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

On a gloriously sunny August morning in 2009, Mary Crowley, in a wet suit and swim fins, adjusted her snorkel mask and slipped from an inflatable dinghy into the bracing chill of the Pacific Ocean. Fifteen hundred miles from land, with 17,000 feet of calm blue beneath her, Crowley reveled in the immensity of sea and sky. “It was beautiful, and quiet, and deeply moving,” she remembers. In the distance was the tall ship Kaisei, her home base on a monthlong research expedition staffed by a volunteer crew of 25, including six independent marine scientists. She took a moment to savor the view. Then she got to work. What happened next, says Crowley, 61, a pioneering ocean environmentalist and the owner of a yacht-chartering company, kept her toggling between despair and hope.

That expanse of seemingly pristine ocean was actually laced with tiny shards of floating plastic, remnants ofthe seven million tons of the stuff that we citizens of Earth dump in our oceans every year, intentionally and accidentally, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Crowley had recruited the scientists and sailed from San Francisco to study the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a remote region west of California and north of Hawaii where weather patterns stir the sea into a slo-mo vortex that traps a dismaying amount of debris, 70 to 80 percent of it plastic. Now Crowley was swimming in it.

Some news reports have misleadingly described the garbage patch, located in a sector of the ocean called the North Pacific Gyre, as an immense floating continent of trash twice as big as Texas. In reality, Crowley says, no one’s sure of the exact size or extent of the patch, and it’s more like a chain of small islands, great aggregations of discarded junk surrounded by ocean that appears, at first glance, unpolluted. In nearly two weeks at sea, Crowleyand her colleagues had encountered big, ugly flotillas of plastic bottles, buoys, lawn chairs, laundry tubs, toys, supermarket bags and abandoned fishing nets. But equally disturbing were the vast stretches of water that seemed clean until you looked closely.

Because most plastic never bio-degrades but weathers into ever-smaller particles, the gyre is a soup of plastic bits. Some are an inch or two long, but more are in the form of toxic flakes. Sea creatures mistake this lethal confetti for lunch; some experts estimate that more than 100,000 marine mammals die each year in the North Pacific from ingesting microplastic or becoming tangled in larger pieces. We’re in trouble, too: New research suggests that contaminants from ocean plastic are eaten by fish that are eaten by fish that are eaten by us.

That mild August day, despite her despair at the pollution, Crowley felt hopeful—because she was there to do something about it. Since 2008 she has headed Project Kaisei (projectkaisei.org), a nonprofit organization that’s attempting to clean up the plastic in the world’s oceans, starting with the garbage patch. (Marine scientists have identified four other major gyres in the South Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and none of the world’s seas are plastic free.)

Crowley’s plan is ambitious. Part of it involves bringing researchers to the gyre in the 151-foot Kaisei (the word means “ocean planet” in Japanese) so they can measure the extent of plastic pollution and its effect on sea life. Expeditions in 2009 and 2010 have yielded important—and ominous—data; a third trip is scheduled for this year. She’s also rallying entrepreneurs to create and adapt technology that can remove and detoxify plastic without harming marine life.

First Published May 27, 2011

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Comments

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!

07.20.2011

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?
Thanks
Danielle Kelley

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