On Board a Sailing Expedition to Study Plastic Pollution

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An all-women crew of scientists, sailors, artists and others embark on a global voyage to research the threats of plastic pollution on humans and ocean ecosystems.

 

Katlin Tilly felt relieved. On the morning of February 29, 2020, she emerged onto the deck of the S.V. TravelEdge, a 73-foot-long, two-masted sailboat, to find a picturesque ocean scene: sun out, water glossy and calm, bright blue in all directions, no land in sight. After recovering from several days of seasickness that left her woozy and lethargic, she jokingly thought, “This is my kind of sailing.” 

Yet Tilly wouldn’t describe herself as much of a sailor at all. The 24-year-old, originally from Toowoomba, Australia, worked as the food security manager and sustainability teacher at the Island School, a nonprofit in The Bahamas, for the last few years. That work inspired her to pursue a career in environmental conservation. Months before that February morning, she came across a Facebook ad calling women from all over the world to join a global voyage to study plastic pollution. Despite having almost no experience on the open ocean, Tilly was excited by the opportunity to do hands-on conservation work. She applied and landed a spot on the trip. Now, here she was, hundreds of miles off the coast of South America trying to find her sea legs. 

Tilly was just one of a 13-person crew sailing from the Galápagos Islands to Easter Island, a two-and-a-half-week journey that was part of a much larger expedition. They represented Leg 7 of eXXpedition’s Round the World voyage, a scientific mission to circumnavigate the globe via four of five giant systems of rotating ocean currents, called gyres, plus the Arctic Ocean. All-women teams of scientists and experienced sailors, as well as artists, chefs, teachers and stay-at-home moms of all ages—many of whom have little to no experience sailing—will travel the world in 30-plus legs. Their goal: research the health threats of plastic pollution on humans and ocean ecosystems, and use their multidisciplinary skills to find solutions to the problem from all angles. The coronavirus pandemic upended eXXpedition’s course, forcing the boat to dock after Leg 8 in early spring. The plan is to restart the expedition in Tahiti, where they left off, in 2021.

Woman sailing on voyage in Pacific Ocean.

Kaitlin Tilly aboard the S.V. TravelEdge. Photo credit: Carry Somers.

The goal of Leg 7 was to sail through the South Pacific Gyre, one of five expansive conversion zones in the world’s oceans, and conduct research on the presence of plastics, specifically microplastics, in this part of the world. The route to Easter Island would bring them to the outer regions of the gyre, giving them a rare glimpse of the lesser known of two garbage patches in the Pacific Ocean.

Gyre has become synonymous in the research community with garbage patch. The naturally occurring currents pull with them unnatural debris—from broken fishing gear to swept-away beach toys to indiscriminate, tiny plastic bits—trapping it thousands of miles offshore out of human sight. Plastic accumulation in the South Pacific Gyre was first researched in the spring of 2011 by scientists with the 5 Gyres Institute. In their study, published in 2013 in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, researchers recorded a higher density of plastic within the gyre. “The results show an increase in surface abundance of plastic pollution as we neared the center and decrease as we moved away, verifying the presence of a garbage patch,” they wrote. In late 2016, scientific researcher and boat captain Charles Moore, who is credited with first discovering the Great Pacific Garbage Patch within the North Pacific Gyre in 1997, set out on a six-month research expedition to map the edges and contents of the pollution’s spread. Moore, who founded the nonprofit Algalita, and his team then estimated the size of the patch covered an area of nearly 1 million square miles. Yet the imagery of a floating landfill made up of laundry baskets and every toothbrush we’ve ever used doesn’t match reality. 

“None of the things we’ve been led to imagine are there, where all of a sudden you see a trash island on the horizon,” explains Helen Morris, a Leg 7 crew member and refugee advocate currently based in South Africa. “It’s not visceral or physical in that way.”

Tiny pieces of plastic in strainer.

Microplastics pulled from a single trawl. Photo credit Carry Somers.

The micro plastics problem

Instead, most oceanic plastic pollution is made up of microplastics, fragments of what was once a shampoo bottle or a plastic cup that has been worn down by the elements. These fragments look nothing like their original form and purpose, and often, at under 5 millimeters in size, they’re small enough to slide under your fingernail. In fact, the debris looks like dusty confetti. A 2019 study published in the journal Limnology and Oceanography Letters found that the amount of microplastics in the oceans could be significantly underestimated. Analyzing the intestines of tiny, filter-feeding invertebrates called salps, the researchers discovered previously undetected mini-microplastics that weren’t appearing in samples taken from the ocean’s surface. Because traditional methods of counting microplastics were likely missing these smaller, nanoplastic fibers, they concluded that the number of microplastics in the ocean is off by “five to seven orders of magnitude,” estimating the true number to be 8.3 million micro-pieces per cubic meter of water.

