spots’ and polymer data can inform on the potential sources of these microplastics.
Science on Land
Promoting citizen science
upstream waste management
The Circularity Assessment Protocol (CAP)
Developed by Professor Jenna Jambeck at the University of Georgia, the CAP involves the collection of community-level data by each crew in the countries eXXpedition visit. This includes mismanaged waste and waste infrastructure, and will be put into use informing decisions about how to reduce land-based plastic pollution.
Our Science Collaborators
what we want to uncover
Analysing the global extent, abundance and plastic polymer types in surface waters
This study will utilise standard methods to provide a global assessment to inform on the distribution and accumulation zones of microplastics in surface waters
Through the analysis of polymer types we can inform in which sectors (e.g. textiles, maritime, plastic packaging) work is needed to reduce plastic pollution.
Investigating the role of ocean currents and features in the distribution of microplastics within ocean gyres
Dr. Winnie Courtene-Jones, University of Plymouth & Dr. Nikolai Maximenko, International Pacific Research Center
These data explore the role of ocean currents and features (for example eddies) in the distribution of microplastics within the upper water column
Such data is fundamental to validate and refine oceanographic models used to predict the distribution and accumulation of marine plastics.
Analysis of the composition and distribution of different plastic polymer types in the upper ocean
The majority of research has assessed microplastics in surface waters, however research has indicated that there are less microplastics in surface waters than might be expected, based on global input estimates. This novel project aims to:
- Fill in some of the ‘missing’ pieces of the puzzle as to where microplastics are located.
- Challenge perceptions that the ocean is 2-dimensional and microplastics are only found in surface waters
- Contribute novel data to develop a global understanding of the distribution of polymer types within the upper water column.
The results may tell us if there is indeed an unassessed proportion of ‘missing’ microplastics, which would alter the global estimates for how much plastic is contained within the oceans.
Global analysis of the distribution, abundance and polymer composition of microplastics in coastal sediments
This study will increase the global understanding of the accumulation of microplastics in sediments and consider the hypothesis that these are a final sink for microplastics pollution.
The global study will identify hotspots, and inform which countries could benefit from better waste plastic strategies (infrastructure/policy/material change etc).
Analysis of microbial communities on the surface of microplastics
Dr. Michael Cunliffe & Dr. Ro Allen, The Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom
Cutting edge DNA analysis is used to identify the microbial communities associated with microplastics and the environmental factors affecting colonisation
The species and communities on the surface of microplastics may in turn affect the toxicological risk to organisms ingesting them
Investigating the detection limits of satellite remote imaging to observe plastics.
James Delany, University of Plymouth
Understanding the ability to detect plastics from satellite imagery will unlock a huge potential data source to examine the extent of plastic pollution in hard to reach places and monitor clean-up efforts.
This study is at the forefront of cutting-edge multidisciplinary science to address plastic pollution.
Analysis of persistent organic pollutants in beached fragments and pellets
Professor Hideshige Takada, International Pellet Watch, http://www.pelletwatch.org/
While organic pollutants are regulated by International Convention due to their persistent nature they are still found in the environment.
This study will contribute global data on the concentration of pollutants in beached plastic pellets and fragments, which will can detect changes and inform policy.
Circular Assessment Protocol
Prof. Jenna Jambeck, University of Georgia
The protocol developed by Professor Jambeck at the University of Georgia, is implemented to collect community-level data about inputs, consumption, product design, use, collection, waste management and plastic leakage into the environment.
These data are used to support intervention and inform decisions about how to reduce land-based plastic pollution, in a shift towards a circular economy.
Secchi disk project: Mapping of the oceans’ phytoplankton
Phytoplankton underpin the marine ecosystem and are responsible for 50% of all photosynthesis on Earth, however over the last half century phytoplankton abundance has declined by 40%; we need to study these global changes.
Archiving plastics and biological material for future chemical analysis
Dr. Jennifer Lynch, National Institute of Standards and Technology and Melissa Jung, M.S., Center for Marine Debris Research at Hawaii Pacific University
From certain manta trawls, the entire contents will be transferred carefully so as not to contaminate it with chemicals from your hands or from the boat. Samples will be stored in pre-cleaned foil and bags and frozen. The frozen samples will be stored long-term in liquid nitrogen vapor in the NIST Biorepository and carefully subsampled for future chemical analysis. In partnership with NIST, the Hawaii Pacific University’s Center for Marine Debris Research is renovating and equipping a chemistry laboratory for these kinds of measurements. Having plastic marine debris from across the South Pacific to match the parallel samples collected by eXXpedition in the North Pacific is an amazing opportunity.
Geochemical study of Sargassum in the Great Caribbean Region
Valentina Caccia, Nova Southeastern University, Dr. Peter Swart & Dr. Amanda Oehlert University of Miami
This study will determine the geochemical composition of Sargassum by measuring the concentrations of trace metals, major elements, nutrients and stable nitrogen isotopes. Sargassum accumulates on Caribbean beaches, representing a potential negative impact on public health, environmental health, tourism and a large financial burden. The chemical characterisation of Sargassum will indicate if there are elevated concentrations of elements which may be potentially detrimental to the environment and human health, and if the Sargassum contains a geochemical fingerprint which can provide clues as to its origin.
Evaluating the potential for exposure of vulnerable fish eggs and larvae to contaminants associated with microplastics
Dana Wetzel & Dr. Tracy Sherwood, Mote Marine Laboratory, USA
Organic contaminant concentrations in the sea surface microlayer correlated to fish egg and larvae composition and abundance, which will be characterised through DNA-barcoding techniques. This work will help to evaluate spatial trends in accumulation and exposure risks for affected ecosystems.
Analysing atmospheric microplastics deposition and their potential transport in remote oceanic regions
Dr Stephanie Wright, King’s College London, Stav Friedman, King’s College London
This study aims to determine whether microplastics are present in atmospheric deposition in remote oceanic locations, and the potential of wind as a vector for microplastic contamination. Atmospheric deposition samples will be collected both on land and at sea for analysis of microplastics presence and polymer type using FTIR spectroscopy, alongside meteorological data. Microplastics are increasingly being documented in atmospheric fallout samples in remote regions, however little research has been done on a large scale. This research will inform whether airborne microplastics are a localised problem or have potential for long-range transport to remote oceanic environments.
Our local science sponsors
Contributing to studies worldwide
The distribution and characterization of microplastics in sandy beaches in the provinces of Panama and Colon during different seasons.
Denise Delvalle-Borrero PhD, Technological University of Panama, Panama
Since 2017, Dr. Denise Delvalle-Borrero and the UTP have characterized around 40 beaches in the Caribbean region including the Island of Playón Chico in San Blas and the Island of San Jose or Isla del Rey at the Las Perlas Archipelago at the Pacific shore. They have also analyzed the micro plastics content (fibers, micro spheres and fragments below 1 mm) in sewage water of the Waste Water Treatment Plant of Juan Diaz to determine the input and the output that bypasses the processes in this tertiary treatment plant, the discharged water goes direct to the river and then ends in the Pacific ocean.
eXXpedition’s samples from the global contamination project collected from our territorial waters (floating debris) will feed into UTP’s own database, and the final collective results will help decision makers to implement a sound management plan for plastic wastes in order to diminish the impact to marine and coastal ecosystems