Emily Penn – Make the SHiFT on Plastic

From science and data collection with eXXpedition to hundreds of land-based actions through the SHiFT platform, Emily Penn is tackling marine microplastic

Emily Penn is an ocean advocate, skipper and artist who has been working on the issue of plastic pollution for the past 12 years. She heads up eXXpedition – a series of all-female voyages exploring plastic pollution in the marine environment and translating that knowledge into solutions on land for individuals, business and governments.

With the current voyage on pause due to the COVID pandemic, Emily and her team have launched a Year of Virtual Impact with an online platform SHiFT. This innovative tool helps people find a solution to the plastic issue that matches their interests, skillset and location.

We sat down with her to get an update on eXXpedition’s progress, hear more about the SHiFT platform and discover where she draws her inspiration.

Our favourite moments

One question that comes up when people first hear about eXXpedition is why they sail with all-female crews. Emily said that the reason is based in women’s health. ‘I tested my blood for 35 chemicals – things like phthalates that are used to make plastic stretchy or flame retardants that are used to make them fire resistant…and I had 29 of them in my body. They’re all banned by the United Nations because they’re all toxic.’

We know that microplastics have a particular impact on women – they are endocrine disruptors that can disrupt pregnancy and can be passed on to our children when we give birth and breastfeed. But we don’t know the full extent of the damage. So because of the direct link to women’s health, Emily decided to tackle the problem of microplastics with a team of amazing women from all around the world and from diverse backgrounds.

‘We know there’s no silver bullet solution to solving this plastics issue. There are hundreds of things that we can be doing, but we need people from every skillset and every background to tackle it together.’

In terms of the science that happens on the voyages, eXXpedition are partnering with the University of Plymouth in the UK and the University of Georgia in the USA, to track where the plastic is coming from so we can design solutions to stop it from getting into the oceans in first place. Countries around the world have very different ways of dealing with waste and the work that eXXpedition is contributing to can help identify best practices to ensure plastic is dealt with at source.

One of the ways developed countries in the west dealt with their waste was to ship it to developing countries to process. But the opportunity for it to escape into the environment as it’s moving around the world is huge. ‘We all share one ocean. We talk about our territories or the seas that we own, but the ocean doesn’t know that! It’s all connected. The currents mean that the plastic from one country can easily end up in the waters of another. So that’s part of what we’re trying to understand.’

Emily also spoke about the supply chains that sit behind some of the new products that we’re buying, especially if they’re made in places like China. She gave the example of a new camera and said, ‘If you look at that supply chain and think about the amount of waste that’s been discarded in the process of making that camera, it’s often about five times the amount of final plastic in the product.’ All of that waste is left behind when the product is exported. ‘There are so many unseen ways that we contribute to the world’s plastic issue without even knowing it.’

Given the pause that COVID brought to the world, Emily and the team switched to a Year of Virtual Impact.

‘In June we launched the SHiFT platform and it’s a collection of hundreds of solutions to tackle the plastics issue. One of the things I realised from all this time at sea is that it’s really hard to clean up when you’re out there. It’s microplastics. It’s sinking to the seabed so deep we can’t really measure let alone clean up what’s on the bottom. The solutions begin on land, on our doorsteps. It’s down to all of us to take that action. But there isn’t one solution. There are hundreds! And that’s the good news. There are hundreds of things we can do, and each of us can take the thing that makes sense for us.’

‘Often I think people feel a little bit overwhelmed by the number of things they could do and struggle to work out where to start. So the SHiFT method is all about trying to navigate that overwhelmed feeling and find the solutions that make the most sense for you, depending on what you’re trying to do.’

‘Looking for that intersection between your skills and the problem is one of the things we encourage our community to do. We’ll make the most progress with that method.’

When Emily was hitchhiking across the Pacific to a new job in Australia, she went for a swim off the back of the boat and saw a toothbrush, a cigarette lighter and a bottle top floating by. At 800 miles away from land, she couldn’t understand how and why this rubbish got here. But that moment started her on this journey.

‘Every time I’m out there and I see that toothbrush, that flip-flop…they’re really personal items. That toothbrush was once brushing somebody’s teeth. And it was a micro-action that meant that toothbrush ended up in the ocean. And it makes me realise that all this is is billions of micro-actions that have got all this plastic in. But all we need are micro-actions to reverse it. And that gives me a lot of hope. That if we all control those micro-actions, we can reverse it.’

Emily’s inspiration comes from being immersed in the natural world. But she also pointed to the growing community around eXXpedition and SHiFT. ‘I’m feeling more inspired by the activity around me and people that I meet. I feel like a lucky person in the middle with so people getting in touch to say they care, they want to do something, they want to know how to help.’

For people taking part in Plastic Free July, Emily said: ‘Just get started and don’t be too critical of yourself. Plastic is just embedded in our society in every single place you look. Just start with something and go from there. I promise you it gets a bit obsessive once you start. You then start seeing it everywhere and you want to do more. But scale it up at a rate that’s manageable for you. And definitely check out the SHiFT platform if you’re getting stuck for ideas.’

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