Doug Woodring, SAIS ’96
Far, far away from any major landmass, the deep waters of the remote North Pacific are expansive and blue, and full of trash. Plastic bottles, abandoned fishing nets, unmoored buoys, the occasional stuffed toy—a so-called “plastic vortex” of floating debris scattered over thousands of square miles.
Much of the plastic has been broken down by the sun and waves into confetti-sized pieces that get snapped up by fish and other marine life and make their way into the food chain. Some experts have speculated that the refuse covers an area larger than Texas, but Doug Woodring, an environmentalist and entrepreneur who founded Project Kaisei, a nonprofit aimed at finding solutions to the problem, says the exact size is not yet known.
That’s just one of the mysteries Woodring and his colleagues hope to solve. Project Kaisei visited the plastic vortex in 2009 and hopes to do so a second time this summer. The team is also organizing a global ocean cleanup weekend on June 6 and 7, just prior to World Oceans Day on June 8.
Woodring first heard about the vortex a couple of years ago at a tech conference in Hong Kong. At that time, he was working as an environmental and media consultant in Japan. An avid outdoorsman from California who grew up swimming and surfing, Woodring considered himself “pretty environmentally aware” but had never heard of the plastic vortex. He figured other people hadn’t either. In 2008, he joined forces with two other ocean lovers from California—surfboard design guru George Orbelian and Mary Crowley, former executive director of the Oceanic Society—to launch Project Kaisei. (Kaisei means “Ocean Planet” in Japanese). As director, Woodring spends most of his time fundraising, orchestrating alliances, and performing public outreach.
Woodring is well equipped to tackle this kind of international environmental problem. He has a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from the University of California, Berkeley, an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and a master’s degree in international relations from Johns Hopkins University, where his focus was environmental economics. Finding solutions will require international cooperation, financial incentives, and new policies, he says. “A lot of that is what I was studying at Johns Hopkins.”
Last summer, the Kaisei team partnered with scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to explore the vortex. The goals were to determine how much debris had accumulated, to assess removal techniques, and with a National Geographic documentary film crew on board, to bring attention to the problem. The team spent a month at sea trawling the water for plastic. “Between our two research boats, we sampled 3,500 miles of water,”
Woodring says. “We got plastic in every single sample.” The scientists have yet to quantify the total amount of plastic collected, but Woodring was surprised not to find a single sample without trash. “It definitely got us thinking: How could we have made such a massive impact in the farthest, most remote area of the planet?” he says.
Scientists have identified five places worldwide where ocean currents drag and dump trash. Cleaning up every last scrap of that plastic isn’t feasible, Woodring says, but at least some of it can be removed and may someday be converted into diesel fuel to power cars, trucks, or boats. “This is something that’s solvable,”
Woodring says. Project Kaisei is raising money to continue exploring the toxicity and distribution of the debris and to test different ways of collecting the garbage.
The real challenge, Woodring says, will be preventing plastics from entering oceans in the first place. Each year the world produces more than 260 million tons of plastic. Only 10 percent gets recycled. “You think you throw something away,” Woodring says. “Well, there is no ‘away.’”