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Emily Penn: Cleaning up Plastic Pollution from our Oceans

  • 5 min read

Meet Spruce's Susty Superhero, Emily Penn, an ocean advocate and skipper who has spent the last decade exploring plastic pollution from the tropics to the Arctic. She co-founded the all-female voyage series eXXpedition which focuses on investigating the causes of and solutions to plastic pollution. Back on land, Emily recently launched the SHiFT Platform, helping people navigate hundreds of impactful solutions to ocean plastic pollution to find the ones that are best for them.

Cleaning up Ocean Pollution

You got started on your mission to end plastic pollution from our oceans 10 years ago, long before there was awareness about this topic. How did you become aware of the problem and got started on your journey? 

I first became involved with tackling plastic pollution when I decided to hitchhike to Australia on a bio-fuelled boat in 2008. During that journey, I couldn’t believe that I was seeing so much plastic in the remotest areas of our planet. The nearest people to us were in the space station above our heads and I was seeing a toothbrush washing across the deck of the boat. I decided to stay on a remote island in the South Pacific for six months and started a large community clean up. Since then, I have travelled all over the world studying plastic pollution and empowering others to make a positive impact.


How do you think awareness has changed over the last few years?

We’re in this amazing position at the moment where there is so much awareness and it’s a reverse from us banging on their doors to now industry and policy actually reaching out to us and saying “ok you know we get there’s a problem and we care about it, now what can we do?” And this is the opportunity we have right now – we have awareness. We don’t quite yet have action, but we definitely have the willingness. So, we need to now find tangible ways that we can all be making a difference.


Is it even possible to clean up the plastic debris and the great plastic patches from the oceans? What about microplastics. Is it possible to clean that up? 

Emily Penn collecting ocean microplastics

It's great that there are organisations out there who are trying to clean up the plastic. At the moment, there is no solution that I have come across to clear up the most endemic plastic pollution out there – microplastics - pieces of plastic that are smaller than your little fingernail. There are approximately five trillion pieces of plastic floating on the surface of our ocean and many times that that have sunk to the depths in a place so deep we can’t even measure. These pieces of plastic are the same size as plankton, so you can't clear them from the ocean without removing the base of the food chain.

Clean up is part of the web of solutions, but no solution out there is going to work if we keep pumping the plastic in at the rate that we are at the moment – 8 million tonnes of plastic makes its way from land into our ocean every year. I do think that if we take the pressure off, the ocean will bounce back. It is very resilient, but we have to turn off the tap.  


"Billions of microactions created this problem, and it's microactions that will help solve it."


What was your biggest discovery or learning on your voyages?

For me, the worst thing is perhaps not what you expect. We do see some rafts of plastic and fishing line which easily entangle marine life, but for me, it's seeing the small pieces that overwhelm and astound me every time. We take a fine net through the surface of the water and pull up hundreds of tiny fragments of plastic, the same size as the plankton. It makes me realise that the entire surface of our ocean is covered in a soup of plastic pieces that are nearly impossible to clean up.

Ocean plastics Emily Penn


Tell us about eXXpedition and your mission.

eXXpedition is a community interest company that organises all-female research expeditions to investigate the causes of and solutions to ocean plastic pollution. Since 2014, it’s been running voyages taking multidisciplinary women from different backgrounds sailing together. While onboard, the women carry out citizen science for our partner scientists all over the world. The samples and data we collect feed into leading global studies on the nature and impact of microplastics, microfibres and toxic chemicals in the ocean. 


ocean plastic clean up  Emily Penn

Each eXXpedition voyage also provides an experience, platform and learning opportunity for our amazing multidisciplinary crew. While onboard, 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. 

In addition, onshore, all over the world, eXXpedition runs outreach events in collaboration with local organisations and activists.

You have also started a new venture, SHiFT. Is that a way to educate consumers about the plastic-free choices they can make to avoid ocean plastic pollution? 

There’s no silver bullet to solve the problem, however, there are hundreds of ways to tackle it. A big challenge for many people is knowing where to start. On World Oceans Day 2020, we launched the SHiFT Platform to help individuals and businesses navigate hundreds of impactful solutions to ocean plastic pollution, finding the ones that are best for them. On the SHiFT Platform, users can select how, in what aspect of life and where they want to create a shift from sea to source. From small individual changes to large global projects, solution examples range from high-tech to a return to basics. They include making DIY cleaning products, lobbying for more drinking water refill stations in their city, reducing plastic in the supply chain to going entirely packaging free.

How are you empowering women by hosting all-women voyages via eXXpedition?

eXXpedition began as an all-women venture when I was learning about the potential toxic implications of chemicals used in the production of plastic, and other pollutants in our environment. These chemicals are endocrine disruptors which can disrupt hormones during pregnancy and can be passed to our children in the womb or through breastfeeding. Women are also underrepresented in sailing and science, which we are passionate to readdress by promoting positive female role models. But since the first voyage, I have also been blown away by how key the 'all women' aspect of these voyages has become. There is something unique about taking a passionate group of women to sea. Boundaries are let down, as we overcome challenges together. Bonds form fast and last for life. 

What are some of your zero-waste or plastic-free hacks?

You can find loads of hacks here!

The easiest eco-friendly swap you have made?

On-the-go teacup. 

The most inconvenient eco-friendly swap you have made?

Food packaging.

Your favourite eco-friendly or plastic-free products?

Bamboo face pads to replace face wipes.

Thank you Emily for speaking with the Spruce team!

We, at Spruce, are totally in awe of what Emily has accomplished with eXXpedition and SHiFT. We need more eco-warriors and climate heroes like Emily.


If you are ready to make some earth-positive changes, check out our refillable cleaning products now. 

spruce plastic free cleaning products


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