Agustina Besada collects a water sample from the Atlantic on her cross-ocean journey in 2017 | Photo courtesy of Agustina Besada

Searching for sustainability at sea: a sailboat adventure inspires a dream to deplastify the world

It was a terrible, sinking feeling to be in such a remote place, several days away from the mainland, and look out from our boat deck and see large plastic objects bobbing around: balloons, buoys, even a punctured ball. We were in the middle of nowhere, yet there was always something floating near us and microplastics in our water samples.

Agustina Besada
Interview Subject
Agustina Besada, 36, is the executive director of Asociación Sustentar, co-founder and director of Unplastify, and a National Geographic explorer and grantee. A native of Buenos Aires, Argentina and a graduate of Columbia University, she has dedicated her life to the pursuit of a more sustainable, less wasteful world.

For more information about Agustina’s journey aboard the Fanky, including maps and blog posts, visit Unplastify’s Adventure page. You can also follow her on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Background Information
According to National Geographic, “it is estimated that since 1950 some 6,000 million tons of [plastic] have been produced, enough to cover the entire planet with plastic wrap.”

Though larger pieces crack and break down due to their chemical makeup and external atmospheric conditions, the smallest pieces, known as microplastics, can last for hundreds of years.

Through education, business and public policy initiatives, Unplastify works to “accelerate systemic deplasticization processes with individuals, organizations, companies and governments – minimizing the use of disposable plastics through the re-design of operations, habits and norms.”

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina—I’ve always been obsessed with waste; in fact, I’ve been studying and working in sustainability my entire adult life.

Inspired by that obsession and my sobering findings on an oceanic adventure, I founded Unplastify and have pledged my life’s work to changing the human relationship with plastic.

Combining sailing with sustainability

My fascination with sustainability led me to travel from my home in Argentina to live abroad and work as the director of a recycling center in the United States, which is known for its culture of consumption and waste.

At the center—as I sat literally surrounded by mountains of plastic—I started to obsess about the plastic that hadn’t made to our facility, wondering where it would end up. The answer was in the ocean.

I remember perfectly the moment in 2017 we decided to leave on our sustainability adventure. My husband Ignacio Zapiola and I had been married for just two months. We were having lunch and discussing our projects, what we wanted to do, and if we wanted to continue living in the United States. We decided no—it was time for something new.

Around the same time, we had started sailing and even bough our own 11.3-meter (37-foot) sailboat with a friend. We named it after the song “Fanky,” a song by Charly García, a famous Argentinian singer we were fans of. The opening lyrics go “I’m not going to stop / I have no doubts / I’m not going down / let it go up;” they echo the freedom we feel when we sail.

We had once fantasized about the idea of ​​sailing home to Argentina. Now I added to the dream, building on the idea of collecting samples of the water as we navigated across the Atlantic Ocean back to Argentina by sailboat. We wanted to explore, observe firsthand, and personally understand what was happening with the number of plastics in the ocean. We wanted to develop possible solutions.

Voyaging across the Atlantic

Our plan was to sail back to Argentina from New York and see what we found along the way. However, due to prevailing currents and winds, completing the route turned into a six-month venture that necessitated crossing the Atlantic twice.

 In May 2018, we set sail aboard the Fanky for the first leg of our trip, from New York to Gibraltar (a British Territory on Spain’s south coast). We were a crew of four; we added two friends to the expedition who had navigation experience. It took us 56 days to cover the 3,700 nautical miles, including two stops—one in Bermuda and the other in the Azores.

In our first days offshore, we had a rough start. The first two nights were terrible. The sea tossed continuously; we endured waves, rain, and freezing cold temperatures. The ship never stopped moving—it was like a mixer. Later, arriving in Bermuda, the sun came out and everything was better.

Our longest stretches at sea were 14 and 12 days. There were moments I was afraid, but I didn’t give up.

We set off again and reached Salvador de Bahía, Brazil in November, where we left the Fanky to return to “real life.”

Discovering the ubiquity of plastic pollution

Throughout the trip, we took different samples of plastics, large and small, from the ocean. Even after carefully cleaning everything we found, the smell was horrible. I spent hours aboard our sailboat, separating every bit.

We had already seen a lot of plastic floating around as we approached Bermuda, but it got even worse around the Azores. The sea was so calm in that area. At first, we thought that the water was clean and crystal clear—but then we realized it was actually horrible. Calm waters are the conditions in which you see large accumulations, and we saw plastic was everywhere.

It was a terrible, sinking feeling to be in such a remote place, several days away from the mainland, and look out from our boat deck and see large plastic objects bobbing around: balloons, buoys, even a punctured ball. We were in the “middle of nowhere,” yet there was always something floating near us and microplastics in our water samples.

These findings helped drive home the fact that plastic does not disappear; it always remains somewhere, and many times that place is in the ocean. Microplastics are also found in the air itself as well as the stomachs of animals such as fish and birds. It’s truly everywhere.

Far from paralyzing us, this finding motivated us to take further action and to seek solutions. We needed to start changing the human relationship with plastic and to de-plasticize the world. The idea that became Unplastify was born as we sailed through the Atlantic.

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Journalist with more than three years in radio, graphic media, and producing independent documentaries.

Traveling is one of my passions along with the radio, writing, and reading.

I am passionate about interviewing characters of all kinds: political, social, musical, and cultural.

I am always trying to communicate looking for the other side of the news or the story, but always with the truth.