Tuesday, 26 April 2022

Focus on Emily Penn - Founder of eXXpedition



I first learned of Inspirational Woman Emily Penn when Carry Somers started talking about joining her eXXpedition to look at plastic pollution in our oceans. Emily’s work tracks the plastic from the ocean back to its source, back to us and industry. Her story is amazing, if like me you love to travel you will love reading Emily’s story. She is a very modern adventurer with true purpose, discovering many solutions to solving our problems with plastic.


D: I'd like to start by saying congratulations on your British Empire medal you received recently for all the work that you've done so far.


E: It was so nice to get that recognition after working on ocean conservation for so many years. It's been a busy last decade really and increasingly so over these recent years when plastic pollution has risen to the forefront of people's minds. It’s on the top of the priorities list and I was, in a way, in a lucky position where I'd spent so many years already working on it. 



D: I'd like to go back to the things that inspired you as you were growing up. Our childhood shapes who we are as adults and would like to start by asking, where did you grow up?


E: I grew up in South Wales near the sea, a little town called Penarth. I was very connected to the ocean from a young age, through my parents. Dad, before what he was then, had trained as a marine biologist. Whenever we went on holiday, usually to Devon or somewhere around the cold British coastline, we'd still get the mask and snorkel on and get underwater. Really get immersed in it. I tried sailing for the first time when I was about 6 or 7 again on holiday in Devon. It was a fun holiday thing to do, and I really enjoyed it. At the end of the holiday I wanted do more and ended up going for lessons on a tiny little lake in Wales. Then over the years worked my way up the sailing dinghy classes, so by the time I was a teenager I was racing for Britain. So, I spent my childhood either on or under the water.


I think the interesting thing about my childhood was that I fell in love with the sea; the sparkle on the water, the way it looks, the way it feels, that feeling as you jump in, everything that I could see under it. I also had real respect for it through sailing. You realise that the weather and tides change - Mother Nature knows best and to respect that. There was something about that though, that made me feel that it was so awesome, in that sense of awe inspiring, raw nature. I think when we grow up in these concrete boxes, we were so buffered from the natural world and what I loved most about being on the water was that there was no buffer.


What I didn't know anything about when growing up was how much the ocean was in trouble. That realisation came as a complete shock to me when I was in my early 20s going round the world.


D: Do you have siblings?


E: I have one older brother, he's a meteorologist.


D: So, he’s plotting what the weather is doing and you are in the middle of it.

You studied architecture at university what made you head in that direction?


E: Despite obviously loving the sea, in the academic world I was growing up in, I also loved maths and science, but also art, drawing and designing. Which all points you towards architecture. I'm so glad I did the architecture degree; it wasn't what I expected, it was actually far less “science-y” than I had imagined. Architecture degrees vary quite a lot depending on where you do them, the one I did was very philosophy based which was a subject I would have never chosen to do when I was at school, but I loved the depths of thinking that came with that. Learning how a building can change the way you think, how you feel, how you act, on a deep psychological level. That sometimes you wouldn't even realise - that subconscious level. Exploring all those ideas was far beyond the physics of how a building stands up, or even the art and design of what looks beautiful. It was about the mind and that fascinated me.

Looking back, years later, what fascinates me now as someone who's trying to create change on these issues, is that I am using the same way of problem solving and the same theories of change as I did in Architecture school. So, I'm so glad I did it but not for the reason I thought I was signing up for.


D: How did it feel to be landlocked for, was it three years or more?


E: It was fine because I loved the degree so much. I took up rowing on the Cam and threw myself into that life. I never ever thought that I would end up becoming a professional sailor for a large chunk of my life. I really thought I was going to go on and be an architect.



D: The second year of your architecture degree saw the beginnings of your travels. Firstly, across land to Shanghai. Can you tell us about that trip?


