The Plastic Issue: Luxiders Interviews Emily Penn



Plastic is ubiquitous: from the bristles in our toothbrush to the microfibres in our clothes, plastic has become a necessary adjutant to the functioning of modern life. Yet owing to carless and improper waste disposal, 8 million tons of plastic escape into our oceans every year and by 2050 and this statistic is set to double. Toxifying our oceans, massacring marine wildlife and threatening human health; this is a crisis, a tragedy of the worst kind. Luxiders interviews renowned ocean skipper and advocate Emily Penn, sharing with us her scientific insights and advice into how the ‘plastic issue’ should be solved today.



First of all, can you just introduce yourself and say a bit about what you are currently doing to tackle the ‘plastic issue’?

To understand the effect plastic is having on the ocean, what we look at are microplastics- these tiny little pieces formed when big bits of plastic get broken down by the wind, waves and sun. They become very anonymous and it is very hard to work out where they come from, so the scientific research we do is to try and understand what polymers they are and what might they have been when they were once used on land, so we can best pin point where the solutions lie to help solve the problem. So, we do scientific research; we also do a lot of storytelling and getting eyes on the ocean- we actually have 300 women joining us on the ‘Round the World’ voyage.


That’s incredible!

Just 10 at a time- the boats not big- but its 30 legs as we go around the world over 2 years. We get people out there who are not necessarily sailors or scientists- some of them are journalists or film makers or teachers... There are lots of people who need to get out there and see first-hand what’s going on; to bring their stories back to their relevant industries as that will lead to solutions here as well.

The third aim of ‘Round the World’ is really to build this global community of people who understand the problem, to tackle it back on shore. So far, we’ve had 40 different nationalities joining our voyage, so it is very much a global effort!


There is a myriad of environmental problems going on in the world at the moment- what made you want to focus on plastic as opposed to other environmental issues?

I have actually been working on plastics now for about 12 years- which is a long time! So before it became something in the media and something that people were talking about.

I actually trained as an architect originally, I wasn’t intending to be an environmental activist. I had my first job as an architect in Australia and wanted to get there from the UK without taking an aeroplane, so I ended up taking a boat across the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. This was in 2008, and this is when I first came across plastic floating 800 miles from the nearest land.


What was it like to witness all this plastic floating in the ocean? Obviously, we see it in the media, but how does it feel to be there first-hand and see it with your own eyes?

I think back then the biggest feeling was ‘it doesn’t make any sense’. Obviously now we see it in the media, but back then it was something that no one even spoke of, so to me it seemed like a mistake, like something was wrong. The more we sailed the more we realised it was everywhere; that was my initial feeling which is what drove me to tackle the problem- although I didn’t think I would work on it for 12 years! But here I am, and there still seems to more problems to solve around the plastics issue, so it is continued.

I think now the feeling that I have when I go out and do theses scientific missions is disbelief, because what we are looking at now are theses microplastics. You don’t see them on the surface initially, but what’s really shocking is when we put this fine mesh net through the surface of the water and we pull it up- every time you pull it up you’ve got handfuls of these little fragments. So, you then look out at this seemingly blue ocean and then it hits you- every inch of that ocean has got plastic floating in it- and then it just feels a bit overwhelming.


What advice would you give to people who may feel powerless or overwhelmed regarding the plastic issue?

EP: I’d say that its micro actions that have created this problem; when I find a toothbrush or a cigarette lighter, I have to be reminded that that was once brushing someone’s teeth- it doesn’t get more personal than that. It’s one little micro action that’s meant that toothbrush is in the ocean. But the good news is, its simply micro actions we need to reverse this. If we have one less plastic bottle, one less item of single use plastic, it’s going to really make an impact. It’s a bit like voting: you think your one vote doesn’t count, but actually, if no one voted we wouldn’t have a vote- it’s just the same with plastic. It’s all about the micro actions that have caused the problem, and the micro actions which will solve it.

