SOLUTIONS BASED SCIENCE

to stop the tap

eXXpedition is a series of all-female sailing voyages conducting scientific research around the world to understand the causes of and solutions to marine plastic pollution.

Founded by Emily Penn and Dr. Lucy Gilliam, over the years eXXpedition’s research has evolved from understanding how much plastic is in the oceans, where is it accumulating and how is it impacting both our environment and our health to where is it coming from, so we can work with industry to pinpoint solutions and policy at a global level by addressing knowledge-gaps and delivering evidence to inform effective solutions to stop the tap.

The strength of our data lies in our collaborations. Since 2014, our data has contributed to 27 scientific studies around the world. In 2019, our Science Partners at the University of Plymouth were awarded a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education for their ground-breaking research and policy impact on microplastics pollution in the oceans.

Better understanding the real challenges

of marine plastic pollution

When the first eXXpedition set sail across the Atlantic Ocean in 2014, most people around the world had no idea plastic pollution was an issue – it was three years before Blue Planet II’s famous last episode aired.

With each voyage, our crew set out to better understand the plastic problem and how it was visibly affecting our environment, while also studying what we can’t see: the microplastics and toxic pollution in the oceans.

Over the years we used a range of different methodologies, including: 

Citizen Science Apps: conducting waste and single-use plastic surveys on land

Manta Trawls: collecting microplastics samples from the surface of the ocean

Sediment Samples: analysing sub-tidal sediments for microplastics

Air samples: measuring potential airborne microplastics

Secchi Disk: estimate the ocean’s phytoplanktons

Blood Tests: searching for traces of toxic chemicals in our bodies

Hair Samples: analysing mercury levels

Fast forward to 2018, and the terms “microplastics” and “single-use” were named the word of the year around the world. Our hope is that by continuing to make the unseen seen, we can also change the narrative around plastic pollution from focusing on the problem to working on solutions from sea to source.

The Plastic Body Burden

Impact of toxics on our health

After a few years at sea, eXXpedition co-founder Emily Penn started to realise that the plastic was also inside the fish. And that it was getting into the food chain that we are at the top of. This started to open up all sorts of new questions to me about the potential toxic footprint that we might have inside us.

One of the core aims of eXXpedition is to engage women in discussions on the issue of plastics, the health effects of chemicals (such as endocrine disruptors and carcinogens in our immediate and wider environment), and inspire individuals to make personal lifestyle and consumer choices that will reduce long-term health impacts and impacts on our environment.

In collaboration with the UN Safe Planet Campaign, the crew onboard our first three eXXpedition voyages had their blood sampled for 35 key indicator chemicals that have been banned and linked to negative impacts on human health. 

 “I went to have a blood test to find out which of these chemicals often used in the production of plastic I might have inside my body.

Investigating how much plastic is in the ocean

and where is it coming from?

We now know there are over 5 trillion fragments of plastic on the surface of the oceans. Trying to clean this up is an impossible task. That’s why a key part of our science programme is identifying which polymers – or types of plastic – are ending up in what parts of the ocean, so we can develop solutions further upstream.

Using an FT-IR system, we analyse each “anonymous” fragment found during our manta trawls, matching it to a know library of existing polymers.

The 5 most common polymers are: 
HDPE

This is ridged plastic, e.g. often to-go food packaging, bottle tops, jerrycans/fuel cans,  many plastic toys,  milk bottles, some thick carrier bags

Polyethylene

This is the polymer used in plastic bags, plastic films, containers, squeezy bottles, some types of plastic toys, food packaging (the films, e.g. the plastic ‘bags’ which wrap trays of tomatoes/potatoes/lettuce)

Polypropylene

This is most commonly found in food packaging: crisps, biscuits, yoghurt pots, flip-top sports bottle lids.  Car bumpers and fittings, household piping (construction sector), fishing/boat ropes and nets, textiles & clothing.

Co-polymer (polyethylene + polypropylene)

This is a blend of 2 polymers, in this case polyethylene and polypropylene. It’s very hard to know what the specific application of this is, but in whatever application is has been used, the manufacturers wanted properties of both polymer types.

vinylidene chloride acrylonite

Vinylidene chloride are coated films, often used in food, drug and cosmetic packaging. In this case the polymer has a acrylonitrile group added.

And something we didn’t expect to find: Tyre Rubber (EPDM)!

Timeline of our research

over 5 years

Tracking and retrieving

40 tons of ‘ghost nets’

During eXXpedition North Pacific, our crew attached a tracker to a ball of marine debris in the North Pacific Gyre. The tracker deployed by the eXXpedition team on 4th July 2018, was the first deployment of 40 trackers, built by Pacific Gyre and owned by the Ocean Voyages Institute.

This is part of a multi-institutional project, funded by NASA and including the University of Hawaii, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Applied Physics Laboratory of the University of Washington, Smithsonian Institution and Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans. It was designed to collect information on the movement of large debris in the ocean and, also, track the debris so  a larger boat could remove it.

Photo credit:  Ocean Voyages Institute

After 336 days adrift, we received news that the marine debris ball has been retrieved by an Ocean Voyages Institute vessel Kwai. Read the news article here.