Taking on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: Sausalito’s Ocean Voyages Institute Is on a Mission to Clean Up the Ocean

It’s hard to imagine how to make a dent in cleaning up a 500,000-square-mile garbage patch — approximately twice the size of Texas. Located in the Pacific Ocean between the West Coast of the United States and Hawaii, the massive North Pacific Gyre is strewn with debris, including derelict fishing gear and consumer plastics, much of which has been floating in the sea for decades. The sheer size of the area, the remote location and the enormous volume of debris makes the job incredibly daunting.

Sausalito-based nonprofit Ocean Voyages Institute (OVI), however, has set an initial goal since launching their cleanup initiative in 2009 to remove and recycle 1 million pounds of debris using an environmentally conscious sailing cargo ship called KWAI, which was purchased by the government of the Marshall Islands. They’re already well underway after recently returning to Sausalito from a trip to the gyre, where they unloaded nearly 100 tons of trash, ready to be recycled, upcycled and repurposed into building materials, furniture and more. “People have used the ocean as a garbage pail forever, and plastics have been around for 70 years or so at this point,” says Mary T. Crowley, president and founder of Ocean Voyages Institute. “We have to clean it up. The plastics kill so much ocean life. They starve to death because their stomachs fill up with plastic, and they can’t digest it.”

Along with the KWAI, OVI is in the process of designing two additional purpose-built sailing cargo vessels to allow the organization to remove even more debris from our oceans. “I know all of the crew feels very honored to be engaged in this work, because we know we’re making a difference,” says Crowley, who hopes others will be inspired by OVI’s work to join the cleanup and conservation efforts. “The more support we get, the more we’re able to scale up and the greater difference we’ll make.

Watch the boat unloading its cargo in Sausalito:

Here are the numbers:

Days spent at sea on OVI’s the latest mission: 45

Nautical miles traveled: 4,600

96 tons recovered plastic waste on this trip

Length of the KWAI cargo sailing ship 130 feet

692,000 pounds total recovered to date, a world record