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

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.”

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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