Morris, 56, who unlike Tilly describes herself as “a sailing fanatic” and has 14 years experience in long-distance sailing and racing, has seen the occasional, easy-to-identify object out in the middle of the ocean before. “I saw a balloon many miles offshore once, just floating along the water. It’s surprising. And, of course, you get back to land and see a kid with a balloon and just want to yell, ‘Hey, you don’t really need that balloon!’”

“But seeing these small plastic pieces,” Morris says, “You realize that it’s hiding on the surface. It’s in the food chain. It’s in the water column. It’s in the depths. It’s everywhere. That’s really unsettling.”

The crew gathered at least five times more microplastic in the gyre than outside it.

A woman at helm of sailboat

Helen Morris, a self-described “sailing fanatic,” at the helm of the S.V. TravelEdge. Photo credit: Claire McCluskey.

A trip of this scale presents an opportunity to create a huge, singular dataset, says Dr. Winnie Courtene-Jones, a marine biologist based out of the University of Plymouth, with a PhD in plastic pollution. She’s also the scientist responsible for the design and execution of the Round the World research program. 

“We’re getting a global perspective not done before,” she says. Generally, scientists have a solid grasp on what’s happening with ocean pollution, but they are all collecting data and samples through slightly different methods. “We’re circumnavigating the globe using the same methods the whole time, so with this information, we’re really able to compare ocean basins in a standardized way.” She says they plan to make their findings available through published journal articles and public outreach.

Courtene-Jones, who led the Leg 7 crew, has spent the last three and a half years researching plastic pollution in the deep sea some 2,000 meters down and emphasizes just how much is happening below the surface. “But that work is quite hard for people to connect with—they can’t see the bottom of the ocean,” she explains, which is a large part of why she’s designed the research to be all-encompassing. 

“We’re on land and at sea, from the tiny scale colonizing the surface of the plastic to the huge-scale projects,” she says. “We’re in the water columns, in the seabed. We’re doing it all.” 

Woman pulls trawl from ocean.

A crew member uses a trawl to collect microplastic samples while sailing in the South Pacific. Photo credit: Carry Somers

The boat is equipped with a manta trawl, a device with fine mesh netting that is dragged across the surface of the water as the boat moves to gather samples. If the weather allows, the eXXpedition crews drop the manta trawl for 30 minutes, twice a day. It’s a small window, but enough to get a picture of what’s out there. 

Claire McCluksey, 31, an Irish artist and crew member, says for the first few days, there weren’t handfuls of plastics coming up in the trawls. The same strong winds and rolling waves that left Tilly and others seasick dispersed the microplastics into deeper water, leaving the surface misleadingly cleaner than it was. When they did start to pull up more, she says, “Initially, we were like, ‘Yes! We found some!’ And then had to reset and think, ‘Wait, this is bad.’ The momentum from the activity when you’re looking for something really drives you, but then you take a step back. Realizing you’re not supposed to find anything is a bit jarring.” 

Once samples are collected, the work of finding the source begins. Crew members sift through the trawl, recording each fragment and noting its size, shape, color and more. They use a fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy, also known as an FTIR machine, to analyze the polymer type.

Woman analyzes sample of ocean plastic.

Dr. Winnie Courtene-Jones analyzes and records the polymer type of a microplastic sample. Photo credit: Carry Somers.

“It’s painstaking work, the degree to which you’re analyzing and collecting information,” Morris says.

Preliminary findings show that nearly half of what the crew pulled up in the South Pacific was a polymer type called high-density polyethylene (HDPE): a rigid plastic most commonly used in food packaging and storage. Milk jugs, bottle tops, takeout carriers, household detergent sprayers and cosmetic containers are all made of HDPE plastic. Other polymer types the crew analyzed included polypropylene (fishing rope/nets, chip bags, car bumpers), polyethylene (plastic bags and films, grocery-store produce bags) and polyamide (electronics and textiles).

Tilly, who works in food security and sustainability, knew food-related plastics are problematic but was still surprised to find it was the majority. “We need to return to nature,” she says. “Bananas have their own packaging that biodegrades.”

“But more than that, we need to slow down the way we consume our food,” Tilly continues. “We’ve fast-forwarded everything, and people think they don’t have time. But if you slow down, treat meals and food as a family moment, it enables you to eat better, grow or buy locally, to reduce waste and be mindful of what you’re using.”

A water sample containing visible amounts of microplastics.