E: I have always had a fascination with sustainability and I'm sure a lot of that’s from my parents - with my upbringing and having the Natural History of the world shared with me from a young age. When I was 16 and was asked to design a chair for the 21st century for my GCSE design project, when I looked at what the 21st century furniture needed my answer was, ‘well it has to be completely made from reclaimed materials.’ At 16 that was what I felt, and that outlook carried through to my degree. When I had the opportunity to write a dissertation on anything I wanted to, to do with architecture, I came across this Eco City that was being built in Shanghai. So I thought, great, China a country that I know absolutely nothing about and there's an Eco City being built there, that sounds like a great place to go and focus my attention on. Of course I couldn't very well take an aeroplane to go and visit and research a zero carbon city. That was when this idea came about to take a train, a camel and a horse across Europe, Russia, Mongolia and down through China.


D: Did you travel on your own?


E: I did yes and met a lot of people along the way and that's the bit I loved the most. It began as a quest to minimise my carbon footprint, but the process of that journey, and experiencing the subtle transitions you see when you're travelling at a more human pace than on an aeroplane, was great. Instead of arriving culture shocked, jet lagged and climate shocked I arrived having seen the changing landscape and architecture and climate and, most of all, the people who I met all along that journey. It fascinated me so much and I fell in love with the idea of travelling slowly.

But the huge surprise when I got there was that they hadn't even broken ground on the site of the Eco City. They had created beautiful marketing material but nothing else and when I arrived at this beautiful island it was a wetland full of lovely birds.


Of course that could have been a huge spanner in the works, and it probably would have if I had just stepped off a plane, but because I had had that journey, by the time I got my destination, my mind was full of new ideas. The local family I was staying with in China lived in Lilong housing which was a type of architecture used in the early 1900s, when most of Shanghai was built. It fascinated me, the way it was orientated based on the sun and the way the community evolved within the structures and that gave me a new focus without really realising it.


That journey gave me an important part of my approach to life that I've continued to adopt. You need a goal. You need something to get you up out of bed every day - something to energise you and start working towards. But if you're too blinkered only focusing on your goal you miss the really important bits - the opportunities that cross your path. And then you need the courage to shift paths. That was a really important learning experience to have a young age and is something I've really embraced. It’s led me to where I am now.


D: After University you then got a job in Australia and again you didn’t fly there.


E: It was that experience the year before, falling in love with slow travel, combined with spending so much time on the ocean growing up, which had me thinking how amazing would it be to cross the Atlantic on a boat. That was when I started looking at ways to hitchhike to Australia and came across this amazing project Earthrace which is a crazy rocket shaped boat.


D: Did it get you to Australia more quickly?


E: It took six months to get from the UK to Australia. Along the way we stopped at a lot of places, pulling in, you can imagine that boat coming into a little Pacific Island, you get the entire town out on the dock. All the locals would clamber through the boat and we would talk about renewable energy and some of the challenges around that. It was a great tool to enable us to engage people. It was a project that attracted really interesting people and most importantly people who were unlike anyone I'd met before while growing up in the UK - I was being exposed to so many new things.


D: Was it on that journey that you heard the bump on the side of the boat that changed everything?


E: One night we were hundreds of miles from land when we started to hear things hitting the hull of our boat. When the sun came up, we could see pieces of plastic in the water around us. It wasn't this island of plastic that I went on to hear about, and then later discovered didn't exist, in reality it’s much less dense – a piece here, a piece there – but went on day after day as we crossed the Pacific.

We didn’t have any running water, just three litres of water per person per day, so any washing we did was by jumping over the side. We would stop the boat at 9am every morning and all jump in for a swim. It was being so up close with that part of the ocean that I started to realise what was floating by; a toothbrush, a cigarette lighter, a bottle top. At first we were all questioning “where’s this coming from?” – there must be something just out of sight that we haven’t spotted that explains what we seeing. But this went on and on for days, for weeks and then we would stop at little islands and they were covered in plastic too. Uninhabited specks of absolute paradise in the middle of the Pacific, covered in plastic. I couldn't believe it. It didn't make any sense to me at all.



D: What happened when you eventually reached Australia?


