Quick Questions: Emily Penn

Ahead of her RGS talk, Navigating our way towards a plastic-free ocean, here on Thursday 29 September, we catch up with the fascinating ocean advocate, environmental champion and skipper Emily Penn…

QQ: Tell us a bit about your background – what sparked your career change from architect to ocean advocate?

EP: My journey to tackle plastic pollution began over 10 years ago, when I hitch-hiked 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 cleanup. 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.

QQ: What inspired you to start eXXpedition?

EP: 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 change-makers 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’re 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.

QQ: What is it like to be on an eXXpedition voyage?

EP: What it’s like can change by the day, by the hour, by the minute – it really depends on where you are in the world, what time of year, and even what the weather is like! Imagine an amazing team of multinational women, powering through waves (and sea-sickness!), conducting offshore research, dolphins at the bow, tears, laughter, breathtaking sunsets and the sobering reality of the magnitude of the pollution crisis our ocean faces.

Each eXXpedition voyage is an experience, a platform and learning opportunity for our amazing multidisciplinary crew. While on board, alongside the scientific research, each member of the crew shares their own experiences, participates in workshops to find where they fit in creating solutions and explores collaboration opportunities with other members of the team. After completing their voyage, each guest crew joins our already thriving network of eXXpedition ambassadors, taking the message of ocean plastic and achievable actions back to their own communities.

QQ: Over the course of your many scientific research missions that you have led since 2014, have you come across anything surprising or unexpected?

EP: Once we’ve collected our microplastic samples we bring them on board to analyse them and use our Perkin Elmer FTIR to identify the polymer type. This 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.

QQ: From what you have learnt on your voyages, have you made any changes to your daily routine?

EP: One of the things that I love about being at sea is how you constantly have to react to the changes in the environment around you. If the wind picks up, or the waves change direction, you have to adjust your sails and shift your course – sometimes your life depends on your response. I’ve adopted this philosophy into how I live my life on land where I’m constantly responding to the latest science and innovations to identify the best opportunities to keep making a difference.

QQ: Plastic pollution can often seem a daunting and overwhelming topic. Where do you think people can begin?

EP: There’s no silver bullet to solving plastic pollution. There are hundreds of solutions – you just need to pick your place to start! We built SHiFT.how to help people and organisations navigate hundreds of ways to tackle plastic pollution, and find the ones that are best for them.

QQ: What can audiences expect from your talk?

EP: 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!

QQ: 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?

EP: 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!

Be inspired by Emily Penn live on Thursday 29 September. Book your ticket here

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