How We Can Sustain Our Seas with Rowan Henthorn

What’s the correlation between plastic pollution, the environmental crises, and women’s physical health? Marine scientist Rowan Henthorn has the answers to that and on how we can do ours to lessen the developments.

The current rate of this planets plastic consumption is still in quick escalation. Not only is it damaging on a global level, but there’s a direct link to the excess plastic waste and women’s health, an insight explained further by Rowan Henthorn. Rowan is a marine scientist who has just completed a 21-day journey at seas to take samples, do research, and really raise awareness of the devastating impact of plastic pollution in our seas.

In our Sunday Instagram Live session, Rowan tells us the complex connection between plastic pollution, its environmental impact, and even down to the way the pollution harms our bodies (and especially women’s bodies) on a personal level. She’s also here to offer a tip or two on how we ourselves can change the world with small shifts.

If you missed the Live with her on Sunday the 31st of May (or the other live Sunday sessions) then you can watch it on our Instagram under IGTV right here.

Hi Rowan, so you went on a 21 days adventure at sea with the all-female nonprofit organization Exxpedition. What was the deal and why all-female?

I did indeed, we sailed from Hawaii to Vancouver, across the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s meant to be one of the densest accumulations of marine plastic found anywhere on earth, so we went there to take samples, do research and really raise awareness of the devastating impact of plastic pollution in our seas. It was all women because, well, why not? But also because currently women only make up 12% of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) sectors and we want to encourage more women into those fields to re-address that balance. Also plastic pollution has the potential to impact female health significantly, but often research is around the impact on the male body, so we wanted to highlight the importance of the issue in relation to female health.

How is plastic pollution dangerous to our health, and why especially women?

Certain chemicals in plastics (phthalates, bisphenol A -BPA etc.) have the potential to disrupt our hormone and reproductive systems. Nasty chemicals can also build up in our bodies and then be passed down to children during pregnancy. These chemicals bind really easily to fatty tissue and because women naturally have a higher body fat percentage we are more likely to have higher concentrations of these chemicals in our bodies. You know these chemicals are in everyday products like shampoos and body wash so it’s really important women know about these issues and choose products that don’t contain them.  

Would you have to be a marine scientist to be involved with Exxpedition? 

No, not at all, the really amazing thing about Exxpedition is that women from all walks of life can join. On our trip, we had filmmakers, product designers, teachers, and girls from many different backgrounds. That’s what makes it so special, the chance to sit around the table and talk about solutions to environmental issues with people with many different skills and perspectives. I really feel like that’s how we are going to solve these complex issues.

Back on land, you’re both working on the plastic pollution issue and climate change. Can you explain a bit more about the connection between the two? 

Having healthy seas is vital to having a healthy planet, every second breath we take is because we have a healthy ocean. Our oceans can also help us in the fight against climate change, as they store huge amounts of carbon in habitats like mangroves, seagrass, and salt marshes. That means that protecting and restoring these habitats helps the planet and potentially secures a future for generations to come. It’s not just habitats either, whales and other large sea animals store lots of carbon, a whale can store as much carbon as 1000 trees! Some whale populations are down to as little as 2% of what they were before we started hunting them, can you imagine the positive environmental impact we could have if we helped whales and other species to fully recover! 

Plastic is made from oil, and about 50% of the plastic we use is single-use, meaning it’s used once and thrown away. Oil is a finite resource that has taken millions of years to make, so using a material that has taken millions of years to create, once, and then throwing it away makes no sense at all, it’s crazy! Burning oil for fuel or to produce plastic pollutes our environment and adds carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, changing our climate. 

Why is there so much plastic in the ocean and where is it coming from?

It’s been estimated that about 1 truckload of plastic is going into our oceans every minute. One particular issue is that richer countries have been sending their plastic waste to developing nations to deal with, but a lot of these countries don’t have the right infrastructure, which leads to a lot of plastic entering rivers and oceans. It’s our responsibility to deal with our waste properly and not just ship it ‘away’, the reality is there is no ‘away’ and governments, businesses, individuals need to realize that when thinking about the waste we produce and where it goes. Luckily many of these countries are now refusing to accept this type of waste so richer nations will be forced to find other solutions, it’s up to us to ensure they don’t just do the same with other developing nations (you could do this by writing to your local council or waste management collection company).

Your mantra and message is “together we can rise above plastic”. How do you get that out there? 

A few years ago I set up a small environmental group called Sustain our Seas. Our vision is to inspire everyone to love the ocean and invite a little bit of care, creativity, and consciousness into their lives. Projects so far have focused on building a bridge between science and the arts. A little while ago we put on an ‘ocean art show’, which was so fun and we have ambitions to take it global, a migrating ocean art show.

Last year we had ‘Sunday sea sessions’, which was basically like a coffee morning but floating in the ocean. It got people into the sea, having a laugh, and enjoying the many health benefits the sea has to offer. Our biggest project to date has been the launch of our podcast called ‘Making Waves’, where we speak to super inspiring people about what the sea means to them, and their take on the challenges we face going forward. It’s been so interesting and inspiring to hear from different people, and we have spoken to NASA astronaut superwoman Nicole Stott and composer Erland Cooper, so a really great mix. I think the arts are key to communicating and finding solutions to many of the environmental issues we face and the podcast has been a great way to explore that! SOS is all about community, and we are always looking for fun projects to get involved in, and fun people to join the team if you think you would like to get involved give me a shout!  

What can the rest of us do in our everyday lives to minimize plastic pollution? 

The best way to combat plastic pollution is to reduce your plastic usage, take a look at your weekly shop, and figure out what you could swap for plastic-free alternatives. Living in a city means you probably have access to packaging-free shops or local markets which are great to get things without unnecessary plastic packaging. When out and about get a reusable water bottle and coffee cups, but make sure you use them. Everything has an impact on the environment, it’s about slowing down and making conscious decisions. Cutting the plastic is also going to be better for your health, plastic water bottles leach nasty chemicals that could have long term health impacts. 

What are the consequences for the animal wildlife?

Plastic pollution kills so much wildlife, you know we are seeing so many marine creatures with plastic in their stomachs or tangled in rope and net. It’s estimated that 80% of species are affected by plastic pollution, 80%?! When you think of that stat and then think that the majority of that plastic is really only for our convenience you realize things need to change. It’s no longer “convenient” if we wiped out species globally and made our planet uninhabitable all for the sake of a quick on the go coffee or takeaway lunch.

And last but not least, do you have a favorite ocean animal maybe with some badass skills? 

Woo favorite ocean animal, that’s a tough one! I have lots but maybe one of my favorites would be a little ‘bluestreak cleaner wrasse’, you find them on reefs all over the world! They are the cleaners of the reef and set up little cleaning stations, bigger fish come to get dead skin or infections cleaned out, it’s amazing, like an ocean car wash! A couple of years ago I was working for a dive center in Bali, after a few weeks of being in the water every day, the cleaner wrasse started to clean me too! It made me feel like part of the ocean ecosystem like they had accepted me into their watery world, it was such an incredible feeling, so yes I’d say they were definitely one of my favorites! 

Thanks a lot for sharing your love for the ocean with us Rowan, and keep being awesome! Sea ya out there <3 

Thanks a lot for sharing your great insight and love for the ocean with us Rowan, and keep up the good work. Sea ya out there!

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