Student to swap labs for life on the ocean waves to gain greater understanding of microplastic pollution

A PhD student who has spent several years examining the sources and fate of microplastic pollution within the marine environment is taking part in a major international expedition to see the impact it is having first hand.

Imogen Napper, from the University of Plymouth, is one of 24 women signed up to participate in eXXpedition North Pacific 2018, which will start in Hawaii on June 23 and finish in Seattle around five weeks later.

During that time, it will journey over 3,000 nautical miles through the densest ocean plastic accumulation zone on the planet, the North Pacific Gyre – better known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Imogen, whose research has so far included assessing the quantities of microbeads within cosmetics and the amount of fibres released into the marine environment by washing clothes, will be the lead scientist on the second leg of the voyage from Vancouver to Seattle. She said:

“During my PhD the majority of my work has been in the lab looking at the everyday items that can potentially seep into the marine environment. But I have never had the opportunity to go and see the effects plastic is having first hand. It will be fascinating to see some of the sources of plastic pollution along the coastline, and to meet and learn from other people with a genuine interest in the harm it is causing to our seas and coasts.”

eXXpedition, the British Community Interest Company behind North Pacific 2018, specialises in all-women sailing expeditions and last year held a round Britain voyage starting and finishing at the University’s Marine Station.

This year’s will be the 10th eXXpedition voyage and a crew including scientists, students, artists, businesswomen, actors and activists will be sailing Sea Dragon, a 72ft scientific exploration vessel (owned by Pangaea Exploration).

During the month long voyage, Imogen and her crewmates will make daily trawls for plastics and pollutants, and collect data for a variety of global datasets and scientific research studies.

She will also take part in a range of outreach activities within communities along the Canadian and United States coasts, aiming to raise awareness of the threats posed by microplastics to coastal environments and health.

Imogen, who is currently working to complete her PhD at the University, said:

“When I started my research three years ago, only a handful of the people I spoke to had even heard of microplastics. Now the situation is very different and people not only know about the problem, but are very keen to take action in some way. Through this project, I hope to get more of an insight into the wider causes and effects which I can then apply through my current and future research.”

Emily Penn eXXpedition co-Founder and ocean advocate, added:

“eXXpedition is a radical mix of adventure, science, advocacy and action to help understand the nature of a complex problem; the contamination of our bodies and our seas. Each voyage is designed to be a platform for ambassadors to take forward projects tackling plastics and toxics, and raise the profile of the issues to create change at a personal and organisational level, and influence national and international policy makers. We hope our journey from the tropical islands of Hawaii to the wild coastlines of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest will contribute to important scientific studies while inspiring action to protect these great places of outstanding natural beauty and importance.”

Imogen Napper has spent her PhD working with Professor Richard Thompson to assess the quantities of microbeads within cosmetics and the amount of fibres released into the marine environment by washing clothes.

International Marine Litter Research Unit

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.

Furthering our understanding of litter on the environment and defining solutions

Find out more about the International Marine Litter Research Unit

eXXpedition North Pacific 2018

Over two legs, the crew will journey 3,000 nautical miles through the densest ocean plastic accumulation zone on the planet, the North Pacific Gyre - better known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Find out more about the voyage