E: I postponed the job for six months - I wanted to finish the Earthrace project. I had already learned so much and was loving the experience so really wanted to see it through to the end and that meant carrying on to New Zealand to complete the tour which was absolutely incredible. At the end of those six months: again I had met so many other people, including a group of sailors who had just returned from the Pacific islands, and they had also seen the plastic issue in Tonga. At that point I thought why don't we sail back up there and do a project which I thought would take maybe three weeks, then I would head over to Australia and take the job. By the time I got back to Tonga and learnt more about the plastic problem and realised how big it was. Plus, it wasn't only a clean-up that was going to solve the problem - it needed a huge amount of long-term work in the community, with the government, with schools and more. At that point I called the architecture job off altogether.


D: Who are you working for in Tonga? Did the government fund the work?


E: We basically turned up and started to have conversations, back then not many people had access to the internet, so you would fire off a few emails and rarely got a reply. So it was a more of a case of showing up, meeting with the government and talking with the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Education, to have conversations about the challenges they were facing. They knew they had a huge problem but had no resource and were not really able to do anything about it. We then went and spoke to Westpac the bank, and Digicel the phone company and from there we managed to start put together a small fund that allowed us to get the materials we needed to do the job.

When we got to the remote outer islands we spent the first couple of weeks camping in hammocks on the beach. At that point I had lived on a boat for year, I'd washed in the sea everyday and we'd fish for our food. It was a beautiful life really - probably not one that would work for your whole life, but at that time in my life it was absolutely ideal. Then a local family took me in, they loved the idea and had a whole load of daughters of similar age as me. I was able to speak English with them and learn some of the things that they really valued as a family. I had a place to sleep, there are 22 people in the home, four generations together including cousins. So, I managed to sustain myself at a time in my life where I didn't have any outgoings, or any ties, and was able put all my time into focusing on whatever needed to be done.

Then when the funding came in we were able to start implementing things and get the tools we needed.


D: You managed to clear the island, how much waste did you lift?


E: 56 tonnes of waste. It was a combination of types of waste, including plastic. The thing is with islands is it’s expensive enough to get something there, but then to remove waste, economically there’s no reason why you would. Even when a car gets fully to the end of its life - which happens probably sooner than it does anywhere else because it's hot, humid and salty - it gets stripped of all its valuable bits and then the rest of it stays where it's left. We weren't removing cars but we were removing huge amounts of waste like fridges which as we know have lots of nasty chemicals in them. That kind of thing would end up being dumped in areas the community had sectioned off to dispose waste in, but the areas are not lined and the waste was very close to the freshwater lens which means a much greater risk of contamination. Or they're burning it and all these nasty chemicals are in the air. Donated electronics were being thrown away, that's a whole other story in itself - why were the electronics even there in the first place? You could see the huge impacts that this waste was having with no system in place for dealing with it.


D: Of course, their water table is right there in front of them.


E: I think that was when I started to realise that it was external pressures - the collapse of fisheries and the rising sea levels - causing this problem. Plastic wasn’t being created on the island, but the external pressure on resources, meant the only way the islanders could survive was to import food and drink wrapped in plastic.

D: From Tonga did you come back to the UK?


E: I didn't.


D: What was next on your journey?


E: I still hadn't taken a plane by this point. I considered coming back to the UK because I had been away for nearly two years, but I had momentum and there's something special about being on a journey and not taking an aeroplane. That idea of travelling slowly was leading me on to the next thing, which saw me on another sailing boat back to New Zealand where I started to establish the Sustainable Coastlines charity with a group of Kiwis. That was the umbrella the project in Tonga had been under. I absolutely loved working in New Zealand on the same sort of community led clean-up projects and setting up long term systems.


I was still quite young and restless and had so many more questions that had appeared during my time in Tonga that I really wanted answers to. As I started to research how plastic was moving around the world, I learnt about the gyres and ocean currents, which led me to find out about an organisation in California called 5 Gyres.


D: Could you tell us non-sailors what a gyre is?


