She’s pleased to note that plenty of prominent scientists think she’s on the right track. “Targeting the cleanup of the ocean, not just doing research, is what makes Mary and Kaisei specialand different from other organizations,” says oceanographer Nikolai Maximenko, senior researcher at the University of Hawaii’s International Pacific Research Center. On the 2010 expedition, the Project Kaisei team successfully field-tested his computer modeling of ocean currents and the path of debris, which accurately predicted the likely location of junk accumulations. “To me it’s not a question that we will have to clean the ocean,” says Maximenko. “The question is how to do it efficiently. Developing new technologies is the key, and this is exactly what Mary and Kaisei are doing.” The doyenne of ocean research, Sylvia Earle, National Geographic Explorer in Residence and a member of Project Kaisei’s advisory committee, calls Crowley “a champion for the ocean.”
Not every environmentalist is so admiring. Moore respects Crowley and the research done by Project Kaisei–sponsored scientists. He even concedes that cleanup could mitigate the plastic-pollution problem. But he cites recent research showing that 90 percent of the plastic in the Pacific gyre floats too deeply to be removed by the kind of surface skimmers Crowley is working to develop. “The average depth of the ocean is approximately two miles, far deeper than, say, the sand in the Sahara desert,” he says. “Imagine trying to sift all that sand for plastic. Yet that would be a minuscule task compared with sifting the ocean.” Furthermore, he worries that capturing and recycling plastic lets corporations and individuals off the hook, sending the message that they can continue to make wasteful packaging because someone is going to clean it up.
Crowley doesn’t see why fighting plastic needs to be an either-or proposition: cleaning up versus stopping the flow. She says she is well aware that she and the technology entrepreneurs she sponsors must work in harmony with the ocean’s ecosystem, watching for unintended consequences. For example, one idea is to use ships as floating recycle centers, but would that create emissions as dangerous as the plastic? “There are big unknowns,” she says. “But we have to start.”
A small group of bloggers has charged her with being in the pocket of the plastics industry. They note that Crowley meets with corporate sustainability officers, the people in charge of packaging, and takes money from big companies like Coca-Cola (which made modest donations to the first two Project Kaisei expeditions).
“We’ve been accused of working with industry, trying to make it seem like it’s OK to throw plastics in the ocean because we can clean it up,” Crowley says. “That’s ludicrous.”
These bloggers have also publicly insisted that Project Kaisei is funded by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), an industry lobbying organization that’s spent millions fighting anti-plastic-bag legislation; even Moore has repeated that accusation. Absolutely untrue, says Ryan Yerkey, Project Kaisei’s volunteer chief of operations (he holds the same title in his paying job at Ocean Voyages Inc.). But he thinks he knows how the rumor got started. “The ACC donated $5,000 to Jean-Michel Cousteau’s [nonprofit] Ocean Futures Society,” he says, “and they donated $5,000 to Project Kaisei for supplies and equipment for the scientists on board the 2009 expedition.”
Crowley did give a presentation on ocean plastic to representatives of the ACC. “I don’t agree with their policies,” she says, “but it’s important to talk to them. I’ll talk to anyone. I don’t believe we make progress as environmentalists by just talking to each other. We need to get everyone around the table.”
And though she states clearly that she hasn’t taken money from the ACC or any of its member companies, Crowley says, “If they chose to give us money for our cleanup efforts, with no strings attached, I’d be pleased to accept their money.”