Michael Garbarino (MG): This is a question about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch since you’ve actually been there. When you enter the waters of the convergence zone, is it like entering a loose collection of plastic, or is it a very solid patch that you can’t see the water through?
Mary Crowley (MC): Oh, that’s a great question. I would say it’s definitely not a solid. There’s no island twice the size of the state of Texas out there. Some journalists came up with describing it that way, and I think they thought if it was all pushed together, that’s the size it would be. It’s pretty general, but that’s probably a fairly accurate way to have people think about its volume. There is a lot of debris out there, but within the gyre area you can sail within it for three or four days and not see debris. You can also be in an area for days where it feels like you’re sailing through a garbage dump and you see plastic in all directions, particularly if you’re up the mast.
At this point in time when we’re out there and get to the areas full of plastic, we stop and clean it up. But on our trips back in 2009 and 2010 we were on a large sailing ship and were only able to bring in 3 or 4 tons of debris. We did that more towards the end of our trips because it wasn’t wise to fill up the deck-space with garbage. You can’t safely operate the ship for a long period of time that way, so we would wait until we were heading in, and then we would take as much as we could. It’s really worthwhile for people to understand the questions you’re asking about the gyre.
A big part of what we are bringing in on these trips is the derelict fishing gear, but I’m not suggesting the derelict fishing gear is the main or only issue out there. There’s everything out there, not just fishing and cargo nets. We’ve found a floating car fender, we’ve found every kind of plastic chair and children’s toy, crates for soft drinks and beer and big storage containers. Quite some time ago, the United Nations did a study where they believed that twenty percent of the debris came from ships and eighty percent came from watersheds. It may be because one source of huge problems with nets is illegal fishing. If I could stop illegal fishing in the ocean, I would be thrilled because illegal fishing is destroying ocean life and they make so much money doing it.
MG: And they have no incentive to follow any regulations either because they’re illegal.
MC: Exactly. If a plane or a ship comes close to them, they cut and throw away all their gear so there’s no proof. We show lots of nets, and nets are a huge issue in how destructive they are, but they’re certainly not the only issue. Our consumer debris is an even larger part. With illegal fishing, I’ve seen other figures talking about marine sources being around 40%, but I’m not a big one to throw out statistics because statistics can be played with so many ways. All I can say from my own observations, the observations of people I trust and people I know all over the world is we have a big job to clean up our ocean, it’s an important job, and now is the time we should be doing it.
One of my main sayings since I became involved in the ocean cleanup arena in 2009 is the maritime industry is a very important part of our solution. I believe that multi-millions of dollars do not need to be spent on inventions that don’t work. We have maritime industry ships and equipment that we know work, and we can adapt it and innovate with it and that’s the way the ocean should be cleaned up. It’s wonderful to think of fishermen adapting their nets to fish for plastics and being paid to fish for plastics. Frankly, smaller vessels are better in some ways than huge vessels because the problem is very spread out.
I look forward to working more closely with the maritime industry in general. I hope they’ll help with ideas, funding and people because I feel like I’m part of the maritime industry, from my yacht chartering business and my environmental work, so the ocean isn’t this foreign place to me. Being out in the middle of the ocean is my work, it’s my pleasure, and I feel a responsibility to help take care of it. There’s a very nice quote, I think it’s in our press release that was given by the president of Matson Inc., who helped us this year. He expressed that they wanted to be part of helping this issue and he felt that we as a small organization were out there doing the most, so they were happy to help us. I’m paraphrasing his quotes, but I welcome industry involvement and support.
Another thing, one of our think tank members is a manufacturer of oil skimmers, and we believe that a lot of equipment that has been used in oil containment can be used for plastic cleanup because plastic is just another form of oil spill. Out in the ocean, we will sometimes spot current lines filled with what look like crushed plastic pieces and I think there are ways you can reset oil skimmers to be put in a current line like that and very effectively pick up lots of crushed plastics.
A real question is, “Where do those crushed plastics come from?” The only answer I have to that question is I have spoken at some major waste management conferences and had people come up to me afterwards showing films of computer waste being crushed and showing the waste coming out of that process, and it looks like what one sees. But people tell me that some places still crush plastic thinking they’re doing a good thing.
MG: Could you clarify what you mean by crushed plastics?
MC: What you see in these current lines are jagged pieces of plastic roughly between a quarter of an inch to an inch in diameter that look like they have gone through a crusher machine.
