We pulled our inflatable dinghy up on the deserted beach off the coast of Panama. No other people, or towns, were around for miles. But instead of white sand beneath the palm trees, we found plastic. Piles of it. Everywhere. Bottles, Crocs, lighters, toothbrushes, packaging, styrofoam floats all carried by the sea. Even amongst the seaweed, we found small bits of plastic and nurdles. Nurdles are little plastic beads sent from oil refineries to plastic manufacturers to be turned into products. The nurdles on this beach hadn’t even begun their plastic journey before they became pollution. We did what we could, clearing a 20-foot wide space with the 11 reusable trash bags we’d brought along. But we all wanted to do more. Doing more was what had brought us to Panama, as a part of Exxpedition.
Exxpedition is a 2 year, around the world plastic expedition on a sailboat through the world’s oceans. The route includes 4 of the 5 plastic ocean gyres and numerous plastic hot spots, with the crew conducting researching and raising awareness all along the way. And it’s all women. Yes, even the captain.
So far, 10,000 women have applied for the 300 slots aboard the sailing vessel Travel Edge. There are 30 legs around the world. Each one has 10 women joining three professional crew and one mission leader on each leg. They are women from all around the world, from all walks of life united by a love of the oceans and a concern about plastic pollution. I am thrilled to have been one of them. And thrilled there are 10,000 women in the world passionate enough about plastic pollution to want to hop on a sailboat to conduct research and commit to raising awareness afterward.
Exxpedition left England in October and had already successfully sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. I heard the first leg was a rough crossing with 9 days of rain and not enough buckets to go round for seasickness, so I was happy about my choice to join the Exxpedition team in Aruba, on leg 5 of the trip. Maybe it wasn’t as brave to choose an easier leg, but with age does come some discernment. My journey would still take me 755 miles across the Caribbean Ocean. But it’s much warmer and calmer than the Atlantic Ocean. Our goal was the east coast of Panama with a stop in the San Blas Islands, or as the local tribe calls them Guna Yala. We’d finish our journey in Colon, Panama on the eastern side of the Panama Canal.
I was excited about (some) adventure. This qualified for sure. We were out of sight of land for days, all on our own. Plus, it was hard work. It was a sailboat, which meant there were sails to raise, lines to winch and someone always had to be driving. There was no auto-anything on this boat. And no cushions. As a mom, the idea of 10 days to myself sounded wonderful. I always think it’s important to demonstrate to girls that women can do anything. Including science and sailing a boat. And, I was passionate about the work and eager to learn more about plastic pollution.
Even though I’m working around it every day at Plaine Products, I’m not as connected to it as when I lived in The Bahamas. The US has a way of making these problems invisible and I wanted to get out and see what plastic pollution looked like in other parts of the world without infrastructure built to hide it. There are three main goals of Exxpedition: Solution based science, changing perceptions about the realities of plastic pollution (microplastic is a much more serious issue that we thought), and creating a community of changemakers and I was on board for all three.
Solution Based Science
There are plenty of research efforts in and around plastic pollution and marine debris. What makes this one special? These women are going around the world to conduct consistent science to gain a better picture of the plastic pollution crisis. The same research will be conducted on each leg on land and at sea, with awareness and education stops each time the team hits land. Exxpedition will then use the data to help craft specific solutions to the problem – which I love. Trust a group of women to make sure the data gathering is practical and will be put to use.
On land, visits are made with a specific set of questions to local waste management systems to get a better understanding of existing systems the challenges they are facing. Much of the plastic going into the sea is from waste management “leakage” so it’s important to know more about the system in each locale.
Then Circularity Assessment protocols are carried out by the leg volunteers before heading out to sea. While the Circularity Assessment Protocol sounds fancy, it means walking 100m in a predetermined spot and counting each piece of litter you see. Then, if you can keep count, you catalog it in the Marine Debris app. That’s assuming you can get your phone to work in a foreign country so you can find your designated spot on the map and then use the app to count trash. There might have been some cursing of the technology gods while this was going on, but we got the job done. Mostly thanks to my teammates.
The data from both of these land-based surveys is being sent to Dr. Jenna Jambeck, who was the first one to calculate the amount of plastic debris that was going into the ocean each year. In 2015 she estimated that in 2010 alone, 8 million tons of plastic went into the ocean from litter, dump leakage, and wind or water carrying plastic to the sea.
