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 (, 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.

Crowley was in the water helping Norton Smith, an inventor, and his niece Melanie Smith, an expert in plastic recycling, test prototypes of two “passive collection” cleanup devices Norton had designed and assembled in the Kaisei’s onboard laboratory. One, nicknamed “the Beach,” uses wave action to push plastic—but not plankton or fish—up a slanted platform. Another, “the Sweeper,” is a fine-gauge net modified to trap plastic without scooping up sea creatures. After hours of trial runs, Crowley and the Smiths were elated to find that the contraptions could safely collect pieces an inch or two long. On a very small scale, the devices were a success; this was a fine start. But the Pacific gyre alone may contain 100 million tons of plastic. Clearly Crowley had a colossally tough task ahead of her.

Cleaning the sea, one scrap of plastic at a time—most of us would applaud such an admirable mission. But some of Crowley’s fellow environmentalists think her focus on retrieving and recycling marine debris is actually misguided.

Late last fall, in her bayside Sausalito, California, office, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, Crowley paused in a typically overscheduled day to explain what had inspired her to create Project Kaisei, what it has accomplished and how she deals with doubters.

“I’ve been a lucky person,” she says, her vowels heartland flat and her delivery deliberate but rich with passion. “I learned to sail on Lake Michigan when I was four years old, and a big part of my job over the last 32 years has been going around the world to remote, beautiful islands, checking out destinations and boats.” As the CEO of Ocean Voyages Inc., the international yacht-chartering agency she founded in 1979, she often test-runs itineraries and meets with captains, many of them old friends from the days when she was a captain herself. Since launching her start-up, Crowley has sent thousands of clients on custom-designed -vacations aboard a global network of sailing and power vessels.

It was during her scouting trips that Crowley discovered her latest calling. “I started to see some terrible changes in the ocean,” she says, sitting in her small, glass-fronted office in the schoolroom-size headquarters that house her business as well as Project Kaisei. “More than three decades ago, on my first trip to the area of what is now the North Pacific Gyre, I found a few glass-ball fishing floats and one net; over four days, I saw maybe two pieces of floating plastic. When I returned with Project Kaisei in 2009, in half an hour we easily counted up to 400 pieces.”

She looked into the subject of marine debris and was horrified by what she learned. “We’re turning our beautiful oceans into a toxic dump,” she says. “It’s happened in my lifetime, on my watch. I thought, If nobody is taking on cleaning this up, I’d better do it.”

Crowley keeps her brown hair loose and wears little makeup; her face is weathered in the way you’d expect a sea captain’s to be. When she’s meeting the public, she favors colorful gauzy dusters worn over ankle-length, flowing black dresses. Crowley leaves her desk for a moment to find some files. She walks with a slight limp, the result of an accident nine years ago that shattered her ankle and knee. “My arms were loaded with Christmas presents, and I tripped on a curb in the dark,” she explains. After surgeons told her she’d probably never walk without a cane, she devoted months to grueling physical therapy and defied the prognosis. That same determination drives her urgent quest to take action on marine pollution before it’s too late.

Not much scares Crowley. She wasn’t rattled, for example, by her roughest voyage, maneuvering a small sloop through a South Pacific storm so powerful, it sank a tanker. In her twenties then, sailing with a friend, Crowley found facing the towering waves and 50-mile-an-hour gusts sort of fun. “It was quite an epic experience; we really got to feel the power of the sea. But nothing about it seemed frightening,” she says. What does terrify her is the real possibility that we could be permanently poisoning the world’s seas.

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.

“What actually got me started on Project Kaisei,” Crowley says, “was my reaction to people saying that cleanup was impossible. Sometimes things are challenging, sometimes they’re hard to figure out, sometimes they’re expensive, but there’s not a lot that’s impossible.” Her voice is gentle but forceful: “I’m not saying I’m going to get all the plastic out of the ocean. But I’m going to make a start.” Crowley is clearly in it for the long haul. “I’m a passage maker, not a day sailor,” she says.

Where did she get the idea that it was her job to clean up more than half a century’s worth of plastic dumping? “That sense of responsibility comes certainly from my parents, who had an environmental consciousness and were very big on personal responsibility,” Crowley says. “My Jesuit education, in grammar school and college, probably contributed. Most significantly, though, I think it comes from my sailing experience, on both large and small vessels. What every individual contributes really affects a shipboard community. Every individual takes responsibility for their actions and the environment.”

Growing up on the Chicago lakefront, Crowley and her younger brother, now a naval architect and marine engineer, learned to sail in a small sloop with their father, a judge, and their grandfather. “By the time I was 12,” Crowley says, “I’d read every book in the library about sailing around the world and decided that was what I wanted to do.” Her high school yearbook predicted she’d be a sea captain. She sped through college, graduating at 19 from Loyola University in Chicago, and moved with a boyfriend to Sausalito, where she supported herself by teaching sailing and delivering boats long distance. When she was 22 and bringing a boat back from Tahiti, a fellow crew member told her he was about to start teaching in a college program on a Norwegian tall ship, and he suggested she apply. “I’d always dreamed of sailing on one of those big ships, like in the movie Windjammer,” she says. “So I signed up—and got Norwegian seaman’s papers for the time served on board.”

When the program ended, she returned to Sausalito and began working for the newly launched Oceanic Society, eventually becoming its director of expeditions and leading sail-training trips.

She spent five happy years at that job. “By then I had become enamored of this idea of taking people out to sea,” she says, “so that’s when I founded my charter-vacation business.” Not long afterward, Crowley met and married not a fellow sailor but a man in the computer-software business—“a totally different world,” she says. The marriage ended when their daughter, Colleen, was eight; she’s now 25 and working toward her doctorate in molecular biology at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. Crowley often brought her on trips to check out boats and routes. “She’s a good sailor and a great traveling companion,” Crowley says. “I took her to Pitcairn Island; she sailed all through French Polynesia, Gal├ípagos, the Caribbean. I took her out of grammar school a lot, sometimes over her protests. But she has so many wonderful memories that now she’s grateful for those travels.”

Crowley’s grateful, too, for the way her deep love of the sea has propelled her to her current mission. Her unpaid post as director of Project Kaisei, the logical culmination of the voyages that came before, now takes up about 60 percent of her time. And because she doesn’t want to neglect her charter clients, Crowley works late most nights. She tries to slip in a Pilates class when she can and makes time for listening to live jazz, probably her favorite land-based activity. But that’s it for personal details; she quickly steers the conversation back to Project Kaisei. Crowley is determined to talk trash.

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.”

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 Fri, 2011-05-27 13:40

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