Phoebe Smith, University of St Andrews undergraduate.
I have always lived by the coast. Seeing plastic on the beaches was so normal, I used to overlook it, until an art project at school alerted me to the idea that plastic should not be there! I noticed plastic pollution more and more and researched it during my A-Levels. In 2018 I heard about eXXpedition, an all-female Community Interest Company, set up by Emily Penn and Lucy Gilliam, which is at the frontline of global plastic pollution research. At this time eXXpedition was organising a sailing voyage around the world to collect plastic pollution data. This involved using equipment to collect sea-surface, sub-surface, and sediment sample, which they would analyse for the presence of plastic and associated toxins. At each stop along the way they would collect data about the plastic on land, building up an understanding of the origin of the pollution. They work with the University of Plymouth to understand how marine plastic pollution looks worldwide.
At first, I dismissed the idea of joining these women as something I couldn
't possibly be a part of due to my lack of experience at only 18 years old. However, I thought this would be an incredible thing to do, and so I applied. In the summer of 2019, I was offered a place on the team as their youngest member! I was set to sail through part of the Pacific in 2020 on their world voyage. But, as we all know, a world-wide pandemic hit. The sailing trip had to be stopped just a couple of months before I was due to join. This was a real shame but eXXpedition transitioned the voyage online. We couldn't carry out research as we had expected to, but it meant I still had the opportunity to meet inspiring women from around the world who were also keen to find solutions to plastic pollution. From the 22nd
January to 5th
February I participated in 6 calls with 13 women from the UK, USA, Canada, France, Tonga, Iceland and Puerto Rico, including Emily Penn, the co-founder of the organisation. Emily and Dr Winnie Courtene-Jones (Science Lead for eXXpedition) spoke to us about the research from the previous sailing trips which revealed more about marine plastic pollution.
The reason this is an all-female venture is because women, although decreasingly so, are still underrepresented in STEM and research fields; eXXpedition helps shift this balance to show that women have a valid and important place in the sciences. The other reason is that pollution is affecting women just as much as men, if not more. Historically, research has focused mainly on men and yet plastic and toxins, such as endocrine-disrupting Persistent Organic Pollutants, can have a greater effect on women and the children to whom they give birth.
As a group we explored how we as individuals could best take action, thinking about our skills and creating action plans, and we discussed potential solutions. On our fifth call, local people from the Kingdom of Tonga explained to us how the international issue of plastic pollution was impacting their island nation, overwhelming them as they do not have the technology to cope with it. Tonga represents what is happening on a global scale: plastic rubbish is thrown away, moved to landfill on the other side of the island out of sight, blown into the sea and washed back up on their shores. This was an impactful story. Plastic was made to last... forever. All the plastic ever made, still exists today. We really must stop using it for things that aren't meant to last forever, like straws and food packaging. This is not what plastic was made for – and it is having disastrous effects.
With my Geography degree I intend to continue to explore and communicate the impact of humans on this planet – the bad and the good. It can be so gloomy sometimes but there is also great hope. Humans are clever and have now awoken to the needs of the environment, especially through movements like the climate strikes. We now know some of the problems, so we can solve them. A great thing about the plastic pollution problem is that there is not a silver-bullet, so we can all get involved from the individual to the community, industry, and government.
To follow my journey you can follow me on Instagram @phoebe_ptgs