By Erica Cirino, PPC Communications Manager & Author of Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis
Today, on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, it’s important to celebrate and uplift women and girls who contribute to science—and not just once annually on this sanctioned day of acknowledgement, but every day of the year. And many women and girls have made and continue to make important contributions to our science-based understanding of the global plastic crisis.
In 2018, I worked as a photojournalist covering the plastic pollution beat, turning the tide on misunderstanding with truth. Much of my reporting brought me out to sea, where a significant accumulation of plastic items (an estimated 75 to 199 million metric tons of plastic) is breaking up into tiny particles—microplastics and nanoplastics—that harm people, wildlife, and plants, and is changing the very nature of our planet.
Around that time, friends alerted me of an opportunity to join a collective crew of 300 women from around the world assembled by the women-empowering scientific research organization eXXpedition, co-founded by female sea captain and ocean advocate Emily Penn. Each member of the larger group would be assigned to a smaller crew, sailing one voyage of many required to circumnavigate the globe, conducting research on plastic pollution along the way.
Studying Plastic Problems and Solutions Starts on Land
When I was asked to join Leg 2 of eXXpedition’s “Round the World” voyage, sailing from the Azores to Antigua, I was elated. In October 2019, I traveled to Ponta Delgada, the capital municipality of the Azores, on the lush volcanic island of São Miguel. There, I boarded our ship, SV TravelEdge, and met our crew of 14, and learned of each woman’s diverse experiences and backgrounds. Most of the women had no prior bluewater sailing or academic scientific training.
As hurricane season delayed our departure, our crew spent several days on the island collecting data with our science leader, Dr. Winnie Courtene-Jones of the University of Plymouth. She guided us in collecting sediment samples from beneath our ship in the marina, and in collecting data on the composition and origins of plastic pollution found across the island with research methods developed by Dr. Jenna Jambeck. We discovered that cigarette butts were the most common source of trash on San Miguel’s streets, in addition to other single-use plastic waste.
On land we also toured a waste management facility that collects an astounding 200–250 tons of waste per day from across the ecologically sensitive island, recycling 27% and throwing the rest in a growing landfill. But space for storing trash on islands is limited, and recycling facilities and landfills cause myriad forms of pollution and release greenhouse gases. Expanding operations is not a good option. And while an incinerator was proposed to burn growing mountains of waste, most locals we met spoke out against its construction, as it would only cause other kinds of hazardous pollution and fail to address the continued production of wasteful items—which is the real problem.
However, we observed many local zero-waste solutions already in existence, such as at the open-air Mercado da Graça where fresh foods and other goods are sold loose and in bulk. Our crew brought many of our provisions from this market, finding it very different from the island’s mainstream supermarkets—which we found filled with products wrapped in wasteful single-use plastic packaging.
Science at Sea Reveals the Fate of Plastic in the Ocean
Finally, as rough weather subsided, our crew set off from São Miguel into the open ocean. At sea, we dove into a rigorous research schedule, trawling for plastic on the surface and searching for plastic particles in water pulled from the depths. Onboard, we learned to use scientific equipment to determine what kinds of plastics the particles had shed from, offering potential insights into their origins. Our findings were published in 2022 in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.
In addition to our research, life aboard TravelEdge required other types of hard work in order to keep the ship on course and to keep all crew members healthy. We each covered two rotating “watches” on deck per day, trimming sails and steering the ship, with rotating cooking and cleaning obligations. Our work was done in all kinds of weather, and I remember several urgent calls on deck to change the sails in violent squalls, many complete with severe rain, thunder, and lightning. But at sea, storms are often followed by rainbows….
An Island is Vulnerable to Plastic Pollution
When we reached Antigua and steadied our sea legs, which felt wobbly back on land, we connected with local people and groups to learn more about efforts the island was taking to address plastic pollution. This included a meeting with 100 people and the Antiguan Minister of Tourism to discuss the government’s approach to ending plastic pollution on the island—with much of it caused by the sale of single-use plastic items, like we’d observed on São Miguel.
