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 donors funding Project Kaisei’s annual budget of $300,000 to $600,000 are a diverse group of corporations, foundations and individuals. The FusionStorm Foundation gave $100,000 last year, and its founder, IT entrepreneur John Varel, also made a large personal donation. The Johnson Ohana Charitable Foundation, the Overbrook Foundation and the Fred Gellert Family Foundation have been donors. Several -shipping-industry firms have made hefty donations of equipment and services.

The rest, Yerkey says, comes from individuals, who may give a lot (such as the generous anonymous donor who kick-started the first expedition) or a little (schoolchildren who raised $35 by recycling plastic).

Crowley notes that Project Kaisei accomplishes a great deal on its limited budget. “But we need to bump it up,” she says, to fund the next research expedition, which will continue testing cleanup ideas. “We’d like about $2.5 million. That’s not an incredible amount in the real world, but we could really get a lot done.”

Other signs of the kind of change Crowley makes best: Two donor companies were so impressed by what she had to say that they’ve rethought their packaging. Lush Cosmetics has eliminated plastic, and Rainbow Light, which makes vitamins and supplements, has switched to 100 percent recycled plastic bottles. And this spring, at an international conference on marine debris held in Honolulu, six Project Kaisei team members previewed their research, and Crowley gave three presentations.

Scientists are inspired by being on the Kaisei. The 2009 expedition, for example, furthered the work of Margy Gassel, a scientist from the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, a division of California’s EPA. She gathered fish samples to determine whether hazardous chemicals enter the food web when fish eat plastic; though further evidence is necessary, her preliminary findings suggest this is the case. “On a more personal level,” Gassel says, “it was a wonderful experience. I was absolutely shocked by the amount of microplastics I saw. I had read about this problem, but there’s no comparison to seeing it. It was so compelling, I wanted to do something to help.”

Crowley understands how to capture the imaginations not only of influential people but also of the public, says Andrea Neal of Blue Ocean Sciences. “There’s probably an oceanographic expedition every month, but no one knows it,” says Neal. “When we went to the gyre in 2009 on the Kaisei, everyone knew it.” The difference: Crowley included a documentary filmmaker and a volunteer media liaison, a former ad exec, as part of the expedition team and secured a donation of expensive broadband communications equipment from Sea Tel and Marlink, two marine--communications companies. As a result, a stream of video clips documenting Project Kaisei’s work showed up on TV, and newspaper and magazine coverage was extensive. When the Kaisei docked in San Diego at the end of the voyage, 10,000 visitors toured the ship, marveling at the piles of garbage retrieved from the gyre and chatting with Crowley and the rest of the crew.

“What a great opportunity to get the word out!” Crowley says. “It was fascinating that so many of them didn’t know about the gyre. And when they heard about it, most of them thought that the plastic was all stuff dumped at sea by ships. They thought it was caused by someone else.” Crowley feels she helped 10,000 people begin to see that they’re part of the problem and to understand that you can’t really throw something away—because there is no away anymore.



Click here to read another piece on a woman who is making a difference as a World Health Organization Goodwill Ambassador.

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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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