A pioneering sailing expedition starting and finishing at the University of Plymouth’s Marine Station will see a diverse group of women sample the UK’s waters for plastic pollution, and run awareness-raising events around the British coastline.

The voyage, being coordinated by Community Interest Company eXXpedition, will take 30 days and incorporate high-profile events in Plymouth, Cardiff, Belfast, Arran, Stornaway, Edinburgh and London.

The female crew members include scientists, students, artists, filmmakers, business women, psychologists, ocean activists and sustainability professionals, as well as experienced sailors.

eXXpedtion specialises in all-women sailing trips with a focus on highlighting the devastating impact single-use plastic is having on our planet’s oceans, ecosystems and on human health. It has run previous expeditions all over the world, and previous research has highlighted the endemic nature of microplastics within our ocean environments globally and the increasing potential impact they have on human health.

This summer will be the first time they will have a crew sampling in UK waters, and they will be sailing on board the 72ft challenge yacht Sea Dragon (owned by Pangaea Exploration). They will leave the Marine Station on the 7 August, completing their sail on the 5 September.

eXXpedition co-founder and ocean advocate Emily Penn said:

“After years of studying ocean plastics all over the globe I am so excited to be bringing this project home to the UK. The more time I spend at sea, the more I realise that the solutions start on land. We may be seeing the more obvious impact of plastic and toxic pollution in the more remote parts of our planet, but what is clear is that the pollution is coming from land – the UK included. We need to expose these issues and raise consciousness of the work to be done to solve them here in the UK.”

The University of Plymouth is renowned as a world leader in marine litter research, while its Marine Institute is home to around 3,000 academics and students working in areas including marine conservation, coastal science, marine policy and maritime business.

Professor Richard Thompson, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University, added:

“The government’s inquiry into microplastics last year brought the threats posed by marine litter to wider public attention. But there is still a great deal of work needed to understand the full scale of the problem, while identifying potential solutions that take both economic and environmental factors into account. We are currently involved in research and collaborations that seek to meet those goals, and this scientific voyage can certainly make a positive contribution to that work.”

eXXpedition are crowdfunding for outreach activities at ports visited at http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/exxpedition-round-britain. All sailing costs are covered by crew contributions.

A worldwide problem

Marine litter is a global environmental problem with items of debris now contaminating habitats from the poles to the equator, from the sea surface to the deep sea. This litter has negative consequences for wildlife, for economies and on human health. Over 700 species, including commercially important fish and shellfish, are known to encounter marine litter in the environment. The vast majority of the litter found on shorelines, at the sea surface and that affecting marine life is plastic, and it has been estimated that up to 12 million tons of plastic litter could be entering the ocean every year. There are solutions, but there is an urgent need for action.

At the forefront of marine research

The International Marine Litter Research Unit is proud to stand at the forefront of research in this area. In 2004 our team was the first to reveal the widespread occurrence of microscopic particles of plastic debris at the sea surface and on shorelines – pieces which we described as microplastics. We have published numerous scientific papers and reports on this topic, have advised governments and international organisations worldwide and we continue to research not only the extent of the problem, but also the solutions.

Our mission

The International Marine Litter Research Unit has a mission – to further our understanding of the impacts of litter on the environment and society, and to identify the solutions and the pathways necessary to achieve them.

Discovering microplastics

In 2004, Professor Richard Thompson OBE and his team showed that microplastic particles have accumulated in oceans since the 1960s and are now present worldwide. The International Marine Litter Research Unit described the accumulation of fragments of plastic debris in the oceans and much of its focus is on these microplastics. 

Our work has shown that microplastic debris now contaminates shorelines worldwide; that they are present in substantial quantities in remote locations such as the deep and the Arctic. A range of marine organisms including commercially important species can ingest these pieces and laboratory studies have shown there is potential for this to lead to harmful effects.

Former US President, Barack Obama, signed a bill outlawing the sale and distribution of toothpaste and exfoliating or cleansing products containing microbeads which are a type of microplastic. Our work on this topic has helped inform governments around the world. We submitted evidence to the UK Houses of Parliament in relation to the Environmental Audit Committee enquiry on microplastics.


Our findings are underpinned by research conducted by the team at the University of Plymouth and in collaboration with other leading scientists worldwide. This expertise has guided industry, informed educational and artistic initiatives that raise awareness, and has provided evidence for government agencies and international organisations such as the United Nations.

eXXpedition co-founder and ocean advocate Emily Penn said:

We may be seeing the more obvious impact of plastic and toxic pollution in the more remote parts of our planet, but what is clear is that the pollution is coming from land – the UK included.

Find out more about eXXpedition Round Britain