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.
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:
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
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)
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
ATLANTIC 2014 | 2,850 NAUTICAL MILES
Inaugural all-female voyage crossing through one of the five oceanic plastic accumulation zones (known as gyres) and pioneering the body burden test and finding 29 of 35 toxics identified by the UN Safe Planet study.
ASCENSION 2015 | 2,200 NAUTICAL MILES
Logged over 465 pieces of plastic pollutions at sea and back on land using the Marine Debris App tracker. The citizen science app gained popularity and was used in the same sentence as “Instagram” as an app you cannot live without, thanks to the awareness efforts of eXXpedition co-founder Emily Penn.
AMAZON 2015 | 1,850 NAUTICAL MILES
The top three types of plastic pollution logged during this trip were single-use items, namely plastic straws, plastic bottle, and plastic bags.
CARIBBEAN 2016 | 550 NAUTICAL MILES
The 9 trawls conducted during these voyages were the first-ever microplastics trawls in the Caribbean Sea across 5 island nations.
While the data is not representative the concentrations of plastic near Barbados were 10x higher than what we found in Dominican and 5x higher that samples collected in St Lucia.
CARIBBEAN 2017 |
ROUND BRITAIN 2017 | 2,035 NAUTICAL MILES
During the three voyages that circumnavigated the UK, the crew on eXXpedition collected 12 manta trawls, mostly picking up microplastic fragements that were under 1mm. Based on our samples, we can estimate that there are an average of 0.667 per cubic meter of ocean, over 3x higher concentration than in our first expedition.
NORTH PACIFIC 2018 | 3,000 NAUTICAL MILES
Sailing through the densest plastic accumulation zone in the entire ocean, the crew found the highest concentrations of plastic in one sample out of any previous voyage: 507 fragments from just one trawl. We also came across a giant netball in the middle of the Pacific which we helped track and retrieve from the oceans.
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.