E: A gyre is a plastic accumulation zone. Because our planet is spinning it causes the Coriolis effect. In the centre of this fast-moving current you get a really calm patch which behaves a bit like when you pull a plug out of a sink and the water rushes fast around the outside and it's quite slow in the middle and all of the toothpaste bubbles or whatever it is moved to the middle. The same thing happens on a massive scale in our ocean, so any debris whether it's plastic, or seaweed, or whatever else ends up moving into that calm patch in the centre of this rotation of currents.


 At the time there was a computer generated model showing that there were five of these gyres around the world but only the one between California and Hawaii in the North Pacific had been studied. This got me thinking, if there's another four gyres we need to go and find out if there is any plastic there. There’s a theory but what might we actually find? I wanted to know more about these gyres by going and sampling the water. After writing to several scientific institutions and NGOs in California who were looking at this issue I set my sights on getting there. It took me a few months to put it together and ended up on a container ship from New Zealand to California - my next mode of non-flying transport. This was another fascinating experience. I witnessed 10s of thousands of tonnes of tuna being shipped from the middle of the Pacific into America. Seeing that whole operation, and the cargo shipping industry generally, was really eye opening. In California I started to work again as a volunteer, figuring out how to make ends meet and working on understanding the plastics issue more. That's when I set up my first organisation Pangaea Explorations with a

co-founder who invested in the project, enabling us to set up this incredible boat. My role was to organise the logistics, working in partnership with 5 Gyres who did the scientific side of the work.

Pretty quickly we set up the first expedition to sail from Brazil towards Africa, into the heart of the South Atlantic Gyre for the first time - to see what was there. It was days of real intrepid adventure, having no idea what the science is going to show us. I spent the next three or four years mostly at sea, on this boat, running these expeditions and doing that first global study.


D: Where you picking up people and dropping off people as you went along?


E: Yes, and all sorts of people too: scientists, film makers and journalists - because the plastics issue was beginning to emerge in the news. People wanted to get out there and see for themselves what was going on.



D: You have such a positive outlook, something you have said is ‘that a shift in thinking is all that that is needed to change the world’ and you've done a lot of that. You talk about sailing and your goals in a way people can easily understand. When you eventually came back to the UK, you came back with a with a vision and plan.


E: I had left as an architecture student and came back having sailed to the Gyres. Coming back to the UK I was a completely different person - in terms of what I was doing with my time and want I wanted to do with my future. What was really nice when I came back is I discovered a new community in the UK which, when I was on the other side of the world, I was quite sceptical even existed as I had never seen it before I left. I made connections with the Royal Geographical Society and found my tribe of like-minded people, who were passionate about similar things.


D: Tell us about eXXpedition, is it 9 expeditions you have completed so far?


E: In terms of Legs we had completed 11 before our Round the World trip and then 8 during the Round the World trip.


Before eXXpedition I had spent several years at sea already researching the plastics issue and as much as we were finding answers, we were also finding a lot more questions. The thing that kept getting to me was the fact that the plastic fragments were so small. We were finding them in the fish - in the food chain - and I couldn't help but wonder what impact that was having. I also started to learn about the toxic chemicals in our ocean too. We tested the water and the plastic and we found pesticides, flame retardants and all sorts of industrial chemicals. These chemicals are fantastically useful in the lives that we lead today, but when they then start becoming a pollutant in the environment and we start seeing them in the food chain that questions are raised about their impact. At that point I teamed up with the UN Environment Programme to set up a project to see if it in us too. The reality is that, still to this day, there's very little evidence that scientifically connects chemicals in the bottom of the food chain to the top so I decided to skip to the end of that food chain to myself, and test my own body. I thought “is this something we need to care about, is it in us?” With the test we discovered that actually “yes, it is” and in a way that I would never have thought. I thought maybe I'd have one or two of the chemicals in my body but I couldn't believe it when I discovered I had 29 of those 35 toxic chemicals in me. Some of them are carcinogens, but most are endocrine disruptors which mimic hormones and stop those important chemical messages moving around our bodies. That's when I began to realise that being a woman, how important these hormones are during pregnancy, and that we can pass them onto our children when we give birth and when we breastfeed. That’s what made me think this is such a female centred issue, which in turn effects the whole of humanity.


