A Sausalito-based cargo ship is concluding its 40-day mission to pick up as much plastic as possible around the Pacific Ocean, and it’s set to dock in the Bay Area this week.

The vessel itself is a 140-foot ship borrowed from the government of the Marshall Islands, but the operation is put on by the Ocean Voyages Institute, a nonprofit that has dedicated the last 14 years to cleaning up plastic in the ocean.

Hauling abandoned fishing gear from the ocean is as difficult as it is dangerous. Crewmember Iakobwa Kirario shows off his amphibious set of skills while tackling the largest net of the mission. (Photo by Todd Yamashita/Ocean Voyages Institute)

They have picked up some 500,000 pounds of plastic in the fields of garbage found about 1,000 miles off the coast of North America called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

“The use of the vessel Kwai, a sustainable sailing cargo ship, assists Ocean Voyages Institute in continuing the removal of plastics from the ocean, which otherwise would break down and hamper ocean plankton’s ability to trap carbon,” said the vessel’s captain, Locky MacLean.

The international crew is made up of seafarers from Kiribati, Fiji, South Africa and beyond, and they have been sailing around the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone to track down litter via GPS tags and satellite imagery.

The crew’s main focus is picking up abandoned fishnets, otherwise termed “ghost nets.” Though they don’t possess paranormal powers, these nets can significantly harm marine life — they entangle fish, sea turtles, dolphins and sharks, damage coral reefs and eventually break down into tiny microplastics that are impossible to clean up, the organization said.

Tracking trash

As the winds constantly shift the location of the nets, a network of volunteer sailors and private boats paired with the institute to stick a GPS tracker on any mound of plastic garbage that they encounter on their voyages. The tracking devices not only helped the crew map out a plan of action, but also provided research data on the dynamics of floating plastic in the open ocean.

Exact numbers on how much plastic they’ve collected this time around are still being calculated, but founder Mary Crowley considers it a successful run. The institute is one step closer to achieving its goal of picking up 1 million pounds of plastic, she said.

“We’re really restoring ocean habitat, because from the large ghost nets to the small debris, everything kills sea life,” Crowley said in an interview. “Whether it be the poor, wonderful whales that wash up on beaches, having to starve to death because their stomachs are full of plastic, or whether it be the entanglement in plastic and that kills a lot of sea turtles and swordfish and dolphins … removing plastics really does a lot to restore the health of our oceans.”

Plastic waste is recycled into construction-grade building materials. (Video courtesy of ByFusion/YouTube)

Once docked, the plastic and nets stored in the ship’s cargo hold will be sent to local partners for proper recycling and repurposing. The institute plans to pair with sustainable manufacturing company ByFusion, which converts plastic waste into construction-grade building material.

“It’s our commitment that everything we remove from the ocean will be recycled, upcycled, repurposed. Nothing will go to landfill, nothing will go back in the ocean,” Crowley said.