As we set sail from Aruba we saw their dump, which was unfortunately located right on the water’s edge. I’m sure there was a good reason for that at some point, but as we watched trash roll down the side and blow off the top, 8 million tons didn’t seem like a high enough estimate. The research Exxpedition is conducting, as well as work Dr. Jambeck is doing in Asia, will help create an updated estimate of our plastic contribution to the ocean and assist her in identifying what types of plastic litter are the worst offenders. In our walk, straws, cigarette butts (which have plastic in them) and drink containers were found the most often.
On the water, Exxpedition is gathering data on plastic pollution from three different locations (more on this below). As the plastic pollution samples are gathered they are transported back to the lab team at the University of Plymouth led by Dr. Winnie Courtene-Jones. Part of the analysis will be to run the samples through a Perkin Elmer FT-IR machine. This gizmo is able to identify the specific type of plastic polymer material in even the smallest of samples. By doing this Exxpedition can figure out which types of plastic are ending up in the ocean, where in the ocean they are landing, and calculate their relative contributions to overall pollution.
By better understanding the problem Exxpedition can better devise specific solutions. Once we know more, consumers and businesses can make better choices to prevent plastic from entering our oceans. We must find ways to keep plastic out of the ocean. Once it’s in the water it becomes everyone’s problem. The ocean, wind, waves and currents don’t see national boundaries. And, as we learned, once it’s there it becomes dramatically more difficult to clean up.
Challenging perceptions around microplastics
In addition to gathering data about plastic pollution, another goal of Exxpedition is to help raise awareness about the actual nature of the marine plastic pollution problem. As word of the great Pacific Garbage Patch has spread, people imagine a sea of floating plastic that we can just scoop up. And while there are lots of pieces of plastic floating in the ocean, it turns out that the problem is more complicated (of course it is). Unfortunately, much of the plastic in the ocean is too small to scoop.
Plastic doesn’t biodegrade as it spends time in the water, it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. The sun, wind and waves all contribute making the plastic brittle and breaking it apart. The data Exxpedition is gathering will help tell us how much of the plastic in the ocean is micro-sized versus the plastic pollution we can see with the eye.
While on board, we gathered samples with the ever-popular plastic pollution manta trawl, which picks up ocean plastic from the surface. And there is plenty to be found there, large and small. The mantra trawl looks cool, but getting it out and pulling it in is hard work – and painful when you bang your head on the spinnaker pole that’s holding it out to the side. Once you hand reel in the manta you pull off the mesh bag with a screwdriver.
You then spend hours (really) hunched over this bag sifting through seaweed with ever smaller mesh sieves hunting for pieces of plastic. But the time we got to the smallest mesh it was impossible to tell what was plastic and what wasn’t, so we just put everything that was left (think particles about the size of sand grains) in the sample tray to be tested by the lab. My eyes and back were grateful technology could take it from here. We found plastic of every size and color in the manta, as well as some human refuse that made for lots of screams (but sadly no pictures).
Finding the Plastic
Since all of the plastic floating on the ocean doesn’t account for the 8+ million tons of plastic Dr. Jambeck estimates is going into the ocean each year, we weren’t just looking for it on the surface. As we sailed along we also dropped Niskin bottles 75 feet down into the ocean to see if there’s plastic in the water column (spoiler alert – there is). The plastic found in deeper water is really, really tiny microplastics. This pollution is so small you’re not even sure it is plastic until the lab can confirm it with their fancy FT-IR machine. We’re talking samples smaller than grains of sand.
Pulling these samples out of the water requires pumping the water through a filter to catch the microplastic bits. While this might be easy on land it’s much more challenging in a moving boat, down below where it’s the easiest to get seasick. The women that got this work done not only managed not to break the glass beaker used to hold the water, they also managed not to throw up in it. They are my heroes.
The third place we went looking for plastic was at the bottom. Samples are taken from the seafloor whenever the boat is at anchor (as good as we got at sampling even we couldn’t take bottom samples while we were sailing), and wherever we had permission. Sometimes more than sand came up.
Getting permission to take samples in the San Blas/Guna Yala required months of planning, phone calls, Panamanian Sim cards, translators, a meeting with the elders, lots of waiting, and a site visit to the boat. It turns out they are as concerned about the plastic problem as we are. They are also very interested in the results of the data to help inform their future policies. In islands that import everything, single-use plastic is a huge, pervasive problem. One that will not be easily solved. The data from Exxpedition can help them decide which forms of plastic are most important to phase out first.
Like many other Caribbean countries, Aruba already has a single-use plastic base planned for 2020, but they are still working on the implementation details. They also have an up-cycle facility they are bringing on-line to help further divert waste from their landfill. Conversations are beginning and awareness is growing, giving me hope for the future.
