This Ocean Activist Says Plastic Pollution Is a 'Women-Centered Issue' — and Is Empowering Women to Tackle It 

"There’s no silver bullet to solve the problem but there are hundreds of ways to tackle it," says Emily Penn

Emily Penn has dedicated her life to tackling the issue of plastic pollution — and it all started because of a fateful trip over a decade ago.

After graduating from Cambridge University with a degree in architecture, Penn, 34 — one of PEOPLE's Women Changing the World — headed to Australia for work, telling PEOPLE she "hitchhiked around the world" on a boat to get there. However, she never ended up taking that job.

Instead, Penn — who recalls being "shocked by finding plastic in some of the most remote places on our planet" during her journey — went to live in the Pacific Islands for six months to help organize a cleanup.

"Since then, I have travelled all over the world studying plastic pollution and empowering others to make a positive impact," says Penn, who was born in Swansea, South Wales.

In 2014, the ocean advocate co-founded eXXpedition, an organization that empowers all-female sailing research expeditions, giving crew members the experience to create change in their own communities back home.

Among her many honors, earlier this year Penn was awarded the British Empire Medal in the Queen's New Years Honors.

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Emily Penn. Eleanor Church Larkrise Pictures

Penn also wanted to see the internal impact of the plastic she was fighting, and was shocked to find that many of the chemicals were in her bloodstream as well.

"A few years ago I did a study on my own body to look at the chemicals we were finding in the ocean - persistent organic pollutants - and tested for 35 chemicals that were banned because they're toxic," she says. "It turned out that I had 29 of these 35 chemicals in my blood."

The discovery led Penn to realize that the problem of plastic pollution is "actually quite a women-centered issue."

"As a woman, having these chemicals inside your body when you're pregnant is really bad news and you can actually pass them onto your children when you give birth," she said.

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Emily Penn. Nomad Nmeumonics

One of the most rewarding parts of tackling plastic pollution with "an amazing team is women" has been taking steps to address the fact that women are underrepresented in both sailing and science.

"Having seen the real challenge of microplastics it makes it easier for our crew to talk about the urgency of the problem," Penn explains. "Having been there on the boat, it gives them the authority, confidence and deep sense of motivation to take action back on land. They can't unsee what they've seen. Instead they head home and create positive change on the issue."

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The trips also serve as an incredible and "unique" bonding experience.

"Since the first voyage, I have also been blown away by how key the 'all women' aspect of these voyages has become," she says. "I started working off with mixed groups and it was great, we were productive, we got out there. But when I started working with women only, there was always a different atmosphere."

"There's this fast track of bonding, of connection between everybody and perhaps more so because it's all women," she adds.

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Emily Penn. emily penn

In 2019, eXXpedition launched a round-the-world trip to explore plastic and toxin pollution, with the voyages going virtual last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With people around the globe spending more time at home, Penn launched the ShiFT Platform, a digital tool that helps people and businesses "find their role in solving ocean plastic pollution."

"The more time I spend at sea, the more I realize the solutions to plastic pollution start on land. There's no silver bullet to solve the problem, but there are hundreds of ways to tackle it," she explains. "A big challenge for many people is knowing where to start. That's why I first developed the SHiFT methodology [to] people understand the crux of a problem and weigh up where they have the biggest opportunity to make an impact."

Although the journey hasn't always been easy, Penn says that all of the sacrifices she made for her career in her twenties don't seem like such a big deal now.

emily penn
Emily Penn. Sperry

"The summer I graduated, and jumped on a boat to head to the other side of the world, I missed out on all the 21st birthday parties, holidays and weddings," she recalls. "The following years of travelling without planes I didn't come home for any family Christmases, experience flat sharing in London and nights out with friends."

"My career was uncertain - I'd ditched a perfectly stable job as an architect for cleaning up rubbish and had no idea how I would make a living. At the time I worried I was missing out," she adds.

Now, Penn says she can see "that every little sacrifice was worth it."

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Emily Penn. Yvan Neault

And as she continues to dedicate her life to the cause, she can see how her motivation changes along with the scope of the problem.

"When I started out my biggest motivation was the incredible raw beauty of nature and our amazing blue planet. I was, and still am, in awe of how our ocean keeps us alive and I couldn't think of anything better to do with my time than protect it," she says.

"Back then there was very little awareness of ocean challenges, but now so many individuals, companies and governments want to take action. We have people reaching out to us every day saying 'How can I help?' This is hugely inspiring and has become my biggest reason for getting up every day, to do the most I possibly can to engage and enable those people," she says. "The awareness is there, now it's time to act!"

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