On top of this, I had been blown away by how many fantastic women I had met working on this issue. It was a combination of all these factors that made me think “let’s do this with women, let’s sail across the North Atlantic, look deeper into this microplastic and toxic story and find out some more answers.” To do it with women was the best decision I made.


D: I have heard of people being sceptical about all women crews but you only have to watch the movie Maiden to know that it works.


E: I wasn't expecting it to feel different to all of the mixed expeditions I had been on before, but it really did. I was blown away by the magic that happens when you bring an amazing group of women together and the bonds that are made at sea.


D: Can you tell us where you were going, what you were doing, what you were finding, and what the Great Pacific Garbage Patch actually looks like?


E: Very different to what I first imagined when I set off on those early voyages. The biggest myth being the idea of an island of plastic or sometimes it’s described as the 7th continent. The reality is that it's a soup. You do see plastic for sure as I did on those days on Earthrace. A piece here, a piece there - maybe every 10 seconds - and other pieces hitting the front of the boat as we pass. It's not something that you can walk on, or put a flag on, or put a building on. It’s really scary when we put the trawl through the water - it is a really fine mesh net that's 333 microns, a fraction of a millimetre – and pull it up to realise that what you can't see is the soup of fragments, microplastics smaller than your little fingernail, that have been degraded by the UV rays of the sun, and the wind and the waves have broken them down into fragments. The reality is that most of the plastic at sea is tiny. You can't see it with your eyes when you look at the water. You can't see it by satellite image from space. What we now know is that it's also starting to sink to a place so deep that we can't see it, measure it or even really understand the impact of that yet. But the very few submersible expeditions that have gone down deep into the ocean have found plastic in their samples.


D: Since then have you decreased the size of microns that you're looking at?


E: Originally we were looking at anything over 333 microns with the manta trawl net and we still use that same grade mesh for the trawl over the side, because you still have to be able to drag the net through the water and the water needs to exit out the back otherwise you end up pushing the water and the sample forwards. In addition to that we now gather samples using a niskin bottle - which is a fancy bottle with ends that snap shut at different depths. That water sample is then put through a super fine filtration by creating a vacuum to draw the water through the filter leaving behind the sample. That's when we start to find things like microfibers that we know come from our clothes when we put them in the washing machine, the pieces of tyre dust coming off our cars when we drive on the roads that are then washed down the drains. All these things, that we all - you and I - had no idea of, every day create little impacts that all add up over time and we don't even know we're doing it.


D: As you said much of our clothing is plastic, 60% of it, and shockingly when we wash our clothes we are washing those plastic microfibres straight into the water system.


E: There are no filters in our sewage system that cater for that size particle.



D: The fashion industry have a lot to do.


E: It's a tricky one to solve. A lot of the solution finding that I work on is looking at the symptom of the problem in the ocean and then at the source. You can solve these problems at many different places on that spectrum. You could look at improving the sewage system which means a governmental approach. With industry you could look at putting a filter on your washing machine - this is something that you can retrofit or add to new washing machines which again might need legislation at some point, but it’s a start. Or you could work even closer to the source and look at the design of the garments themselves; the materials that are being used, the yarn length and the tightness of the weave that prevents shedding. All these factors try and get closer to the source. There are ways to solve it but are not processes that big fashion industry companies can do overnight because of the scale of the industry.


We design so many of our products using the wrong materials: a plastic bag or a water bottle that's designed to be used once and thrown away, but made out of a material that lasts forever. The same with clothes, if you're designing a piece of clothing using polyester, like a fleece that has a very short yarn length, it sheds when you are wearing it in your home and all those microfibers are shedding into the air you are breathing. Or when it's in the washing machine they shed straight into the water supply. It doesn't make sense.