Eventually our crew cleared the ship for the next round of women to take over, and after hugging out my goodbyes, I rented a room at an Antiguan woman’s home for a few days. My hostess was an elder named Chrys. Over a delicious homecooked (and plastic-free!) Antiguan breakfast, she generously spoke with me about how, in her lifetime, she had witnessed local people, culture, and foods being lost as the climate crisis shifted peoples’ priorities and made it harder and more expensive to live, farm, and fish on the island—with plastic and other kinds of pollution, as well as exploitative forms of tourism compounding social and ecological harms. Her story unfortunately resonated with others I have heard from people on other islands and coastlines—places especially vulnerable to the consequences of human-made disasters.
Female-Led Science Illuminates Global Crisis
As recently as five years ago, the plastic pollution crisis was largely still inaccurately portrayed and misunderstood as an issue that starts and ends with “litter” in our oceans. Today, we know this is far from the truth. In reality, industries’ production of plastic harms the entire planet, from the highest mountain peaks to the deepest ocean trenches, impacting everything and everyone.
At the time eXXpedition launched “Round the World” (which was unfortunately cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but continued virtually), research on the massive problem of plastic particles in the oceans and other ecosystems was just ramping up. Then and now, women and other underrepresented groups have led impactful and important plastic science that shows us the truth and supports real solutions to plastic pollution.
Many of the women involved in plastic pollution research also importantly show us that not all scientists wear lab coats. Of the women who sailed with me across the Atlantic, only a handful had what are considered formal science backgrounds, and yet we all contributed to research on land and at sea with eXXpedition. Accessible community or civilian science projects like this one have played an extremely important role in gathering essential data on plastic pollution, and prove that we all can contribute to collective understanding by closely observing our natural world.
eXXpedition also opened my eyes to the important health disparities presented by plastics and plastic-related chemicals and emissions to women and girls. On board we discussed how womens’ endocrine (hormone) systems—which control reproduction, metabolism, and other important body functions—can be easily disrupted by plastic chemicals. And people who carry and bear children, a group that includes many women, are at a high risk of passing on pollution to their babies. Plastics have been recently found in human veins, bloodstreams, breastmilk and placentas, and plastic chemicals have been found in umbilical cord blood; these findings paint a worrying picture for people alive today and future generations.
Let’s Empower One Another
Sadly, women and girls have long dealt with under-acknowledgement and lack of acknowledgement across the vast array of sciences and in adventurous pursuits such as sailing. Such discrimination in these—and so many other—fields has disproportionately harmed and silenced the voices and achievements of women of color and Indigenous women, as well as other historically underserved groups such as transgender, nonbinary, and queer peoples.
On eXXpedition’s Atlantic voyage, I learned so much about the incredible strength of women in science and sailing. We inspired and helped one another, holding impromptu on-deck yoga sessions and meditations when we felt stressed, and showed acts of kindness, care, and concern for one another throughout the trip. We had fun too, and shared lots of laughs as we sang, listened to podcasts, watched incredible wildlife and nature, and found joy in cooking and sharing at-sea treats like fresh bread, vegetable curries, and other culinary delights. We forged a real sisterhood; many of the women who sailed on this leg of the Round the World journey are still in touch with and visit one another today.
To me, this experience underscored that, together, we as women can support and empower each other, and also need to uplift the next generations of people, especially those who see themselves in underrepresented groups. Science is all about asking questions, and in attempting to answer these questions, we benefit most by listening to a wide range of voices. Diverse perspectives help us envision, achieve, and ultimately act on solutions to end plastic pollution, and create the healthy, just, equitable world we all need to not only survive—but thrive.
Together we can build a more just, equitable world free of plastic pollution! Learn more about the facts and solutions, and take action: sign petitions on important plastics issues, and pledge to cut your own plastic use.