Nearly 100 tons of sprawling fishing nets, heaps of plastic toothbrushes, laundry baskets, yoga mats, freezers and even a washing machine arrived at the Sausalito docks this week.
Luckily for all, this trash haul was stored aboard a 130-foot-long sailing freighter that had just returned from a clean-up mission in the vast patch of trash floating in the Pacific Ocean.
The cleanup operation was the latest to be carried out by the Sausalito-based nonprofit Ocean Voyages Institute. The company has been going to the swirling mass of plastic and debris between Hawaii and California since 2009 and has removed more than 692,000 pounds of trash.
Their primary target is ghost nets, those giant fishing nets that have been abandoned or lost at sea and have continued to drift for decades picking up trash and sea animals along the way.
“They’ve been drifting for 20 to 25 years and what they do along the way is they look like giant Velcro gloves,” said KWAI freighter captain Locky MacLean. “They’re out there collecting all sorts of other debris – Crocs, yoga mats, etc. Big nets give interesting little finds because they have these other things attached to them.
The North Pacific Gyre, or Great Pacific Garbage Patch, spans more than 500,000 square miles, roughly twice the size of Texas, and contains everything from large debris to microplastics that have decayed over decades.
In 2020, Ocean Voyages Institute said it set a world record for transporting the most waste out of the gyre in a single shipment at 103 tonnes. Compared to the estimated 80,000 tonnes of waste in the gyre, the amount removed is small. But Mary Crowley, who founded the institute in 1979, said the ultimate goal of these efforts was to turn them into a global initiative.
“Half the solution is the ocean cleanup we’re doing, but the other half is stopping the flow of plastic from pouring into the ocean,” Crowley said from Sausalito on Wednesday.
“It requires creating change. Plastic is a fantastic material for railway sleepers or things that will be in permanent use,” she said. “For anyone who spends time in the middle of the ocean, you look and where pristine ocean wilderness should be, you see our trash instead – things that are all too familiar.”
All waste removed is recycled or reused, Crowley said. Debris can be made into fuel, building materials, insulation boards, sculptures and even furniture, she said.
MacLean said the long-term goal is to eliminate plastic entering or existing in the ocean.
“Unfortunately, it’s going to take a long time and it’s urgent,” he said. “It really affects our climate, the air we breathe, the ocean’s ability to capture carbon. All of these things break down into microplastics and are ingested by plankton. It goes up the food chain and eventually ends up on your plate. »
The sailing freighter is expected to dock in Sausalito before heading back through the gyre to Hawaii, picking up more trash on the way back. Before the crew’s eventual departure, Lieutenant Governor Kounalakis stopped by Wednesday to see the final haul.
Our oceans regulate our climate, feed us and produce most of the air we breathe. They cannot be taken for granted.
— Eleni Kounalakis (@EleniForCA) July 27, 2022
Crowley said the institute is currently fundraising to design and build two purpose-built sailing freighters to remove waste from the gyre. The plan is to publicly share the designs to encourage other countries to play a role.
“A lot of people who make small changes make a big change,” Crowley said.