MG: Early in your career what led you to become interested in plastic ocean cleanup, and how did it lead you to founding the Ocean Voyages Institute? Did you have any specific turning points that led you there, or was it a gradual process?
MC: Well, there were a few turning points. To give you the history, OVI was founded in 1979 and the emphasis of the institute was preservation of the maritime arts and sciences, the ocean environment, and island cultures. The early years of the institute did sail training programs, educational programs with teachers both at grammar school level, high school level, university level and took classes out on vessels for half a day, a week or a month. Our whole emphasis then was exposing people to the ocean world and teaching people more about the ocean world.
2009 was the year my own interest and passion began centering on plastics. You know I am a lifelong sailor; I grew up sailing in Chicago in little boats and always knew that I wanted to become a captain and sail the world’s oceans, which I’ve done quite successfully. I want to keep covering more miles, and today I’ve sailed over 115,000 miles. I've captained boats, I've been on school ships, I've done boat deliveries and I’ve done a lot of exploring. So, the interest in plastics came because in my own sailing and travels I would go back to the same places sometimes and I began seeing this proliferation of toxic plastics in many corners of our world. You’d be swimming in Costa Rica or Indonesia, and you’d be running into pieces of plastic in the water. Also, I'm very connected to people in boats around the world and I’d hear reports of, “Oh I don’t know what’s going on, we’re sailing in the south Pacific and suddenly there’s been all this garbage around us for the last couple of days,” or people would even be in the Mediterranean and say, “We’re at anchor and we see all this plastic garbage.”
Then I began hearing more and more about what is known as the “garbage patch” area. I’ve never liked the term garbage patch because it makes it sound small, and in fact it’s a huge area of ocean we’re talking about. The Pacific gyre is actually north of Hawaii and to the east and to the west the area is around the size of the continental US, so it’s not a patch. There are certain areas which move around year to year based on current and weather systems that have heavier accumulations of debris.
I saw articles about this which said things like, “This is too big a problem, there’s no way we can clean it up, we just have to stop debris going into it,” and, “This is out in the middle of the ocean, it’s too difficult to deal with.” This is our garbage, and in my lifetime the volume of plastic that ends up in our ocean each year has just kept increasing. If one is putting organic plant materials or food into the oceans it gets absorbed, but in the ocean some plastics last hundreds of years. Fishing nets made out of hemp or similar material would dissolve, but plastic just stays there and becomes very destructive to all ocean life, reefs and to ships.
Plastic netting and things getting around propellers even on big ships can cause misalignment and all sorts of issues that can be expensive and problematic. I know a lot of big ships get their propellers encased in something to try to prevent that. When I first started to study more about marine debris, I read some academic books on marine debris that were older, and it was shocking how much damage was caused to the shipping industry by this.
For the reason of maintaining a healthy ocean system, my dear friend Sylvia Earle says, “the biggest problem for our ocean is people’s ignorance of how important our ocean is to us.” The ocean creates two out of every three breaths we take, so if we as human beings want to keep living on this planet healthfully, we need to start taking care of our oceans. I think you’ve probably seen and are familiar with some of the studies that have been done about how plastic kills much ocean life. You have instances of young two-year-old whales washing up on beaches and their stomachs are filled with plastic because they’ve ingested it and then they’ve starved to death.
On our last trip the crew came across one net, which was very unusual to find, that had five recently dead tuna in it. Normally you don’t see that because lots of fish get killed by these nets and other things come along and eat them. So, it was unusual to have these eerie photographs of these dead tuna in the nets. In another big net we retrieved, they found a smaller net that had a sea turtle carcass within it. I’ve been in the water with sea turtles and seeing one that died because it was trapped in layers of nets almost had me in tears.
Also, when the nets come out of the gyre area, they smother the reefs and are very destructive to the coral. There’s lots of problems with nets from the gyre coming into the Hawaiian Islands and washing up on shorelines and reefs, and the people in Hawaii are particularly appreciative of the good cleanup work we’ve been doing.
MG: Impressive, especially since your last cleanup was so large. You broke your own record by over double, I believe, with over 100 tons of plastic?
MC: Yes. On the last trip, which was 48 days, we brought in 103 tons of plastic. The previous year in 2019 we did a 25-day trip that brought in 42 tons of plastic. What we’re really excited about now is that the ship left this last Wednesday and is headed back out to do more collections. We had thought we weren't able to do another trip, because in this kind of difficult time for the world some of our funding didn’t come through. We had intended originally to do two trips, but we didn’t have enough funds to operate.
But people were so impressed and moved by us picking up the 103 tons that we began getting some much-appreciated donations and we were able to head out for another trip. That’s what we want to do all the time, cleaning our oceans. Here in this gyre area the right time of year to clean up is May, June, July and August, but we can also head to other parts of the world. It’s very important to do your cleanups in the right time of year where you’re going to have calm weather conditions because in calm conditions the plastics come up to the surface and are easier to spot and efficiently remove. We always want to help cleanup globally, help use our technology and partner with people in different areas of the world, and if we had enough funding we would use ourselves as an organization to accomplish cleanups all over the world because this is a global issue and we would use money to fund cleanups in many ocean areas.
MG: Do you mean you don’t have enough manpower at the moment to do that?
MC: Well, we have enough manpower, because a lot of people involved in the professional maritime industry want to be part of the solution. We don’t have enough money. So funding is what we’re lacking. We have expertise, we have manpower, and we have ships wanting to work with us. One can always use more ships and more manpower, but it’s actual funding that is our current limitation.
MG: With that in mind, how do you plan on sustaining such significant levels of plastic cleanup impact in the future? Is funding an ongoing problem? Will you have to reach out for it year to year, or do organizations fund you for a period of time?
