Skipper and oceans advocate Emily Penn explains the damage that plastic pollution is having on our oceans, and how we can find solutions.
Interview with Emily Penn
Emily is co-founder and director of eXXpedition; an all-female crew research expedition that are circumnavigating the planet to investigate the causes of and solutions to plastic pollution. She is dedicated to studying environmental challenges and is a public speaker and adviser on issues relating to our oceans.
Plastic can take on many shapes and forms
Plastic starts life as oil, which is taken from the ground and turned into different types of polymers, depending on what properties the finished plastic will need and what its use will be.
The types of plastic and their uses include: PET (for disposable drinks bottles), HDPE (cloudy milk bottles), PVC (windows, drain pipes etc), low-density polyethylene (plastic bags), polypropylene (a hard and durable plastic), polystyrene (packaging), plus a final category that also includes biodegradable plastics.
Plastic can accumulate in ocean gyres
Data shows that around 80% of plastic in the ocean is coming from land, and 20% from ships. At sea the largest contributor is the fishing industry, with lost lines, polystyrene lids, nets etc. There are also a surprising number of containers that fall from ships with their contents being scattered. The discovery of some of these contents which have washed up across the globe have actually helped scientists understand more about ocean currents.
While some plastic waste spreads far across the planet, others can be found in gyres. These are the calm patches at the centre of rotating currents in the ocean.
The biggest problem is beneath the surface
While some plastics float on the surface, others are broken down into smaller fragments by UV rays, wind and waves and can start to sink. Statistics show there's around eight million tonnes of plastic that leaves the land and ends up in the oceans each year, but only around a quarter of a million tonnes can be accounted for on the surface. Most likely the majority of that is sinking so deep that we don't really know what's happening to it.
Microplastics are hazardous to marine life and can enter the food chain
Emily explains how it is very easy for birds, fish and marine mammals to mistake plastic for food. Once they eat it they can die of starvation as it sits in their stomachs and they can't get any good nutrients in. She describes a recent dissection she worked on in Hawaii of a sea turtle, where they found 78 pieces of plastic inside its stomach and gut.
As well as issues of starvation and entanglement for marine life, there is also the impact of the chemical hazards associated with the breakdown of the plastics and also how this can impact humans in the food chain.
Emily highlights other chemical compounds, such as those used to make things fire resistant or weather proof, that also end up as a pollutant in the marine environment once they're washed in washing machines and eventually make their way to the ocean. Making their way back into the food chain they can be carcinogens and disrupt hormones.
Stop the waste leaving the land
With trillions of fragments in the oceans so small that they can't be removed without also removing other marine life, algae and plankton, Emily says the solution is to look further upstream and prevent the plastic from ever getting into the sea or on the land.
“Better still, the next stage is closing the loop. If we are using plastic, how can we make sure it gets recovered right at the point that it’s finished its use so it can stay in a closed loop system?
But better still than that is just avoiding it completely. How can we switch to alternative products and really alternative systems that mean we can live life without plastic?”
Design for end of life
If you're looking for something to last forever, then plastic can be a good material, but it is important to think of what will happen when it is no longer required. We should be ensuring that it can be taken apart and reused for something else, and avoid using composite materials that are different types of plastic all stuck together that can't then be used again.
“We so often design for the primary function but we don’t design for end-of-life. And I think that’s the ultimate message. We just need to think about what happens at the end.”
Close the loop
In Norway and Germany 98% of the bottles are recycled in a closed loop system. The price of the bottle is artificially inflated by a financial deposit that you pay at the point of purchase. That is repaid in a sort of reverse vending machine when the bottles are returned, thus incentivising people to return the bottles in a good condition.
Down-cycling is more prevalent rather than recycling
Emily says there is a misconception about our plastic waste being recycled, with it actually being as little as 9% of the plastic we use. For all the different types of plastic, in the UK only PET and HDPE are recycled, and even less than that in other parts of the world.
Many people's understanding of recycling is that it is an ongoing circular process where things continually are turned into something else. In reality, Emily says that plastic bottle or PET packaging might be turned into a bus shelter, drainpipe or carpet, which can't then be turned into anything else. It's not a closed loop system and she describes it as more like down-cycling than recycling.
eXXpedition has three aims
Emily and her crew set off in 2019 on a two year circumnavigation of the planet conducting scientific research to understand where the solutions lie.
A large part of what they are trying to do is to understand the make-up of the anonymous soup that is a quarter of a million tonnes of plastic floating on the surface. By understanding whether it is tyre dust from cars, or polyester microfibres from clothes in the washing machine for example, they can pinpoint where the opportunities on land will lie.
The second of the three aims is about storytelling, and passing on important messages about the Ocean's beauty, the challenges it is facing and how crucial it is for our own survival.
And thirdly, it is about building community and taking people with different skills from different backgrounds and different countries to work on the problem together and drive solutions.
The challenge is turning the greater awareness into action
The last couple of years have seen a big change in the public consciousness about the issue and companies are waking up and wanting to do something about it, even if they're not entirely sure yet what it is they should be doing.
“The challenge we have now is turning all of that great awareness into action so that the ocean can feel the results. Because I crossed the Pacific again last summer, ten years on from that first time, and there was more plastic in the Pacific last summer than on really any of my other expeditions.
That was a little bit disheartening especially among all of this great energy around the issue. But I don’t think it’s too late. I think we need to act now but I do think we can do it.”
Self-builders can work with suppliers to reduce waste
With self-building comes a lot of packaging, much of which is single use. Emily suggests trying to work with the suppliers to try and find a solution whereby perhaps the packaging could be reusable and returned, which also has a financial incentive for them.
With so much material already out there in the world, Emily would advise looking to use reclaimed materials wherever possible. Even better if you take the site itself and are able to keep as many existing materials there as possible without producing waste or importing new things.
Have conversations around the issues
Emily welcomes people following eXXpedition and becoming part of the movement.
She is also involved with OceanChangeMakers.com which has a toolkit of resources to help people take ideas into their own lives, homes and businesses, and really look at what more they can do.
“But most of all, I would just encourage everybody to ask questions, realise that actually lots of other people around them are asking the same questions, and have these conversations. Whether it’s your supplier who you’re working with or some sort of waste that you’re trying to deal with. Start talking about it because there are always ways to solve these problems.”
Healthy Buildings Conference and Expo 2020
The Alliance for Sustainable Building Products are hosting the Healthy Buildings Conference and Expo 2020. Emily Penn was a keynote speaker in 2019 and you can check out their website for details of who will be presenting at this year's event.
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