An all-female crew sets sail from Plymouth, England on Tuesday, with the goal of helping to solve the ever-worsening issue of ocean plastic pollution.
The “eXXpedition Round the World” voyage will circumnavigate the globe in 30 legs over the next two years.
In total, 300 women will take part, collecting garbage samples from the oceans.
The data gathered will help better focus scientific research and future initiatives to prevent plastic pollution.
“At the moment we know there’s a lot (of pollution) out there, but it’s really hard to know where these pieces have come from, how long they’ve been at sea, and what they once were when somebody used them,” said Emily Penn, a co-founder of eXXpedition.
“We really need to understand what type of plastic is being mismanaged and ending up in our environment and therefore how do we stop that on land.”
A 2015 study in the journal Science estimated that between 4.8 and 12.7 million tonnes of plastic entered the oceans in 2010 alone.
Penn helped set-up the eXXpedition group in 2014 and has already organized a number of shorter voyages to raise awareness and gather data on the issue.
The most recent voyage was between Hawaii and Vancouver in 2018.
The decision to make eXXpedition an all-female endeavour was due to the lack of research on how plastic pollutants in our food chain can affect women’s health.
“A lot of these toxic chemicals actually particularly impact women, because they’re hormone disruptors,” said Penn.
“There’s really very little that we do know about how these chemicals are getting into us, and then really being able to link chemicals in our bodies to specific disease or bad health.”
The two-year circumnavigation will sail through four of the world’s five main ocean gyres.
Gyres are circular ocean currents that can often cause floating garbage to densely gather in areas of water, most notably the North Pacific.
Penn said the level of pollution in other areas, like the South Pacific, needs much more research.
“There’s very little we do know about that part of the world. Ten years ago I was part of the first global study looking at the five gyres and doing scientific research,” said Penn. “So we will have some data to compare against to see what trends and what things have changed.”
The journey circles the globe from east to west, ending up back in the U.K. in 2021.
The last legs will pass along the coast of Atlantic Canada, stopping in Nova Scotia and Labrador, before heading into the Arctic and Scandinavia.
Penn said it’s widely believed that the Arctic is less affected by plastics, but this voyage aims to find out more.
“Several years ago, I sailed over the top of Canada from Greenland to Alaska; the most incredible voyage through the Northwest Passage sampling for plastics,” said Penn.
“We did find a lot of particularly microfibres in our samples, but there’s very little data there.”
Among the crew members on the first leg between Plymouth and the Azores is Canadian Ann Jenkins.
Jenkins is from Ontario but now lives on the south coast of Spain, where she set up a beach cleaning organization in 2018 called Playa Patrol.
“I thought it would be kind of cool if my husband and I organized (a beach cleanup) for people to participate in,” said Jenkins.
“Our original plan was to have 50, maybe 80, people show up, but we were very excited when 350 people showed up.”
She says cigarette butts are the worst curse at the beaches she looks after.
“What we find are microplastics, obviously cigarette butts, plastic straws, lollipop sticks, fishing lines,” said Jenkins. “A lot of things that wash ashore in the evening tide and morning tide.”
Jenkins is part of a diverse crew of women taking part in eXXpedition, bringing different skills from different parts of the world.
“I think that’s what makes it very interesting that we don’t all come at the plastic problem from the same perspective,” said Jenkins.
“So we bring a lot of different interests to the table.”
The organizers of eXXpedition are still accepting crew applications for many of their legs in 2020 and 2021.
More details can be found on their website at exxpedition.com.