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Tracking and Catching Plastic Waste

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The crew of the Kwai hard at work this past summer 

The crew of the Kwai hard at work this past summer 

Plastic waste—in the form of everything from plastic soda bottles to abandoned fishing nets—constitutes a major threat to the health of the world’s oceans. Giving the immense size of an ocean, though, actually finding all the plastic floating around out there in a time-efficient manner has been a major challenge—until now.

Using GPS trackers and enlisting the aid of a wide range of mariners, professional and recreational alike, the Sausalito, California, based Ocean Voyages Institute has hit on a way of “tagging” big clumps of garbage and then using that same garbage to lead it to other garbage. The thinking behind this approach is that the ocean frequently “sorts debris,” so that a tagged fishing net can lead to other nets and a density of debris within a 15-mile radius.

The result? This past summer the institute’s converted sail-powered cargo vessel Kwai removed an incredible 170 tons worth of abandoned “ghost” nets and other plastic debris from the North Pacific Gyre, quadrupling the group’s previous year’s record haul.

Ocean Voyages Institute regularly gathers tons of plastic waste 

Ocean Voyages Institute regularly gathers tons of plastic waste 

“I am so proud of our hardworking crew. We are utilizing proven nautical equipment to effectively clean up the oceans while innovating with new technologies,” says veteran sailor and Ocean Voyages Institute founder, Mary Crowley. “The oceans can’t wait for these nets and debris to break down into microplastics, which impair the ocean’s ability to store carbon and toxify the fragile ocean food web.”

The Hawaii-based Kwai completed two voyages of 48 and 35 days each in 2020, employing the GPS satellite trackers Ocean Voyages Institute designed in conjunction with engineer Andy Sybrandy of Pacific Gyre Inc. throughout. Drones, as well as lookouts on watch up in the rigging, enabled the ship’s crew to further home in on the debris, which is then placed in industrial bags and stored in the ship’s cargo hold for proper recycling and repurposing back on shore. All pretty impressive stuff by any measure.

Better still, Crowley, the crew of the Kwai and the rest of Ocean Voyages Institute are just getting started.

“Our solutions are scalable, and next year, we could have three vessels operating in the North Pacific Gyre for three months, all bringing in large cargos of debris. We are aiming to expand to other parts of the world desperately needing efficient clean-up technologies,” Crowley says of her plans moving forward. “There is no doubt in my mind that our work is making the oceans healthier for the planet and safer for marine wildlife, as these nets will never again entangle or harm a whale, dolphin, turtle or reefs.” 

Ed note: For more on Ocean Voyages Institute (oceanvoyagesinstitute.org) and its cleanup efforts, be sure to check out Principal Editor, Adam Cort’s, conversation with Mary Crowley as part of the SAIL magazine Point of SAIL podcast at sailmagazine.com/web-exclusives/podcasts

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Photos courtesy of Ocean Voyages Institute

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