Emily giving safety briefing - Credit Sperry
Having spent a decade at sea, exploring plastic pollution from the tropics to the Arctic, Emily Penn will join us in King’s Lynn to share her adventures connecting her scientific insights from eXXpedition to upstream solutions on land.
Tell us a bit about your background – what sparked your career change from architect to ocean advocate?
My journey to tackle plastic pollution began over 10 years ago, when I hitchhiked around the world on a biofuelled boat to get to a new job in Australia after my architecture training. It was a job I didn't end up taking. Instead, shocked by finding plastic in some of the most remote places on our planet, I chose to live on a group of Pacific islands for six months to organise a community clean up. Since then, I have travelled all over the world studying plastic pollution and empowering others to make a positive impact and in 2014, I co-founded eXXpedition – organising all-women voyages with a focus on plastic and toxic pollution in the ocean.
What inspired you to start eXXpedition?
Ultimately, I’ve been on a mission to make the unseen, seen. Ocean plastic for a long time was ‘out of sight, out of mind’. I realised how powerful my own first-hand experience witnessing the impact of plastic pollution had been in motivating me to tackle it and I wanted to share that opportunity with as many people as possible so they could become changemakers back on land.
After a study to see whether the chemicals we were finding at sea might also be in my body, it turned out that I had 29 of 35 banned toxic chemicals in my blood. This raised more questions than answers and it was clear much more research into microplastics was urgently needed. That, and the impact these chemicals have on our health - having those chemicals inside your body when you are pregnant is really bad news as you can pass them onto your children when you give birth. So, I decided to tackle it with an amazing team of women, who are still so underrepresented in science, sailing and exploration, and eXXpedition was born.
Over the course of your many scientific research missions that you have led since 2014, have you come across anything surprising or unexpected?
Once we have collected our microplastic samples we bring them on board to analyse them and use our Perkin Elmer FTIR to identify the polymer type which informs us of what the plastic may have been used for before it got broken down. The biggest surprise has been how varied the types of plastic are, and indicates pollution comes from many different sources, which means the solutions need to be varied too.
What can audiences expect from your talk?
I will take the audience on a journey… from my first trip on the high seas discovering the issue of plastic pollution, to living on low lying islands dealing with unexpected challenges and then going on to set up eXXpedition. I will share the ups and downs of following my gut to explore and understand these global issues while driving awareness and inspiring action to solve them. Expect to come away with some tips to use your superpower to make a difference!
Scientific research and tackling plastic pollution are clearly something you are very passionate about, is there a take home message that you would like audiences to come away with?
The more time I spend at sea, the more I realise that the solutions to ocean plastic are on land. Every bottle and toothbrush polluting the ocean once belonged to someone. It's billions of microactions that have led us to this situation and it's billions of microactions that will get us out. We don’t need everyone to do everything, but we need everyone to do something. Let’s get started!
Tickets for Emily’s talk, Navigating our way towards a plastic-free ocean, are on sale now.
21 November, St George's Guildhall, King’s Lynn: Book now