A water sample containing visible amounts of microplastics. Photo credit: Carry Somers.

The decision to staff the vessel with women of diverse, nonscientific backgrounds was a no-brainer for Emily Penn, the cofounder of eXXpedition and mission director of Round the World. Fewer than 30 percent of the world’s scientific researchers are women, according to a 2019 UNESCO Institute for Statistics report, and historically, scientific research centers on men, even in reproductive studies. Furthermore, climate and environmental changes that loom large now and will grow over the next decade will weigh on women more than men. A lack of education, household and familial responsibilities, and hindered career growth could set women back, particularly in developing countries—the very areas expected to be hit hardest by climate crises. Women are needed voices in the search for solutions, Penn explained.

It took her many years to work up to the Round the World voyage. She graduated from University of Cambridge with an architecture degree in 2008, and boarded a biofuel boat on the way to her first job as an architect in Australia. She traveled through the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, seeing plastics everywhere in the water, and learned how small communities struggled to clean and contain the plastic on their shores—most of which was not theirs. Her interest grew from community beach cleans to larger-scope work on gyres. But, she says, the efforts felt futile. If more plastic was still being produced, it was going to keep ending up in the ocean.

“I realized that cleaning up these areas was important, but it would be useless unless we understood the problem of where the trash was coming from,” Penn says. “We had to find the source.”

After a few years, she began to notice the growing amount of microplastic samples in the bellies of fish. Plastic was getting into the food chain, and there could be implications on our own human health, Penn says. So she decided to do a blood test.

“I wanted to see which chemicals often used in the production of plastic I might have inside my own body,” Penn says. “I had 29 out of the 35 chemicals [I was tested for] in my system.”

Some plastic chemicals, such as bisphenol-A (BPA), are known hormone disruptors and can cause serious implications for pregnant women, who could potentially pass them on to children at birth. Considering how women are uniquely affected by plastic pollution, Penn realized the key role they could play in finding solutions.

In 2014, Penn and a small team of women set sail on the first eXXpedition voyage into the North Atlantic, and the organization slowly began adding a few additional voyages each year. By 2018, she says, “So many women were reaching out, putting their hands up to say they wanted to be a part of this that we had enough interest to make it happen.” When Round the World was announced, more than 10,000 women applied and 300 were selected. 

“There’s something about watching land disappear into the horizon, or trying to cook a meal at a 45-degree angle that bonds you and your crew together,” says Penn. Crew members like Morris, who experienced the machismo of racing teams, and McCluskey, who emphasized the safeness and equal balance of the crew, agreed, noting they felt a strong sense of community among the women on board. Unity, exposure and empowerment are the main aims of eXXpedition. Give women from various fields and lifestyles the opportunity to see the problem firsthand, and they can start searching for solutions at the sources of that problem once back on land. 

Women aboard a sailboat.

The Leg 7 eXXpedition crew. Photo courtesy of Carry Somers.

“It opened my eyes in a brutal way that was really necessary,” says McCluksey, who now describes walking down the street and noticing every plastic cup or bag that’s littering the gutter as “a real pain in the ass.” She explains that at some point, we will reach critical mass, both in our opportunity to react to the pollution problem and when it’s too late.

Many scientists warn the point at which our oceans are irreparably damaged—by plastic and pollution, habitat loss, rising temperatures, species extinction and more—is closer than we think, if it hasn’t already been reached. About 4 to 12 million metric tons of plastic washed offshore in 2010 alone, according to a 2015 study published in Science. At that time, the study’s researchers predicted the annual amount of plastic waste tumbling out to sea would more than double by 2025. Scientists have found microplastics in at least 114 aquatic species, many of which end up on our dinner plates. Researchers recently presented findings to the American Chemical Society that showed traces of micro- and nanoplastics in every human tissue sample assessed. And while microplastics are tied to issues like organ damage and infertility in animals, the scope of their effects on human health is still uncertain. Yet, plastic is still being produced at a rate over 300 million tons each year, 50 percent for single-use purposes. Less than 9 percent of it is currently recycled, according to one study.

It’s an overwhelming problem, one which many people find themselves ill-equipped to solve or believe that their contributions are too small to make an impact. But, as Tilly explains, individual decisions do have power. 

“You can’t have everyone go out to sea and see the plastic firsthand, but you can find each person’s lightbulb moment,” Tilly says. “What’s the thing that’s going to shift their perspective? For some, it’s going to be seeing the straw on a beach. For other people, it’s going to be finding out that plastic pollution is impacting our health or their children’s health. For others, it could just be hearing the solutions that can make a difference, and making the decision to make a change. Those moments will add up, and with time and action, the solutions become achievable.”