Some people think that’s a better way to deal with plastic, that if you’re throwing plastic into the ocean, crush it first—but it’s not, because once you have crushed the structure, those crushed plastics more easily turn into microplastics. Some people who see those crushed plastics feel that Nature has done that, that the plastic has been tossed by waves or amongst rocks—I don’t think so. When I see that many little pieces of jagged plastic, I think it’s come out of the machine, and it is a terrible thing to have in our ocean.
MG: It is. Plastic is unfortunately such a resilient material in certain ways. The situation with recycling companies that don’t really recycle is alarming. You have to figure out where your things are going and whether they’re being repurposed properly.
You see all this plastic in the ocean and spend so much time cleaning it, but there’s so much it probably seems insurmountable. What goes through your mind when you see such large swaths of plastic? Do you feel like you’re making a difference? What internal difficulties do you face when you undergo these cleanup missions?
MC: It feels so good to be removing these plastics from the ocean. What we’re doing right now helps; it helps save the lives of whales, dolphins, sea turtles, fish and reefs. I believe 100% plus in stopping the flow of plastics into our ocean. However, we are at a point where there’s too much there. The ocean has been our garbage pail for centuries, but it’s been our garbage pail for plastics for the last sixty years, and stopping the flow is not enough. We have to clean up what’s there, and unfortunately, even being an optimistic person, stopping the flow of plastics into the ocean isn’t going to happen in the next six months or the next year. It’s a long-term process so anything we can do to speed that up is important and should be done. At the same time, we have to be cleaning what’s there in a scaled-up way. We need to do both things simultaneously.
MG: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your voyage?
MC: COVID-19 affected our voyage firstly because some of our funders told us they were unable to fund our work this year, that they would have to wait until next year. They said they believed in us, but COVID has adversely affected lots of people. Secondly, we’ve had to take lots of precautions. Before our first trip, the ship and the crew were in quarantine for three weeks in Hilo, Hawaii after arriving from Christmas Island. Hawaii would have required them to be in quarantine for two weeks, but we extended that because we wanted to make sure the crew was healthy before going on an approximately 50-day trip.
We kept a lot of the same crew. They were together and healthy through quarantine. We also added a few crew members who went through a two-week quarantine and were tested for COVID-19. We took all the protections for our crew and ship very seriously because once you get a ship heading out to sea and everybody’s healthy on board, they’re safer than the people ashore from the virus.
MG: Yes. Once they’re all safe. Otherwise it’s quite dangerous.
MC: Exactly. We did everything to make sure that the ship would be safe, and we did the same for the second voyage. Everybody was tested because there had been some potential exposure during the unloading period, so the vessel went off to a bay and was quarantined. We also had a couple new people coming in. They were separately quarantined and then everybody was tested. The ship didn’t leave for sea until all the test results were in. Everybody felt for people on large ships that had this infection and the terrible issues it caused. I felt for everybody, but I particularly felt for the crews on board some of these ships. Overall, we went beyond what was required to make sure that everybody on board was safe. We felt a realresponsibility to the crew.
MG: How has ocean cleanup and awareness changed since you began doing missions with Kaisei in the Ocean Voyages Institute?
MC: When we, Ocean Voyages Institute, did our first voyage out to the gyre area, one of our issues in putting together funding was that some people thought the gyre area was an urban myth. 2009 isn’t that long ago, and some people didn’t even believe that it was there. So besides taking the 151-foot brigantine Kaisei out with a team of six scientists and wonderful professional maritime engineers, we also raised money to help the Scripps student vessel spend 8 days in the gyre with us, doing more science. We wanted to fully and correctly find out what was going on there.
It was a research mission. We did some cleanup with it because from the beginning our desire was to be part of the solution, but we needed to see what was out there, what it looked like and what would be the best ways to clean it up. The last eleven years have been a journey for us in learning more about the issue, coming up with the best solutions, and publicizing to the world the urgency of implementing these solutions for our oceans. So, there’s been a tremendous difference since we started.
David de Rothschild did a project building a ship out of plastic bottles that he sailed across the Pacific. He did a lot of lecturing about it, and I’ve done a lot of lecturing too. I remember talking to him around 2010, and every time you’d give a lecture there would be a lot of people who would come up to you and say, “Wow! I had no idea this existed!” At the beginning of this time, people didn’t believe it, some people had never heard of it. So, the education piece has come a long way. It still has further to go, and I look forward to working further with the United Nations to provide film pieces to them that they can distribute and translate. This is a global issue and we need people everywhere to understand it.
MG: You’re the founder and the current executive director of the Ocean Voyages Institute as well as a co-founder of the Mission Resolve Foundation. Could you speak briefly about the relationship between the two organizations, their goals and ongoing projects?
