Ever since she was a child, Margo Hughes, an Associate Scientist at The Coca-Cola Company’s Ingredients Quality Department in Wexford, Ireland, has loved two things: science and the sea. It’s fitting, then, that she’ll soon set sail on what promises to be an exciting and eye-opening voyage.

Next year, Margo will be joining a handful of women on a weeklong journey, sailing between Tahiti and the Cook Islands, to make the unseen seen: plastic pollution in our oceans.

It’s all thanks to the trailblazing eXXpedition project; all-women sailing voyages that focus on the devastating impact of single-use plastic and other toxicants on the environment and our health.

For Margo, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. She’ll not only get to see the effects of plastic pollution first-hand, but also bring her unique skill set and passion onboard to help further the incredible work being accomplished through the project, all while fulfilling her childhood dreams.

Testing the waters

Growing up in the Great Lakes region in Chicago, Margo was drawn to sailing from a young age. As she recalls: “When I was about three years old, I turned my toy box into a boat and pretended I was sailing.”

As a teenager, Margo spent the summer as a student intern at Chicago’s Jardine Central Purification Plant. One of her favourite memories was taking a boat out to “collect different samples from the shore [and] from the intake cribs.” It was during this time that she learnt about all aspects of the sampling process.

And she’s continued to work in labs, testing the quality of Flavours and Fragrances, ever since. “It’s a fascinating field,” says Margo, “you’re constantly working with natural products so there’s always variety.”

For the past 9 years she’s been based in Wexford, working in Coca-Cola’s labs testing the quality of our ingredients. Of her role she says: “I love working with our natural products, and I think Coca-Cola has wonderful ingredients – none of which I can talk about in detail – but I enjoy working with every single one that comes my way.” 

What can be said, however, is that Margo’s passion and enthusiasm never waivers. Her childhood love of science, nature and sailing is stronger than ever.

It seems serendipitous, then, that she’ll soon be embarking on a sailing trip to – quite literally – test the waters of the world’s oceans with eXXpedition.

“We will actually be netting – there’s a huge net that’s dragged along the surface of the water that collects whatever we find,” explains Margo, adding that the crew (10 women are chosen for each leg) will then base their scientific measurements from the samples collected.

A scientific eXXpedition

More than 8 million tonnes of plastic are dumped into the ocean every year. A threat to our environment, plastic pollution is part of the global climate crisis hiding in plain sight. With levels of toxic pollution rising, it’s clear that more needs to be done to tackle this very pressing issue, even if Margo believes the problem isn’t fully understood:

“A lot of people think that if you look on Google Earth, you’re going to see this island [of plastic] in the ocean, but it’s not like that,” says Margo. “A lot of the pollutants and toxins that are being dealt with are actually at the micro level.”

Since launching in 2014, eXXpedition has notched up 10 voyages around the world. From the Atlantic to Great Britain, over 100 multidisciplinary crew members have sailed the seas to collect samples, data and further research the current state of the world’s oceans.

To achieve their objectives and vision for ‘clean oceans and happy humans in a world where women are treated equally and have fair access to resources,’ eXXpedition call upon innovative, groundbreaking women to help champion and contribute to their mission.

Women such as Margo, who stumbled upon the project on social media. “I belong to a female sailing page on Facebook; I happened to be perusing through some of the posts of the page, and I noticed that they were looking for applicants.”

She quite literally ticked all the boxes: “The gist of the post was that they were looking for women, specifically, and they kind of wanted a multi-disciplinary group, but there was an emphasis on scientists as it was a scientific study. And if you had a bit of sailing experience that would also be nice.”

Suffice to say, Margo didn’t need much convincing: “I decided right away I would definitely give it a go.”

A World Without Waste

Recruiting a Coca-Cola employee to help tackle issues around plastic packaging is a smart choice; eXXpedition acknowledges the complexity of the issue – in that it will take adjustments from all angles – from corporate responsibility to government engagement and public involvement – to craft lasting solutions.

“One of the very refreshing things that I was attracted to this particular project for is the fact that they understand that really there’s three main parties involved in the solution,” says Margo.

“Yes, we can all make changes in our personal lives as individuals, but governments also need to be involved to manage legislation. And the business world, which also has the technology and the resources to make innovative changes to products that are on the market. I can see this very clearly within The Coca-Cola Company.

“We currently have our World Without Waste programme, for instance, and we have some clear-cut goals for 2030 regarding our use of recycling plastics. They’re ambitious, but I think the ongoing studies regarding our packaging are showing that, as an industry, we’re very much involved in being part of the solution.”

Small steps make a world of difference

Back at work, and in her day-to-day life, Margo has been implementing small changes to reduce single-use plastics. She says eXXpedition has inspired her to take more initiative: “As I got involved in this project I started to research, more and more, the things that we as individuals can do.”

From reusing shopping bags to requesting that supermarkets change their practices (“a lot of our local supermarkets actually have made ambitious goals to do so”), Margo is actively championing eXXpedition’s aim to inform consumers about everyday choices.

She’s also been encouraging her team in Wexford to adopt these practices (even if it’s just carrying a reusable coffee cup) in their daily lives.

“What I’ve started here on a departmental level, once a month at our lab meetings, is that I present a ‘World Without Waste’ moment. For each one I bring up a new idea about how everyone can reduce their use of single-use plastics. That’s the focus. I mean, acknowledge that plastic is a very useful material, but also that we want to eliminate single-use plastics as much as possible.”

Full speed ahead

With a few months to go until she officially sets sail, Margo says preparations for a week at sea have been relatively low-key. Of course, as a keen sailor who already has several qualifications under her belt (including Competent Crew, Survival at Sea and Ship’s Radio License), she’s no stranger to life at sea.

Having just completed her Day Skipper qualification, Margo says she’s looking forward to “being involved in the project and publicising its focus – alongside Coca-Cola’s focus to reduce plastic packaging”.

With levels of toxic pollution rising, it’s clear that more needs to be done when it comes to tackling the issue. Margo hopes her journey with eXXpedition inspires people to take action and make changes, and to explore ways that they can get involved.

“And certainly, I would want to think that this will help shed some light on what we’re up against: what is actually out there and how bad is the problem? That’s what I’m looking forward to discovering.”

We can’t wait to hear all about Margo’s voyage. Stay tuned for more.

You can learn more about eXXpedition and their mission here or by watching the films created on their voyages. You can read all about our World Without Waste mission here.