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My project diary: cleaning up the world's oceans

Blog posted by: Pindy Bhullar 30 March 2020.


Pindy Bhullar first heard about Exxpedition – an all-female crew sailing around the world to test the levels of plastics and toxins in the ocean – on BBC Breakfast in 2018. On 12 December 2019, she joined leg five of their two-year trip.

"I was inspired by not only the mission to collect samples and data for research into the scale of ocean plastic pollution, but [Exxpedition founder Emily Penn’s] ambition to raise awareness of the mission by selecting women from across the world to become change-makers,” she explains.

The project began in Plymouth, UK, on 7 October 2019, and will end in London in September 2021. After that time, the project will have covered 38,000 nautical miles and enabled 300 women to join a revolutionary science-based research mission.

Pindy kept a diary of the project as she travelled with the team. Her story was previously told in Project journal– here’s her diary in full.

12 December 2019

My journey started in Aruba on 12 December, meeting the professional crew and the other female change-makers who had been selected for the leg. After an induction in the apparatus we'd be using to test for pollutants, we boarded the SV TravelEdge to begin our 10-day journey towards Panama.

It's known that 80 per cent of plastics come from land, and Exxpedition is working with a group from the University of Plymouth to investigate the leakage of plastics into the environment and assess waste management infrastructure on land.

While in Aruba, we went around the streets assessing the amount of waste in a 100-metre by one-metre range. We all found a large amount of broken glass, plastic straws and plastic bottles and caps. The method we used was the CAP (Circularity Assessment Protocol) that assessed material flows, inputs and leakages on land by collecting data and tracking each piece of rubbish on a marine debris tracker.

13 December 2019

We set sail from Aruba to Panama, charting a course through the breathtaking San Blas Islands.

Before heading out to the Caribbean Sea, we first had to clear customs, which meant sailing past a municipal landfill that has been operational for over 50 years. The landfill is unlined and situated right next to the ocean. It receives an estimated 200 tonnes of waste every day from homes, businesses and cruise ships. The waste is unconfined and heaped high, allowing it to spill into the ocean.

Near the landfill, we lowered a Van Veen sediment grab off the side of our boat to gather sediment samples as part of our science programme. Rather than the silt and sand we expected, the first thing we pulled up was a metal grate with electrical wiring, the kind often used as a cheaper alternative to fishing line.

14 December 2019

We had been split into three teams to cover the 24-hour day. We took it in turns to cook, clean, sail and stay up for night watch.

We were sailing from Aruba with winds of around 15 knots and gusts of over 20 knots. Dolphins gracefully kept us company, swimming and jumping around the SV TravelEdge.

Pindy smiling and standing at the helm, with the wheel in her hands

15 December 2019

We spent every day performing experiments using the Manta Trawl and the Niskin bottle.

The Manta Trawl is placed alongside the boat for 30-minute stretches to collect microplastics on the surface of the ocean. Once taken out of the sea, the contents are sifted through multiple sieves to collect plastic debris. The Niskin bottle is used to collect data below the surface (three repeats at 25m) to help understand how plastic might sink in the upper water column.

We found plastic in all our samples, even though we were sailing far from land and in apparently clear waters. The samples collected from the experiments were analysed onboard before packaging them to be sent to the University of Plymouth. For one of the Manta Trawls, it took us over eight hours to sift through the sample.

Pindy holding a dish with lots of small bits of plastic

16 December 2019

Alongside conducting experiments and logging the details, and capturing the plastics in sample bottles, we discussed the issues and possible solutions to reduce the amount of waste leaking into our oceans.

The brainstorming sessions were split into how individuals, communities, education and organisations can make changes. The discussions gave us ideas but probed further questions. One thing was apparent: there is no single solution that can solve this issue; it will require multiple solutions.

17 December 2019

We arrived on the San Blas Islands (Guna Yala). Before we could perform any experiments, we had to seek permission from the local Congresso (officials) about plastic pollution, the extent of the issue and our mission. They were very friendly and gave us the go-ahead to visit a school, visit some islands and conduct experiments.

18 December 2019

We went to one of the many uninhabited islands in the San Blas where we were shocked to find enormous amounts of plastic waste, which led to a beach clean. We spent a few hours cleaning a small part of the beach and bagging up enough rubbish that we could take to dispose of in Panama.

Lots of plastic bottles, shoes and rubbish washed up on a beach

An island that looked like paradise from a distance was a rubbish tip when close-up.

19 December 2019

We hopped to another small island, conducting further experiments along the route. There was time to swim, see a shipwreck and take in our natural surroundings.

That evening we set sail for the Panama Canal.

20 December 2019

Given that the storage was limited on the boat, we ate very well. The pro-crew stocked up on fresh fruit and vegetables before we left from Aruba, but there were a lot of back-up supplies on board too. We made risotto, noodles, pasta and even had a few curries. One evening I made chapatis while being hurtled around the galley as we sailed. All the lunches and dinners were delicious, and we certainly didn't go hungry.

The night watches were very peaceful – clear skies, the stars twinkling above us and the humming of the ocean currents. In our teams, we would take it in turns to cover four hours and help the pro-crew sail and keep watch. We would listen to music and chat about random things over a cup of tea and biscuits.

We arrived in Shelter Bay Marina, Colón, before lunch and anchored in the marina. Once the boat was secured, the first thing most of us did was head to the marina centre to use the facilities – Wi-Fi being the main one.

It was great to connect with family and let them know that we had arrived safely.

21 December 2019

We spent the day preparing for the presentation that we were planning to give to guests at the marina, and officials who wanted to hear more about the Exxpedition organisation and our experiments. We all took it in turns to discuss our trip and what we learnt. The presentation was well received, and the audience asked us questions and commented on the plastic issue.

Pindy presenting the findings

It was time to have a few drinks and dinner to celebrate our trip, only this time we didn’t cook on the boat, we spent our evening in the marina restaurant.

22 December 2019

The final day on the boat. We spent the morning cleaning thoroughly, packing and taking items off the boat. It was due to go in for some repairs over the Christmas period.

By lunchtime, we said goodbye to the pro-crew. It was sad, but we all knew we would keep in touch. We all headed off to Panama; some of us went straight to the airport to make our journeys home, while the others stayed in Panama City to take in the culture and sights.

23 December 2019

Back in London, just in time for Christmas. It was great to be home, but I was sad that my epic trip had come to an end.

The experience has shown me first-hand the extent of the plastic in the ocean, and how we need robust solutions to tackle plastic waste and implement a circular economy that will minimise or even eliminate plastic waste from our lands and oceans.

This type of regenerative approach is what is required to answer this global challenge, and I'd encourage every individual to play their part in tackling the threat to our planet that plastic pollution poses. Everyone can make a difference, and jointly we can create a community that works together to develop solutions to protect our planet.

As the sustainability agenda starts to impact on the work of project managers in every sector, project managers should look at how they can use their skills, both in their day-to-day work and outside of it, to help minimise environmental impacts. Read APM’s Projecting the Future paper on sustainability for more on the project managers role in saving the planet.

Brought to you by Project journal.

About the Author

Pindy Bhullar, FAPM is a Senior Programme Manager working in the financial services industry. Her work involves problem solving and delivering lasting change.


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