In addition to this, there are hundreds of solutions out there. One shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by the fact there are hundreds of things to do- just get started, pick one and get going on it. We have just recently built the SHiFT platform- a tool to help navigate these hundreds of problems and find the solution that is right for you. Although we don’t have to do everything, we should do something.


Is it is more down to individuals or institutions to help elicit change?

I think we need a multi-pronged approach. We need individuals- I think already we have great traction with shifting consumers’ mind sets- but we also obviously need industry to be innovating the solutions that consumers can opt to buy. Some of these exist, but we need them scaled up, and we need governments to legislate this when they are available. So we really need all three players involved to help solve the problem.


What would you say to people who aren’t taking the plastic problem seriously?

I’d say we all have an opportunity to do something- if you use single use plastic in your daily life then you are part of the problem. Sometimes it isn’t avoidable, and I completely get that, but there is a lot that we need to do as a society to be able to change.  There is so much that we can do that is in our power.

Even though I grew up loving the ocean, it took me until I was 21 to cross an ocean. It’s not until you get out on the ocean and spend a lot of time there, that you can really understand how important the ocean is to the survival of our planet and therefore to us. Every other breath we take comes from the ocean, the ocean is the basis of our food chain, it’s home to 90% of all living things on the planet: we simply wouldn’t survive without a healthy ocean. It’s really key that we do take care of it, so our kids and the next generations can carry on enjoying it.


For sure. Your work on the health implications of plastic in our world today really fascinated me, especially in regards to the health risks plastic poses for women. Do you mind telling me a bit more this?

There is still very little we know about the health risks of plastic. However, there is a lot of research going on at the moment, particularly in regards to what we are breathing in and what we are swallowing. But the study I took part in was looking at persistent organic pollutants; chemicals used in the production of plastic such as a phthalates which makes plastic stretchy, or a flame retardant chemicals that stops it catching fire.

These were the chemicals that were worrying me because we were finding them in the ocean, in the fish and in the plastic at sea. When I tested my body for 35 of these chemicals, we found 29 of them in my blood. This really surprised me; having grown up in a way where I’ve always been very conscious of what I am putting on and in my body, I was pretty shocked. It turns out we all have a chemical footprint, and these chemicals can lead to cancer and hormone disruption. For us women, when we are pregnant those hormones are really important for developing our child, and these chemicals also pass on to our children when we give birth. That’s when I realised the chemical side of pollution was quite a female centred issue, hence I wanted to tackle this issue with a group of amazing women.


How do you think the general public can help support your mission and raise awareness?

Definitely look at the SHiFT platform because it makes it really tangible to find a place to start. Raising awareness is great but also lets get doing something! We’ve got great awareness, our challenge is to turn that awareness into action. That’s what SHiFT is all about, leading by example. So much of our behaviour we get is from people we are surrounded by, so if you start doing something, it’s amazing how your friends and your family will follow.


Finally, what’s been the biggest challenge you’ve had to face once you step off the boat?

It’s changed a lot over the years: a decade ago it was getting anyone to listen, to understand there was a problem at all. A big part of that was that there wasn’t any data, that’s why we went out there and spent years at sea getting that data, to demonstrate the impact plastic was having.

Then the challenge definitely shifted you know, when we got the consumer traction, it was then a challenge for industry and to be able to find solutions. In the past couple of years, we have really seen that take off, we’ve seen brands like Adidas start making trainers out of ocean plastic and we’ve seen pledges from Sky to go plastic free, we’ve seen funds set up for innovation- so that sort of thing is happening now from a breakaway group of businesses.

But I think the biggest challenge now is legislation- we really need government to support scale the solutions and initiatives.


+ information: visit Emily’s website, or contact her directly.


+ Words:  Stephanie Frank,  Luxiders Magazine

London-based student and  journalist Stephanie Frank has become dedicated to repurposing fashion as a force for good and is committed to writing about the interfaces between sustainability, fashion,  lifestyle and culture.

Find her on Instagram (@stefra__) and LinkedIn