And, yes, plastic is also being found on the seafloor. Submarines have found plastic in the Marianna’s trench, the deepest part of the Atlantic ocean. So finding it on coastal shores shouldn’t be a surprise, but it is. Like many, my images of plastic pollution of the ocean is plastic floating around on top of the ocean, not sinking to the middle and the bottom, but it is.
The closer we got to Panama the more plastic we found. This isn’t because Panama uses more plastic than other countries. Panama’s shape and location means it gets to be the endpoint for much of the plastic pollution in the Caribbean. Wind, waves and currents all push it west until it hits land. Our plastic trash becomes their plastic problem.
Community of Changemakers
I’ve always believed in the importance of supporting and working with other women. The plastic we found was depressing. But the amazing, inspiring, funny, tough women who joined me on Leg 5 were a joy. They came from several countries: England, Ireland, Spain, Canada, Singapore, and all walks of life. We had a Gold Medal Olympian, a journalist, scientists, students and professionals who all wanted to learn more. All were passionate about creating change on the planet. Many of them hadn’t spent more time on boats to the ocean. To me those were the truly brave souls. I was aware of what I was getting into, but they stepped into the unknown with a smile. And preventative seasickness pills.
Life on Board
Our days were organized by watches and responsibilities on board. We were divided into watch teams and the women on your team became your close companions. We rotated so you had different shifts every day. It’s hard to say when the day really begins, at sea they all run into each other, but here’s the rough schedule:
8am – 12: Everyone fends for themselves for breakfast as those who were on the night watch are sleeping. This watch group is not only responsible for keeping the boat sailing, following orders from the professional crew, they also get to make lunch for 14. Which is tricky when the galley (that’s boat speak for kitchen) keeps tilting side to side.
12 – 4: Clean up from lunch and it’s all hands on deck for science. There was one day at sea when it was too rough, but otherwise we spent a few hours each day gathering and processing samples.
4 – 6: Short shift but those on it are responsible for dinner while science gets finished and put away. The stakes were continually raised on dinner to be creative as the fresh supplies ran out and other watches were turning out delicious meals. The international crew meant a diverse meal plan. There were only two rules: the meals were vegetarian and the captain had to like them!
6 – 8: Clean up from dinner and then usually the pro crew took over while we had some sort of evening program. We all presented to each other on our backgrounds and what motivated us to join this voyage. We spent time planning for the work we’d do to build awareness when we returned.
Time was also spent encouraging each other and sharing our take on our teammates’ superpowers. It’s harder than it should be to sit still for 10 minutes while people are saying nice things about you. But maybe that means I just need more practice. One new goal is to give out more compliments to friends, family, and co-workers to help them practice as well! That session also helped me get comfortable with that fact, at this point in life, I’m in more of an experienced, mentor role. Which, I guess, comes with being in your 40s instead of your 20s. Life experience is a hard won blessing.
That’s not to say I didn’t have things to learn from the younger set. I’ve always been a pleaser, and it’s refreshing to be with women who aren’t as concerned about the opinions of others. They will ensure change keeps happening and I’ll be cheering them all on along the way.
8pm – 12: Night watch: beautiful stars, hot tea, storytime and keeping the boat going in the right direction. Or, on rough nights, holding on tight and trying to stay dry.
12- 4am: See above, but working harder to stay awake.
4 – 8am: You get to see the sunrise, and you get to clean the heads (bathrooms) and floors. But you also get to shower on your cleaning day, which, after a few sweaty days was a near-religious experience.
While the shifts kept us busy, there was also something wonderful about finishing a shift and not being responsible for anything for a time. There was no internet to check-in. No laundry to fold. No phone calls to return. Instead, friendships were made during midnight watches. Laughs were had while cooking and cleaning up from meals. We learned what all of the different lines on the boat were as the professional crew patiently said, “no, the other blue line.” Or “pull that in, don’t let it out” again and again. Samples were sorted and lines were cranked in. We wrote blog posts and drank tea. My butt is still sore from sitting on wooden decks without cushions. My hands peeled for a week. But I wouldn’t trade any of it.
Creating change isn’t easy. Convincing people to care about the plastic problem we’ve created is hard. Even more difficult, asking them to take the time and energy to make change in their own lives to help solve the problem. But it helps to have people to bolster your spirit and remind you aren’t in this alone. That’s what we’ve become for each other.
I am grateful for the time I spent amongst these women with Exxpedition, and have returned even more determined to try and make a difference in the way we package and consume goods. We must move away from being a disposable society and take responsibility for the products we buy and sell. I hope to continue to do my part of offering alternative options, providing education and awareness and supporting other change-makers. There is no one solution to the plastic problem. But there are many solutions we can all work on together.