Anglian Water backs Colchester’s Eleanor Church on her voyage to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

eXXpedition member swims through plastic waste Picture: Eleanor Church

eXXpedition member swims through plastic waste Picture: Eleanor Church - Credit: Archant

Anglian Water supported Colchester-born film-maker Eleanor Church on an expedition to one of the most plastic-strewn areas in the world. Holly Goodchild caught up with Eleanor on her return.

Eleanor Church

Eleanor Church - Credit: Archant

What made you want to take part in the expedition?

I’ve been both interested and concerned about plastic pollution for quite some time now, particularly in our waterways. I was excited to be given the opportunity to join the eXXpedition trip to the North Pacific gyre – known at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. As a filmmaker and photographer I am focused on sharing this issue with a wider audience, and what better way to do it than sailing through the densest accumulation of ocean plastics with a team of scientists, engineers, teachers and marine plastics experts.

What was the aim of the trip?

eXXpedition members sift through debris

eXXpedition members sift through debris - Credit: Archant

eXXpedition have now organised ten all-women expeditions with the aim of collecting data on ocean plastics across the world to better understand the scale of the issue. This is an area that hasn’t been explored in depth yet, so it is brilliant to be able to contribute to this research. It’s also an excellent way of raising the profile of women working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers. Every person who has been involved in one of these expeditions has put their experience into practice in one way or another to further discussions, understanding and resolution to the problem of ocean plastics.

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What did you find?

Emily Penn, co-founder of eXXpedition, was surprised by the quantity of microplastics we found. The gyre, or Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is described as an island but it’s much more than that. We saw whole objects floating past us like toothbrushes, chairs, fishing debris and whole washing baskets. As we ran a fine mesh through the surface, we found thousands of tiny pieces of plastic too. We calculated that over a square kilometre, there were 500,000 pieces of microplastics just on the surface, not taking into account what was in the 5,000 metres of water below us. Microplastics are a serious problem because they can’t just be scooped out of the water, and are often eaten by marine life, and ultimately end up in our food chain. We have contributed to 10 international research studies, but there is a lot more that needs to be done.

Studying a seawater sample

Studying a seawater sample - Credit: Archant

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What wildlife did you encounter?

The gyre is naturally an important feeding ground for albatross - they travel thousands of miles looking for food for their young and take back what they find. It was bittersweet seeing these amazing birds because we knew that they were taking bits of plastic with them which could kill their chicks. Also, at around the halfway mark when we were all tired, and morale was low, I was sat on the deck when a pod of fifty dolphins leapt out of the water and surrounded our boat - it gave us all a lift for the rest of the trip. It felt like a sign from the ocean to remind us why we were there.

Eleanor Church

Eleanor Church - Credit: Archant

What’s next?

I want to use my photos, film and experience at sea to share this message as far and wide as possible. We’ve recently seen that the Government is looking at how it can tax single-use plastic as a result of public demand. It’s just the start and there are exciting times ahead. There’s so much potential in design, policy-making, innovation and effective recycling. I’m hopeful about the future.

Read more about the expedition at: or Instagram:

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