As we mentioned earlier ‘a shift in thinking is all we need’ and my reason for saying that is that I do believe so many of the solutions that we need already exist. We have the most incredible technology the most amazing innovations and we can also behave a little differently. A lot of what Carry (Somers) talks about is that you don't need to buy something new every time, which means it's not even about a new innovation or a new technology it’s about making the most of what you already have. When I saw what went onto those container ships it made me realise that every time you buy something to arrive on your doorstep the process of getting it there is colossal.


Thinking about consumption is important but there's also so much to do around changing mindsets and changing values which then has a trickle effect on everything else in a really positive way.


D: The last trip you were on in 2019 -2020, you were going around the world, collecting amazing data, with lots of fabulous women when our whole lives shifted, tell us where you were and what happened when you found out that Covid was coming.


E: The pandemic had obviously been brewing and we were taking a lot of precautions on the boat at the time - checking temperatures and making sure that people hadn't passed through high-risk areas. Then we set off from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the South Pacific for a month-long voyage towards Tahiti, French Polynesia via some other islands in the Pitcairn group - a very, very remote group of islands in the South Pacific - and also working through the South Pacific Gyre - that accumulation zone. It was set to be an extraordinary voyage, and it was extraordinary but not in a way we expected. We were less than a week in when things started to escalate globally. When you're sailing in the direction of the wind you can't really turn around as it takes longer to sail back upwind than to keep going.

Even though we were still reasonably early into that leg of the voyage the quickest airport we could reach was two weeks away in Tahiti. Then we started to hear that borders were closing and airlines were grounding their planes - those crazy days that we all remember in March 2020. So we headed to Tahiti as quickly as possible… which is 6 miles an hour in a sailing boat! It made us really feel how big the ocean is, how big the planet is, how remote we really were and emphasised how remote the plastic is.

We made it just in time with literally less than 24 hours to spare to get the last flight out of Tahiti before the world completely shut down. Thankfully, despite the borders being shut, we managed to get special permission to make landfall to get the crew off and return them home to the six different countries they came from.


D: It must have been difficult to leave the boat behind.


E: It was, packing down with no idea when we were going to get back. It was a real shame because so much had gone into such an ambitious project, that was taking so many women on an extraordinary journey of discovery, and to do the scientific work on a global scale.


I managed to bring all the samples and a lot of the scientific equipment back to the UK, and we've now processed those samples and papers were written up at the end of last year and we will have four scientific papers published from those first 8 legs of the voyage which is an incredible achievement. 



D: You talked about going to all 5 Gyres. Did you see differences in the ones you managed to get to?


E: On Round the World we managed to go to 2 two of them and had been to the North Pacific Gyre the previous year. We have now 3 three great sets of results and there are huge differences. Typically, in the northern hemisphere you find a lot more pollution than in the southern hemisphere, which I suppose is not surprising considering the population split being about 90% in the North and 10% in the South. Interestingly though the plastic isn't 90/10 as we see more than perhaps we should in the southern hemisphere, possibly because, on the whole, southern hemisphere nations don't have the same controlled waste management systems as in the north. What we were really looking at on the eXXpedition was not only how much and where the plastic is, but also what type. Since the beginning we've always looked at the colour and whether it's a fragment, a piece of film, a piece of foam, a line or a nurdle - which are the pre-production pellets, the raw material of plastic. You wouldn’t believe how many nurdles we find out there especially given it’s the raw material, it’s never even been used.


D: How’s it getting there?


E: Either during transport on a container ship as we saw with the disaster that unfolded on the coastline of Sri Lanka but I expect most of it is coming from industry. I've visited some factories where they're producing plastic bottles, or whatever it might be, and they have these big hoppers full of the plastic pellets coming in, that then go into the machinery and in the process they naturally escape, they end up on the floor and at the end of the day that gets hosed down and the only place it goes is the drain. So you can see thousands of these things washing down the drain in every factory everyday.


