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Science

eXXpedition sailing crews set out to tackle ocean plastic. Here's how we can all get on board.

The all-women crews of eXXpedition strive to problem-solve the issue of plastic pollution in our oceans. But because the problem starts on land, we all have an important role to play—and the tools to make an impact.

ocean, pollution, environment
Photos courtesy of Sophie Dingwall and Emily Penn/eXXpedition

eXXpedition is on a mission to fight ocean plastic pollution.

What do sailing and STEM fields have in common? For one, both have traditionally been—and largely still are—the domain of men. Sailing is a male-dominated sport, with women making up 16% of all competitors and only 5% of professional competitors in regattas last year. And though women have made big strides in STEM, progress has been uneven and women are still underrepresented in certain fields, including environmental science.

Such underrepresentation is one reason the founders of eXXpedition gather all-female sailing crews with diverse areas of expertise to research ocean plastic pollution. Since 2014, the nonprofit organization has been on a mission to “make the unseen, seen”—the unseen being women in sailing and science, the plastics and toxins polluting our oceans, and the diverse solutions to the problem.

Emily Penn founded eXXpedition after seeing ocean plastic pollution up close while working on a biofuel boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Emily Penn founded eXXpedition to bring women in sailing and ocean plastic pollution into full view.Courtesty of Emily Penn/eXXpedition

“I’d jump into the water to wash and be surrounded by plastic, nearly 1,000 miles from the nearest land,” Penn told National Geographic. “We would then stop at these small islands, and see how they were struggling so much with waste management, especially plastic. And then we'd land on beaches of uninhabited islands that had more plastic on them. After those moments of seeing it first-hand, I just couldn’t really look back.”


During her first all-woman sailing expedition, Penn was amazed by the positive, supportive atmosphere aboard the ship. Having an all-women crew was a “magic” dynamic—surprisingly different from the mixed crews she’d always been part of—and thus eXXpedition was born.

Sea voyages are vital for environmental research, but they aren’t particularly visible to those of us on land. The eXXpedition team has utilized Facebook and Instagram to bring people aboard virtually and connect its community around the globe. With more than 18,000 Facebook groups dedicated to celebrating and protecting our planet, and environmental protection being one of the top three causes people donate to on Instagram, these platforms have been critical to driving support for the organization’s mission and sharing the results of its voyages.

In October 2019, eXXpedition launched a bold, two-year mission to circumnavigate the globe called Round the World. Multidisciplinary crews of women—scientists, journalists, activists and more—set sail to conduct research over 38,000 nautical miles, traveling through four of the five oceanic gyres where pollution accumulates in dense pockets. The crews sailed across the Atlantic, throughout the Caribbean, to Galapagos and Easter Island, and across the South Pacific Gyre to Tahiti, studying the issue and collecting valuable data.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Pandemic shutdowns brought the world to a screeching halt, and sadly, the remaining Round the World legs had to be canceled. But that didn’t mean the eXXpedition mission stopped; it merely shifted.

While eXXpedition voyages provide valuable research, the problem of ocean pollution starts on land, which means all of us need to be involved in this work. However, many people simply don’t know which actions to take.

So when COVID shut things down, Penn created SHiFT, an online platform to help people hone their own environmental actions even as they navigated the unfamiliar waters of the pandemic.

“Our research has shown us that the sources of plastic pollution are endless,” Penn tells Upworthy. “This means the solutions are too. There is no silver bullet. We need to tackle the problem from every angle.

“For many people, this message can feel overwhelming,” she adds. ”Should I switch my packaging to biodegradable plastic, glass or paper, or do I need to redesign my product completely? Should I put a filter on my washing machine, or make clothes from bamboo or rethink the way we sell clothing all together? We know we need all these solutions, but many of us need help to work out which one to use and when.”

SHiFT helps individuals and businesses whittle down those overwhelming options to a manageable one or two by guiding them to discover their unique strengths or “superpowers.”

“We need experts in every field,” says Penn. “It’s not about everyone becoming a marine biologist or everyone dedicating their lives to this, but it’s about saying, ‘Great, you’re an engineer, let’s look at ways we can do better waste management. You’re a chemist, let’s look at ways we can reinvent plastic or a biodegradable material. You’re a teacher, then talk about it. You’re a policy maker, then let’s legislate it.’”

More than 5,000 people a month from 133 countries use SHiFT to explore hundreds of impactful solutions and narrow them down to what’s most doable for them. Penn says the global community eXXpedition has created is where the real power of the organization lies.

“The many nationalities, skill sets, sectors and approaches to solving the plastics issue together is our greatest strength since we started our sailing missions in 2014,” says Penn. “Digital tools have helped us overcome the ultimate challenge we have, which is that with everyone spread around the world it can be a challenge to bring the community together. Now we have an opportunity to bring them together virtually to connect and collaborate and go on to really drive change on land.”

In addition to SHiFT, eXXpedition utilizes Facebook and Instagram to keep that community engaged and informed. The hope is to inspire people to action by sharing ambassador stories from women who have participated in voyages, debunking myths about plastics and pollution, making research accessible and understandable for everyone, and hosting virtual events.

The eXXpedition team is encouraged by the attention that plastics and ocean pollution has been getting and by how many people are interested in helping find solutions. On World Oceans Day on June 8, the SHiFT site will be adding even more tools to help people find their role and use their superpowers to tackle ocean plastic pollution.

“We don’t need everyone to do everything,” says Penn, “but we need everyone to do something.”

If you want to do something but aren’t sure where to start, visit the SHiFT platform. You can also follow them on Facebook and Instagram, join an eXXpedition voyage, help bring ocean pollution education and action to schools, donate to support eXXpedition’s mission or join the mailing list to learn about upcoming events and opportunities.

Follow eXXpedition research and explore solutions on social media:

eXXpedition—Instagram | Facebook | Twitter | LinkedIn

SHiFT—Instagram | Facebook | Twitter

All GIFs and images via Exposure Labs.


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