From adventure to activism
When Emily Penn decided to hitchhike by boat from the UK to Australia aged 21, she had no idea it would shape her life and career for years to come.
Anyone who hasn’t heard about the ocean plastic problem in recent weeks and months must have been hiding under a rock. Like the enormous gyres of plastic waste that form in our oceans, the subject has gathered more and more weight and now, finally, is circulating around the world’s press, prompting widespread horror but – equally – widespread change. For ocean advocate Emily Penn, who has been involved with the issue for much of her life, change cannot come soon enough.
“It’s great that its now on the agenda as we’ve all been pushing towards this for years,” she says, referencing Theresa May’s recently announced long-term plan for plastic pollution, “but I must admit I’d like it to be less long-term. I know there are many other problems that need to be tackled, but I’d like to achieve change well before [Theresa May’s] deadline.”
Her response is unsurprising. This is a woman who likes to get things done. At age 21, Penn got a job in Australia and decided to hitchhike by boat from the UK to get there. After much research, she found out about Earthrace, a carbon fibre trimaran which was sailing around the world on a biofuel campaign. “It started as a mission to minimise my carbon footprint and a way to have an adventure,” Penn explains, “but I got a place on board as part of the crew and took off around the world. That’s when everything changed for me.”
Having witnessed the ocean plastic problem up close, Emily felt the urge to do something to help. “As well as witnessing the plastic gyres, we were stopping at these small islands and finding they were covered in plastic as well. That, combined with my love for the ocean, made me think there was something more that needed to be done.” In 2009, she set off to do just that, moving to a remote Tongan island for six months to educate the local population about plastics and coordinate an enormous cleanup event. “Plastic was different to everything they’d been used to up to that point,” she explains. “This was a far cry from a banana peel, a coconut husk, or a fish bone that could happily be thrown on the ground without consequence.”
A dumping site on Kiritimati Island
A dumping site on Kiritimati Island
Penn has since gone on to launch many more large-scale initiatives, among them eXXpedition, a series of all-female sailing voyages to raise awareness about the problems caused by single-use plastics. “It was originally supposed to be one voyage,” says Penn, “but now we’ve done ten – I think we’ve struck a chord with people.” The trips have prompted research on the impact of plastics on female health, amongst other issues. “So much of the plastic is so small and gets into the food chain,” explains Penn, “a lot of the chemicals involved are hormone disruptors.” Food for thought indeed.
Somehow, between all of these projects, Penn has also found time to support the superyacht industry and is currently a spokesperson for Y.CO’s Clearwater campaign. “The campaign looks at how the superyacht industry can be part of the solution,” Penn explains. “Ocean plastic is the first problem that they want to tackle, but there is definitely scope to work on a range of ocean issues as well as cultural issues.” The project was inspired by a 73m superyacht called Dragonfly, which was in Vanuatu just after Cyclone Pam and managed to provide an amazing amount of aid. “A lot of superyachts visit destinations where there are lots of other challenges going on beyond the plastics issue,” says Penn. “It’s interesting to consider what sorts of project your yacht could take on that will have a net positive impact.”
Penn is not surprised that the superyacht industry is making moves to be part of the solution and has high hopes for the future. “I think that people who chose to spend their lives and their money on the ocean are passionate about it – and therefore care about it more. Ultimately, we’re trying to protect the playground of the industry. Without a healthy ocean, people won’t want to go out in it anymore.”
Penn’s latest project, Ocean Changemakers, has recently launched and offers a suite of resources to help people better understand the ocean plastic problem.