This Lady Talks Trash

The Pacific Ocean is choking on plastic— bottles, buoys, toys, even lawn chairs. Some experts say cleanup is not only impossible but strategically misguided. Into this controversy sails Mary Crowley, a former sea captain with miracles on her mind

By Judith Stone
ocean environmentalist image
Crowley below deck on the tall ship Kaisei
Photograph: Christopher Anderson

The following concerns you only if you enjoy drinking uncontaminated water, eating untainted food and/or breathing: Oceans make human life possible, says marine scientist Andrea Neal, PhD, a principal investigator on Project Kaisei’s first voyage and president of Blue Ocean Sciences, a nonprofit research organization. Our oceans produce half the world’s oxygen (thanks to phytoplankton, single-cell aquatic plants busy photosynthesizing at the bottom of the food chain); accumulate and store more than a quarter of the carbon dioxide we create by burning fossil fuels (emissions that would otherwise cause global warming to be even more worrisome); and regulate the planet’s climate by storing and redistributing the sun’s heat so that we neither fry nor freeze. Evaporation from oceans fills the clouds that bring us fresh water in the form of rain and snow. -Pollution—largely plastic but also from oil, pesticides and human and animal waste—could keep the oceans from performing all those vital functions. “I like to use a simple equation,” Neal says. “No ocean equals no us.”

When Crowley understood that the seas she loved were under siege, she decided to make saving them a project of the Ocean Voyages Institute; a small nonprofit she’d founded at the same time as her business, OVI is dedicated to ocean conservation and the preservation of the maritime arts. Before Crowley began her crusade, the volunteer organization had pursued small but worthwhile projects such as bringing sea captains into schools to give talks. In 2004 she took OVI into the big time by acquiring the Kaisei when its owner, a nonprofit Japanese sail-training group, could no longer afford to keep it.

She invited two fellow ocean preservationists to become cofounders of Project Kaisei: Doug Woodring, a Hong Kong–based environmental economist, and George Orbelian, a commercial real estate broker and surfboard designer. Together the three raised $600,000 from foundations, corporations and individual donors for the first Kaisei voyage. Both men participate in planning, brainstorming and fund raising, but Crowley, as the project’s director, has been its public face and driving force.

Believing that it was essential to attack the problem from many angles, Crowley set out to build a collaborative network that would include environmentalists, scientists, entrepreneurs and inventors who’d discover ways to recover and safely recycle the plastic; legislators who’d tighten laws dealing with waste; manufacturers who’d green their production and packaging; even sailors on pleasure and commercial vessels who’d serve as a global network of debris spotters. “I thought, Our technology and our society have created this global problem for the ocean; there must be a way that our technology and our society can solve it,” Crowley says.

But not all environmentalists shared her optimism. As Crowley gathered information about the garbage patch, she was struck most, she says, by a pervasive sense of hopelessness. “A lot of the articles would talk about how it’s impossible to clean up the gyre—that it’s too complicated, too big an area,” she says. One prominent proponent of that view is Charles Moore, the yacht captain who discovered the garbage patch in 1997 on his way back from a boat race. The organization he founded, the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, was one of the first groups to study the area. In his public appearances, Moore emphasizesthe futility and cost of trying to clean up the junk already in the vortex. He urges instead that all efforts be aimed at stopping the flow of garbage into the ocean from land, where, accordingto U.N. experts, 80 percent of it originates. Only 20 percent of marinedebris is dumped at sea. Despite lawsregulating waste disposal on land, plastic still finds its way into the oceans: Trash tossed on roadways, empty lots and beaches, or blown from carelessly managed landfills, is carried offshore by storm drains and rivers.

First Published May 27, 2011

Share Your Thoughts!


Benjamin 12.03.2012

Outstanding blog post, I have marked your site so ideally I’ll see much more on this subject in the foreseeable future. Lipozene Reviews

Chelsea Saxton11.19.2011

Nice story!! I should obey the rules against plastic but used storm cases to protect electronics to areas that were never intended for electronics. Thanks!


I read this article (in print) while sailing in the Bahama's this summer. I was so moved and so awakened (having he time to relax and consume the information) I felt then I had to do something. I have started a facebook page SayNo2Plastic and have already started gathering more information on this and other ways we can reduce recycle plastics in our homes. I also think this a chance for me to let people know about the toxins in such plastics. I have a 4 year old and think starting with the younger generation is where my best focus should be but I also think thinking bigger is needed. Where do I go from here? Large companies, I have ideas to market your products and think inside the box of saving our planet and our homes from hazardous materials that are making us sick. Know anyone that can help?
Danielle Kelley

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