This month 300 women began the twelfth voyage of an organization called eXXpedition. Leaders from very diverse backgrounds, these women are about to be divided into smaller groups who will each take legs of a 38,000 – nautical – mile trip around the world. This voyage is lengthier than the previous eleven but the purpose is the same: raise awareness of, and explore solutions to, the devastating environmental and health impacts of single-use plastics and toxic pollution in the world’s oceans. If measures are not taken to reverse this pollution, it is estimated that by 2050 the amount of plastic in the ocean will out-weigh fish.
Dr. Lucy Gilliam was working at the U.K.’s Department for Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and Emily Penn had spent several years on environmental science missions at sea when they met in 2011 at a panel on oceanic plastic pollution at the Royal Geographic Society in London. They were there because of their concerns about the potential health impact of toxic chemicals in the environment. In 2014 they founded eXXpedition. That same year they set out on their first voyage from Lanzarote, Spain, to Martinique in the Caribbean.
While plastics are an environmental issue, the women say, it is also very much a women’s issues. The plastics are endocrine disruptors. They mimic female hormones. These chemicals have been proven to cause early puberty in girls and to interfere with hormones during pregnancy.
Public awareness and motivation to clean up the problem is their focus but they do conduct scientific studies. They collect water samples to test for plastic and microplastics (any fragments smaller than one-fifth of an inch across), as well as free floating toxic chemicals from detergents, pesticides, pharmaceuticals. They create footage and findings for film and media outreach once the group is back on dry land. And they talk, sharing skills and ideas for how to tackle the problems facing the environment.