MC: Some organizations, which we really appreciate, will look at funding as over a period of years. This is an issue we have solutions for that work, it just takes the ships and the manpower, which we have, and the money to operate them. We have many wonderful people helping to fund our work, and we have a very generous donation we’ve received from the Mission Resolve Foundation, part of Resolve Marine. We received a donation from Pamela Anderson who is a celebrity and a wonderful environmentalist, and we’ve received donations from different family foundations and lots of individuals. Those donations can be five dollars, ten dollars, twenty-five dollars, fifty or a hundred, and they really add up. All of the smaller donations from people that love the ocean and understand the importance of it make a big difference.
MG: Yes, that’s a great message for younger people, who maybe don’t have so much to give. A little bit helps—a little bit goes a long way.
MC: Yes! Every bit helps, both in giving us money to keep the cleanup programs going and in helping the spirits of myself and our team to know that we’re not in this alone, that lots of people understand and care. To answer your question, because it is an issue that needs to be addressed significantly, we are very ready to scale our operations up in the Pacific gyre. We’d like to have three or four vessels out each year, not one, and we’d like to be operating in the Mediterranean, the South Pacific gyre, Indonesia and the Indian Ocean. We’d like to be addressing things in many different areas.
MG: The Ocean Voyages Institute collaborated with many organizations such as NASA, Smithsonian, University of Hawaii, and others. Could you speak to their actual contributions and how they played a part in the expeditions? Are they funding, or are they working with you on technology?
MC: Yes. There is a massive NASA funded collaborative called “Go-Float.” That’s been a three-year project, and we’ve been helping it out. It’s a multidisciplinary team so it’s been very interesting because there are ocean current experts, oceanographers, modelers, biologists, physicists, inventors and Ocean Voyages Institute. They tend to call us their “eyes on the water” and we’ve been helping each other accomplish projects. Unfortunately, it’s not been a source of very much funding for us. We did get funding from this project to buy a couple of drones. I’ve been able to attend meetings and they’ve helped with some transportation involved in the work, but it’s more been the collaborative efforts of utilizing the access and information we’re gathering within a wide circle.
MG: The following is a question that Carleen, our director, was especially curious about: what was the majority of the debris you found? Was there anything particularly interesting, surprising or disturbing as a plastic “catch”?
MC: In terms of solutions for the plastic issue, I have a think/do tank of yacht designers, naval architects, marine engineers, oceanographers, fishermen and ocean industry people and we have all worked together on figuring out the most effective ways for cleanup. With these cleanup missions we’ve divided plastics into five categories and each category has slightly different solutions.
The first category is the larger ocean debris, which includes derelict fishing gear, small vessels that are out there, big pieces of garbage and other unusual things sometimes. One of the things we found on this trip were three very large, heavy duty plastic containers. Each was sort of the size of a garbage bin, not a huge one, just the regular size, and so the vessel kicked up three of those. We believe they most likely got into the ocean in connection with the Fukushima tidal wave because this was good equipment, and nobody would have thrown it into the ocean. The ship actually kept that on board, because they will use it to organize garbage they’re picking up.
A vessel such as Kaiwei, and other sailing cargo ships we would like to involve, are kind of perfect because they’re very low in terms of fuel consumption because they sail wherever they can. They have a very low carbon signature, a good-sized cargo hold and a crew that’s very experienced at moving things on and off the vessel from their work carrying cargo into islands in the Pacific. Our target was larger debris, but at the same time I’m sure we picked up two, three or four tons of smaller debris as we went along because we pick up everything we can. The bad part of what the nets themselves do is all the sea life they trap and kill.
MG: Your nets or the nets you’re collecting?
MC: The nets we’re collecting. We don’t use nets; we use straps and cranes. If we encountered live sea creatures in a net, we would release them. Our whole goal is preserving marine life.
Anyway, the good thing the derelict fishing gear nets do is they roll over in waves and pick up consumer plastics, so you’ll have chairs, buckets, and jugs and things within the net. One net will pick up another net, that’s how some of them get to be so large. It’ll be a conglomeration of four different nets, or some will even be ten different nets.
MG: It’s a funny little story that you’re reusing the bins you find already, on the ship.
MC: Yes, I believe in reusing, repurposing, recycling, so if there’s something we’re picking up that can be useful, then we do that. If it’s just garbage, we recycle it in a variety of responsible ways. For example, we had a request here locally if we found good pieces of line. There’s people involved with a park area that are trying to make some paths safer and they could use line to create a railing to help people have something to hold onto going along a path. So, we brought in some things for them from this trip. If there are things that are usable, we are happy to have the crew, friends of the vessel or others use them. Of course, most of what is in the ocean is our garbage, stuff that we’ve thrown away that should have been recycled or repurposed in the first place rather than going into the ocean.
But one of the real issues with plastic is it’s such a reasonably priced material that it’s not that worthwhile to recycle it. That’s why people keep creating virgin plastics and using petroleum and chemicals to create plastics. I’m not against plastic, it can be a great material if it’s used for railroad ties so you’re not cutting down trees, and certain medical applications of plastic are necessary and wonderful. It’s plastic being used for items that are easily discarded that is the real problem. All the packaging, the plastic knives, forks and spoons, it’s just terrible.
What should be done, which is to some extent beginning to be done in Europe, is that people manufacturing plastics should have to pay a tax or a fee for responsibly doing something to be sure they’re recycled or repurposed. Then if plastic just becomes a little more expensive, then it’s not appropriate for all these throw-away things. But the economics of plastic now means it is something that is so disposable. It’s actually so disposable that it’s destroying our ocean and it’s destroying land. The effect on birds and land creatures of plastic hasn’t been looked at as much but it’s definitely there. We have to take care of our planet, and the great thing about this terrible issue of disposable plastics is it is something that is solvable and that solving it makes a real difference to the health of our planet.