Woman at Sea – Citizen Science in the Plastic Wars

In October 2019 a sailing ship will embark from the United Kingdom on a two-year journey to raise awareness of the impacts of single use plastics in the world’s oceans. eXXpedition (note the clue of the double X chromosome in the title) is an all-woman scientific research mission which will cover almost 38,000 nautical miles in 30 voyages.

eXXpedition was launched in 2014 when the extent to the ocean gyres (huge vortices of plastic garbage) became known. The largest and best known of these is the North Pacific Gyre but in fact there are five major gyres: The North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic and Indian Ocean. When plastic waste enters the oceanit drifts into and is captured in these gyres – systems of circular ocean currents formed by the Earth’s wind patterns and the forces created by the rotation of the planet. The North Pacific gyre is estimated to cover 1.6million square kilometers.

Founded by experienced sailors Emily Penn and Lucy Gilliam, eXXpedition is a community of multidisciplinary female change-makers and inspiring global ambassadors who explore plastic pollution and its environmental and health impacts. I talked to Mission Leader Sally Earthrowl, who was a geography teacher at Dyatmika School in Bali for several years before joining eXXpedition. “As a geography teacher I was acutely aware of waste management problems. It took three years of working with the staff and students, but now Dyatmika is free of single use plastics and the students are very motivated. The school’s Environment Club is now working on a student-led initiative ‘Ask For Air Putih’ where they are encouraging local warungs and restaurants to serve water in reusable vessels, rather than selling plastic bottled water, really raising awareness in the community, and this is where change begins.

“eXXpedition has already been doing one or two voyages a year and last year I joined the sail to the North Pacific gyre,” she told me. “The2019-2021 series of voyages will visit the other four plastic gyres as well as the Arctic.” Sally’s role is to ensure the smooth running of the data collection, selecting the guest crew, running the programs and onshore events, managing outreach programs with local community partners and sharing stories about the collected data with shore communities.

Ten guest crew join each leg of the voyage under a permanent professional crew of skipper, mate and deck hand. The 70-foot sailing ship has its own laboratory with microscopes and graduated sieves to identify and measure primary microplastics, secondary (already degraded) microplastics and synthetic fibres. The expedition partners with the Plastic Research Centre of the University of Plymouth.

“There is a lot of competition for the positions of guest crew. We’re looking for a diverse hands-on crew with different skill sets and perspectives,” Sally explained. “The project attracts an international, multidisciplinary crew of all ages, backgrounds and experience:scientists, artists, film makers, teachers, doctors, legislators, designers…all kinds of women. The voyage is just the beginning – the women will influence change and spread the story when they return to their own communities.”

Since the first voyage in 2014 scientific exploration, citizens cience and data collection with a variety of University partners has been central to eXXpedition’s mission. Each voyage explores the prevalence and impact of plastics and toxics in the oceans by measuring, sampling and collecting data from places that are often hard for scientists to reach. The density of plastic in the gyres is determined by sampling. The information generated and compiled into large-scale studies can help track where plastics and toxics originate, the impact they have on the ocean environment and,ultimately, what happens to them in the ocean. Through this research, eXXpedition hopes to work out how the plastic challenges can be solved.

Part of eXXpedition’s research is to carry out citizen science, a relatively new concept where members of the general public collect and analyse data relating to the natural world, typically as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists. These data and samples for influential global studies help to fill gaps in data and explore innovative ways to communicate the results to a broader audience.

Each voyage includes stops at local communities along its route to share its findings with established waste management organizations, schools and other groups. The goal here is to educate and encourage ongoing community outreach about the damage caused by ocean plastic and reduce plastic waste entering the oceans.

Why an all-female expedition? Despite significant progress, women are still underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) sectors. Globally, women occupy only 13% of the STEM workforce, including health professionals.

While there is as yet no scientific consensus, an evidence base is building that environmental exposure from chemicals is affecting women’s (reproductive?) health. We are all exposed to chemicals on a daily basis, but women and men are often impacted through different exposure routes. For example, adult women have higher levels of urinary metabolites than men for phthalates (present in personal-care products, cleaning products, fragrances and cosmetics), which maybe linked to birth defects, and bisphenol-A (BPA, the backbone of plastics and epoxy resins and found in food containers) which has been found to affect hormone production and fertility in females. Women also have a tendency to have more fatty tissues within which certain toxics, especially those originating from plastics, are more likely to accumulate. Of even greater concern is that the body burden of chemicals is passed on from mother to child, with levels of some hazardous chemicals increasing from generation to generation. The project would like to better understand the links between the health of the environment and that of our bodies.

The logistics of all this are challenging. “Besides establishing relationships with shore communities around the world, permits are required to collect data from the national waters of every government along the route. We are actively seeking sponsorship for our research and outreach programs and for some guest crew, insurance and for many other aspects of the expedition.”

Besides contributing to a cutting edge branch of plastics research, eXXpedition celebrates women in science, leadership and adventure. Guest crew pay a fee to help meet the expenses of running the ship. In return they receive a once in a lifetime opportunity to participate in one of the most important environmental issues of our time. Details at www.exxpedition.com.


By Ibu Kat


E-mail: ibukatbali@gmail.com

Copyright © 2019 Greenspeak

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