MC: When we got in from our cleanup voyage last year in June of 2019, we had a press conference and I gave a lecture. Joe Farrell, the president of Resolve Marine, heard about what we’d been doing, and he flew out to Hawaii to meet me and attend our events. He’s a wonderful gentleman and besides meeting at events, we got a chance to spend about 3 hours together on a ship talking about the whole issue of ocean cleanup, what we were doing and my visions.
Joe and I understood each other. We are both people who’ve spent a lot of time at sea and have lots of knowledge on yachts, ships and the maritime industry. We knew that we wanted to work together because Joe was a real “let’s do it!” person, and one of the experts in the world in the marine salvage business. So, we stayed in touch, we met again, and he decided that it would be good for us to create an organization together that could focus on both humanitarian missions from a maritime perspective and ocean cleanup missions.
Mission Resolve also does lots of educational work and I’d say they love what we’re doing in terms of ocean cleanup. I’m honored to be a founding board member and I love what Mission Resolve has done in terms of helping get water, food, housing materials and other supplies to the Bahamas after the hurricane. In his own world over the years, Joe Farrell has been helping people all over the planet when they’ve needed help, and now he has a foundation that can concentrate on that. A foundation that his colleagues in the industry can put money, time and assets into.
Mission Resolve has a vessel, The Lana Rose, that we would love to see involved in our cleanup mission next year. It could fill a particular role of being a mothership for three other vessels out there doing cleanup. It could also provide access for the press, because of course part of educating people about this issue would be getting press people out there to observe, be part of and see what we’re doing. However, most of our cleanup missions are thirty, forty-five, sixty days and most press can’t go away for that length of time so The Lana Rose could offer a platform where the press could have better contact. She has lots of good communications gear and we could potentially put together a very select team of Ocean Voyages Institute and Mission Resolve followers and offer the right kind of access to help show people what’s there.
MG: Do you have any advice for young people who want to get involved in ocean plastic cleanup? What are some steps they can take?
MC: That’s a good question! The most important message I have is this is an urgent issue and it needs and deserves the attention and assistance of many young talented people. I hope to be scaling up to a level where I could say, “Come to Ocean Voyages Institute and we will utilize your good interest and expertise in this area.” It’s always important to remember that anything that heads things in the right direction helps. If you’re in a position to organize a neighborhood cleanup, a park cleanup, a beach cleanup, a river cleanup or a harbor cleanup, do it. Some people think, “Well what can I do? I can only do small things,” but if you do small things you inspire other people to do small things and the combination of many people doing small things really changes the perspective.
I’m a great believer in cleanups. I need good people to go out and do the hard work of cleaning up at sea, and I know that all levels of cleanup make a difference. For example, lots of surfers keep a bag with them, and whenever they’re leaving the beach, they fill that bag up with anything they see. I know families where their kids go out for a walk and the goal is to pick up plastics from the environment.
When people do cleanups, it changes their relationship with plastic. They get an image of it as this toxic thing that hurts animals, creatures, the environment and people, and then they’re never inclined to throw it away once they’ve participated in cleaning it up. Teachers can help so much, and the real trick is empowering everybody to be part of the solution. Some of the young people wanting to get involved in this area should know that empowerment and education are equally important to cleanups. All of it needs to be done.
MG: You’re going back to the idea of “little things going a long way.”
MC: Exactly. The one thing I would always say is: if you’re doing a plastic cleanup, please be sure you really have the right place to dispose of the plastics. Sometimes that doesn’t happen and that’s a very important part of the cleanup.
MG: Before I bring everything to a close, do you have any questions for me or any final thoughts you would like to add?
MC: Well, I think I would love to direct people to our website, which is Ocean Voyage Institute and to have people follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
These are my thoughts. Join us on this journey of solving one of the world’s major problems.
Later in the summer, Mary successfully completed a second voyage when Ocean Voyages Institute’s marine plastic recovery vessel, S/V KWAI, docked in Honolulu, after 35 days at sea, successfully concluding the second and final haul of the non-profit group’s 2020 open ocean recovery mission, adding 67 tons to the record-setting 103 tons (206,000 pounds) removed in June, which became the largest open ocean clean-up in history.The non-profit group’s total for the summer season now amounts to 170 tons (340,000 pounds) of ghost nets and plastic debris removed from the North Pacific Gyre (Great Pacific Garbage Patch), a staggering amount, which quadruples the group’s previous year’s record.