As I am embarking on some of my actions from my Virtual Voyage TONGA with eXXpedition, I thought I would reflect on the experience so far…

Why get involved?

When I left landlocked Austria in 1991 to move to the United Kingdom, I certainly did not envisage ever trying to explore the levels of plastic pollution in our oceans. Having grown up with crystal clear mountains, lakes and streams – and some of the lowest levels of air and land pollution in Europe – turning into any kind of ‘nature activist’ was never high on my agenda. However, after having spent over a decade working in the packaging industry and witnessing the meteoric rise of this relatively new industrial sector, I started to ask questions about what happens to its products post-use.

In 2019, the production of plastics totalled around 368 million metric tons worldwide, rising from around only 50m in 1976. The incredible versatility, low price, light weight and resistance of this group of polymer based materials accounts for the continued growth in production year after year. However, what began to puzzle, and later annoy me, is the total lack of waste or re-use management systems set up locally and globally to deal with this indestructible new packaging material. Only about 9% of waste is recycled globally and therefore a staggering 8-9m tons of plastic waste enter our oceans on an annual basis causing a massive and as of yet under-researched impact on marine life and our food chain.

When I first heard Emily Penn, Founder of eXXpedition and SHiFT, on Breakfast News in 2018 talking about her new project to sail the world with 300 women to research the levels of plastic pollution in our oceans I was instantly hooked. Within days of her press appearance I had applied and after screening and interviews was finally selected to join Leg 16: Perth to Mauritius in August 2020, exploring plastic pollution for 3,400 nautical miles and throughout the Indian Ocean Gyre.

And then came Covid

The first 8 legs of eXXpedition did get under way in October 2019 and sadly finished in Tahiti in spring 2020 when the global pandemic made any further voyages impossible. Despite all good intentions to restart the Round the World research project, the continued safety challenges of Covid resulted in all further legs being cancelled in November 2020 and it left me, together with 240 other women disappointed and deflated.

However, Emily and her team did not hesitate to think of other creative ways to engage with these professional women dedicated to the cause and offered us the opportunity to partake in a new initiative – a Virtual Voyage. After months of spending my time on Zoom and other virtual communication channels I did not hesitate to sign up for the first leg – Virtual Voyage: Tonga from 22nd January to 5th February 2021.

Virtual Voyage in 6 Watches – 22nd January to 5th February 2021

Together with 10 other women from all corners of the globe, including Iceland, France, Canada, USA, Puerto Rico, Belgium and the UK we embarked on a virtual journey in 6 x 4 hour ‘watches’ spread across various day and night time hours. It was wonderful to get to know this amazing bunch of women whose superpowers ranged from storytelling, PR/communication to poetry, project management & sustainability consulting, expert knowledge on the sector, material science and environmental management, to education, design and arts. I was impressed to hear about the efforts and experiences these wonderful women had already put into the cause of fighting plastic pollution and it put me to shame, as I was certainly a novice in this field. Hearing about implementing a Zero Waste project in a family household was equally eye-opening as learning about the #breakfreefrom plastic movement and the work of the Plastic Pollution Coalition.

Sally Earthrowl as Mission Leader guided us expertly through our virtual media tools, including the use of Mural software, to allow us to use post-it notes for brainstorming and group work to help visualise our ideas and solutions.

The key take away for me from Watch 1 was clearly the unending problem that plastic creates and that we have to work on complex and interconnected solutions not just downstream (such as ocean & beach clean-ups), but more and more upstream solutions first on ‘closing the loop’, and most importantly at the source – by avoiding the use of plastics altogether. I was horrified to discover that we have fallen for the myth of plastic recycling being a potential solution with globally as little as 9% of our plastic waste actually being recycled. I was also saddened to learn that bioplastics are also not a viable alternative as they carry many of the same challenges and impacts of monomer based materials. More on that in a separate blog – watch this space!

Watch 2 was focused on learning to understand the problem and we not only learned about how to analyse micro plastics, but also how the 5 Ocean Gyres have become this accumulation zone for the over 8m tons of plastic that find their way into our oceans every year. It was fascinating and depressing in equal measure to learn that not only do these plastic fragments break down into smaller and smaller pieces, but that POP’s (persistent organic pollutants) and microbes attach themselves to the plastic parts and are then ingested by fish thus entering our food chain. Many of the chemicals (such as Phthalates, Bisphenols, etc.) used to make plastic pliable, flexible and heat resistant are toxic and are endocrine disruptors which ‘hack’ our hormone system and have now been proven to affect testosterone, causing infertility and certain mental illnesses amongst others. Again how chemicals used in plastic production and other toxins affect our global human health will be explored in a further blog in more detail!

During watch 2 we explored and analysed real life samples collected using the Mantra Trawl on Leg 3-5 of eXXpedition in Antigua, Aruba and San Blas Islands. My group focused on the latter, learning that sadly some of the highest concentration of micro plastic was collected around these islands, nestled along the coast of Panama. Using Perkin Elmer’s FTIR machine, we learned to identify the type of polymer, based on their spectrometer scheme as infrared light passes through the crystal into the plastic fragment. Our samples showed highest levels of Polyethylene, Polypropylene and Polystyrene, pointing towards pollution from drinks bottles, plastic film and laminates and trays, cups and food containers. A key question was: why this archipelago of tiny islands seemed to be the world’s dumping ground for ocean plastic pollution? One potential reason could be the ocean currents and East to West winds driving the micro plastics into this collection area along the North coast of South America. This is aggravated by the lack of waste management in the Caribbean and lack of any local community based recycling and waste collection on the islands themselves.