You can start to deduce the type of plastic from the colour and shape but on Round the World we went a step further. We took a machine on board called an FTIR which sends infrared light through a diamond, through the piece of plastic and produces a reading that allows us to work out what type of polymer it is – what the chemistry of the plastic is. Then we know whether it is PET, or polypropylene, or polyvinyl, or PVC - all of these different types of plastic - which gets us a little bit closer to working out the use and where it might have come from. That's where we start to have some really surprising findings. At one particular point on our route map around the world we found a lot of paint fragments, which we didn't find anywhere else, and we hadn't thought this would be something that would be in such high quantities polluting a particular part of our ocean. By understanding more about which plastic we are dealing with and where, we have a much better idea of how to solve the problem on land. We now know , based on the science, which types of plastics or other polymers we need to target. It helps because we then know where to put our resource - we need to be smart about it and put our energy and resource in the right place.


D: Being at sea you constantly have the environment around you, and you're reacting to that environment. You have said that often your life depends on your responses and this impactful work you are doing shows our lives depend on it.


E: I think that's one of the big analogies I've seen from life at sea where you're constantly solving problems that are being thrown at you left, right and centre in the form of say, a squall. You have to react, you have to shift your sails, shift your course and yes, at times at sea, your life does depend on your response. When tackling the plastics issue, I see it as a very similar approach to solving that problem. The landscape keeps changing - we keep learning new things and different parts of the problem so we have to keep adjusting our methods and our ways of working. Plastic was invented for brilliant reasons, and it saves lives. During COVID it has saved so many lives, the amount of PPE we have used, we couldn’t have got through this pandemic without it. So, it's there for great reasons, but what we didn't know when we invented it, and these other chemicals, were the unintended consequences. As we start to learn that information we need to adjust how we do things, and I do feel we're getting to the stage where our lives and our health depends on what we do in the next 10 years.


A lot of the health scientists are looking at the impact of it on our bodies. When you have a foreign body inside you, which plastic is, it creates inflammation in the same way a splinter creates inflammation, the same thing happens on the inside of your body as it tries to deal with it, which then means it's less able to deal with everything else.



D: Since your return to the UK at the start lockdown what have you been up to?


E: I have created SHiFT.how which is a platform to navigate this plastic problem. We have hundreds of solutions and a big part of my problem solving methodology is that there's not one solution, there's no silver bullet, and that is a positive thing as there are hundreds of ways to solve it. The challenge with there being no silver bullet is that it can feel overwhelming. If you are trying to get on with your life and deal with your kids and your job and everything else it can feel overwhelming to think where do I begin? Every time I read the news, or open Instagram, or chat with friends I am being told to do something different. It can quickly get paralysing which then of course means we don't do anything.


Part of the idea of building the SHiFT platform during lockdown and harnessing technology, was to create a map of solutions and tools to help people navigate through that overwhelmed feeling of “where do I start?” Helping them find a few things that are the right things for them, depending on what it is that they're great at, and where it is that they are trying to solve the problem, and then what scale of time and ambition they have at that moment that they can tackle. They can then use it as a map to take people to different places so they can start taking action.


We had launched the idea of SHiFT Sessions pre-COVID, before the eXXpedition voyage, when we brought fascinating varied groups of people together in real life. Carry (Somers) joined us on one of those to talk about microfibers. The thing with the plastics conversation is that there are so many interesting different angles to explore - both the problems and the solutions. We need to start taking those different threads, delving into them and give them the time they need. That's what these sessions are all about. During COVID we ran them as a series of Instagram live sessions. We also do a lot of work with our ambassador community where we get together once a week to have these conversations in a closed community setting which has been really impactful.


D: All those crews of women, I'm sure it has changed their lives, and that they then go on to work on change.


E: The impact that’s come off the back of these voyages has been fantastic.

It was the trip that I had around the world when I was 21, when I saw the plastic and realised how powerful that experience was, that fuelled my passion to take other people to experience it too because I know how much it changes your life and changes your outlook on the world. You build deep relationships with the people that you're thrown into that little environment with and it has a huge impact. Then that impact has a ripple effect and the effect of that is massive.


Emily Penn








Emily Penn





Thank you to Isabella Oliver and ONLOAN for lending us clothing for the shoot.






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