Watch 3 followed a weekend of all group members completing a local citizen science project using the Marine Debris Tracker App to capture plastic pollution on two 100 x 1m transects in our local community. I chose to analyse a section of a path in a local nature reserve and the walkway outside our local school with horrifying results, I have to say. I did not expect to find much along the nature trail in the nature reserve but I was proven wrong with 56 items logged.

Interestingly I found mostly tiny plastic sheet fragments, which on closer analysis might well have been carried there by the wind or birds from the adjacent landfill site. Outside the school I discovered 137 waste items on the 100m stretch with small plastic sheet fragments accounting for 70% and food wrappers for 15% of items logged. What was also noticeable is the total lack of any waste disposal bins in the nature reserve (not even in the car parking area!) and around the school. On sharing the results with other virtual voyagers, I learned that tobacco littering is a key issue in town environments and to my amazement found out that plastic (cellulose acetate) is used in cigarette filters which makes them a significant plastic pollution item. Land use determined the type of litter we found – in my own sample, school kids dropping their snack packaging and drinks bottles / tops along their route.

Another key take away from Watch 3 was that science based activism, which allows us to present meaningful data on the level and type of plastic waste in our local community, is a powerful tool to engage both adults and kids with the issue. We as eXXpedition ambassadors play a key role in shifting the public’s perception of ‘activists’ away from the image of people in hand-knitted jumpers wearing clogs or wellies to that of professionals engaged in ‘making the unseen seen’ a worthwhile cause that affects everybody on this planet.

Watch 4 focused on us, exploring our unique and combined superpowers and how we can bring them to bear in engaging others. At an individual level, we spent quality time reflecting on our skills and superpowers, and how we can best use them to create change in our life, community and workplace. One of the most powerful moments of my virtual journey was sharing our reflections and our ‘shift moment’ with others in small group sessions. My ‘buddy’ Ivonne touched all my emotions when she recounted that her ‘shift moment’ occurred when she listened to her elders in Micronesia talking about what is no longer there. She shared powerful images of that sense of loss depicted in her art and pictures. A moving moment, full of authenticity, understanding and humbleness. I cried!

Emily Penn shared her expertise on storytelling and 3 steps she takes to engross her audience: feel, think, act. Firstly, engagement starts with making it personal, opening up with your own feelings and experiences to catch their emotions and draw them in. Secondly, you bring a sense of reality and reflection on their own environment using facts and figures, debunking myths and making the unseen seen. Finally, you end with a call to action.

We finished watch 4 by doing just that: exploring what actions we can take to tackle plastic pollution from sea to source and what specifically we are going to do to solve the problem. We worked on a detailed action plan with goals, measures and timeline, including people/network, funding and resource requirements, before we presented it to Sally in a 1-to-1 mentoring session.

Watch 5 was all about preparing and then holding a “Talanoa”with Tonga, just as a Cat 1 cyclone was clearing the area. We were joined with local representatives from the Kingdom of Tonga to talk about the local challenges of a global issue. OHAI Incorporated, The Commonwealth Secretariat and No Pelestiki led a thought provoking discussion, opening doors for opportunities to explore ways to work on addressing plastic pollution in the region. Whilst it was wonderful to hear that the Islands were COVID-free it was disturbing to learn that their plastic pollution problem is quite immense and local efforts are driven by a few enlightened and inspiring individuals who were on the call. Sadly, given the limited human and financial resources, much is focused on local beach and rubbish clean ups and innovative ways to reuse the materials. Efforts are also hampered by lack of infrastructure and community challenges such as drug use, seasonal workers and the impacts of tourism.

I loved the story of using old plastic bags and film/sheet materials to stuff kneeling pads for local churches. Using our collective experiences and knowledge we shared some initial ideas such as replacing plastic bags with weaving local materials into pouches and bags or using plastic to make construction materials such as bricks and pavement stones.

Watch 6 brought all the learning and experiences together and we presented our individual action plans to the group for input and feedback. Our focus was largely on how we could use our network and combined superpowers to drive change into our local communities and workplace and how we could continue to support each other with resources and ideas. Having access to the ‘Shift’ community web portal will play a critical part going forward in staying connected with my fellow ambassadors and accessing research and resources.

I loved every second of talking, laughing, exploring and crying with these wonderful women on my Virtual Voyage and I can’t wait to see where our joint efforts will take us in the future.

About the Author – Susanna Mitterer

Born in Austria in the late 60s, Susanna decided to move to the UK in 1991 to study at Cranfield University and then to pursue a ca

reer in personal, organisational development and change management. Years as a Management Consultant and Change Agent brought her into contact with Syngroup Management GmbH in 2009 and she then embarked upon establishing Syngroup in the UK marketplace. She was Managing Director of Syngroup UK for 10 years and is now focusing her time on volunteering and various research activities to make the ‘unseen seen’ thus helping to find long term solutions to the ever increasing levels of plastic pollution in our oceans and countryside.