Rozalia Project visits Belfast on ocean cleanup mission

By Kendra Caruso | Aug 09, 2019
Photo by: Kendra Caruso Rachael Miller,right, talks with a visitor on her research vessel, American Promise, after a beach cleanup in Belfast July 31.

Belfast — Rachael Miller found her calling on a beach 10 years ago on Matinicus Isle after a Nor’easter hit. She was vacationing with her husband when she was struck by how much trash from the ocean had washed on shore. It inspired her to take action to protect the ocean.

Soon after, she developed the Rozalia Project, which sails a specially equipped vessel, American Promise, from Massachusetts to Maine, stopping to do beach cleanups along the way and educate communities about the ocean trash crisis.

American Promise brought the Rozalia Project to Belfast last week.

Rozalia Executive Director Ashley Sullivan helps Miller with a number of things, from sailing the vessel to finding volunteers. Applicants come from many different backgrounds, ages and locations in the United States.

Bari Bucholz, a school teacher from Wyoming, heard about the project through a friend. She decided to join the expedition as a way to take action on pollution and inspire her students to do the same.

“My students inspire me and I inspire them to minimize single-use plastics,” Bucholz said.

Plastic ends up in the ocean no matter where you come from, Bucholz says. Rivers and streams carry plastics to the ocean. So, reducing plastic use in landlocked cities could have an impact on reducing plastics in the ocean.

Rozalia Project focuses on four initiatives to tackle pollution and help change human habits that are creating the majority of the ocean’s pollution.

It cleans trash encountered while on the water and beaches, educates the community about preventing trash from entering the ocean, demonstrates a willingness to embrace innovation and technology for its work, and conducts research related to pollution.

Once a community member or organization has invited or agreed to host the project, Rozalia does a beach cleanup. Resident volunteers and the Rozalia crew comb a designated beach to search for trash and marine debris.

Any trash found is sorted at a station into various types of debris and then counted to determine how much and what was found.

In two hours July 31, the Rozalia Project and Belfast community volunteers found 1,200 pieces of trash on the beach at Heritage Park, and Miller predicts there will be more once they have a chance to count microplastics.

Ubiquitous microfibers

Microfibers have been the recent focus of the Rozalia Project’s research. The group received a grant to conduct water tests on the Hudson River from Lake Tear of the Clouds down to the bay in New York City.

The project observed a relatively even distribution of microfibers along the entire river, with some higher concentrations near local wastewater treatment facilities.

Miller and her project received a grant from National Geographic to replicate the study, along with taking soil and air samples on the river. Not all the findings from that research voyage have been released to the public yet, but observations in water samples were similar to those from the first voyage.

Miller thinks this is proof of how vast plastic pollution is in waters and thinks it will soon reach a point where plastics will outnumber life in the world’s oceans.

Clothing fibers are one of the most common types of microfibers, according to Miller. They are commonly released through washing machines, which drain into wastewater treatment facilities that don’t filter microfibers.

This problem was the inspiration for the Cora Ball, designed and marketed by Miller and her team to reduce the number of microfibers that pass through washing machines. The ball has tiny soft rubber arms that allow fibers to tangle around it.

It doesn’t catch 100% of microfibers in a washing machine, but it does reduce the quantity released into the watershed.

Microplastics, a similar pollution problem, are pieces that have broken away from larger plastic sources like bottles or grocery bags. A single plastic bottle can be broken down into 39,000 pieces, according to Miller.

Many marine animals, like plankton, mistake microfibers and microplastics for food and consume them. It makes them eat less of what gives them nutrients, which then weakens them and puts them at a higher risk for disease and death, Miller said.

She and her team make it a point to stop their boat in transit to pick up even a single trash bag floating in the ocean so it doesn’t have a chance to break down further.

Working on the ocean

Miller won her first-ever sailing competition at age 8 on Saratoga Lake in New York. Her boat was just a small wooden pram, utility boat, called Rachael’s Rainbow. Now she sails the 60-foot American Promise, facing her ultimate competitor: pollution.

American Promise is the “greenest” research vessel in the world, according to Miller. She is the third owner since it was built in 1984 by Dodge Morgan, a Mainer, from Ted Hood’s design. Being on the ocean was essential to helping solve the pollution crisis.

“As sailors we felt strongly that to protect the ocean we needed to be on the ocean — not 100% of the time but at least a good chunk of the time,” Miller said.

Morgan built the 60-foot boat to be fast and strong so he could break the fastest record for sailing around the world without stopping, which he accomplished in 1986. It subsequently was acquired by the U.S. Naval Academy for training before Miller and her husband purchased it.

Nine people can sleep onboard, and the boat can carry more for day trips. The vessel’s size allows Rozalia Project to conduct all research and trash cleanup onboard while minimizing its carbon footprint.

American Promise is equipped with four solar panels, two wind generators and an underwater hydro generator to harness energy to power all the boat's electrical needs. Its diesel engine is used to stay on tight schedules and when sails aren’t efficient.

Volunteers stay on the boat for 2 1/2-week expeditions while sailing from one project site to another in the Gulf of Maine and other routes on the East Coast. They are expected to share equally in responsibilities and work together to keep the boat and project moving.

Peter Larsen is a volunteer from Boston, where he organizes trash cleanups. He did an open boat tour on the American Promise, liked the passion Miller and other organizers had for the project and decided to apply as a volunteer even though he was basically a landlubber.

“It’s just a really cool experience,” Larsen said. “I’ve never really sailed before. So, I’m learning a lot about that.”

Passion for ending pollution

When American Promise docked in Belfast, several local volunteers showed up with their families to help clean up the beach along Heritage Park.

Resident Ethan Hughes invited the Rozalia Project to Belfast a week before its arrival in hopes that the group could educate residents about what they can do to reduce the amount of trash the city is releasing into the water.

He and his wife volunteered to pick up trash with their two young daughters. He wants to instill a passion in them for being active players in cleaning and ending pollution and ultimately climate change. Hughes said he hopes his daughters ultimately understand that he did what he thought was best to ensure a meaningful future for them and the planet.

Miller said she hopes the project can continue to receive donations, research grants and partnerships with corporations to achieve shared goals. She’s excited about where technology is going in regard to combating pollution and climate change.

She wants to expand the project to waters all over the U.S. and beyond, and believes American Promise is capable of taking the project wherever it needs to go to educate people and fight pollution.



A child sorts discarded plastic straws found on the beach along Heritage Park during the Rozalia Project's beach cleanup in Belfast July 31. (Photo by: Kendra Caruso)
Peter Larsen picks up trash on the beach in Belfast July 31. He volunteers with the Rozalia Project to clean, educate and conduct research about pollution in the ocean. (Photo by: Kendra Caruso)
Rozalia Executive Director Ashley Sullivan, left, sorts trash and educates volunteers by the Belfast Boathouse July 31. (Photo by: Kendra Caruso)
Isla Hughes of Belfast picks up trash with her father Ethan during the Rozalia Project beach cleanup July 31. (Photo by: Kendra Caruso)
Bari Bucholz cleans trash on the beach along Heritage Park in Belfast on July 30. She traveled from Wyoming to volunteer with the Rozalia Project to clean trash in the ocean for 2 1/2 weeks. (Photo by: Kendra Caruso)
Acadia Shula walks on the beach along Heritage Park in Belfast searching for trash on July 31. She's participating in the Rozalia Project's beach cleanup with her grandparents before she goes home to California. (Photo by: Kendra Caruso)
Isla Hughes is learning about plastic pollution in the ocean while sorting trash with the Rozalia Project at Belfast Boathouse July 31. (Photo by: Kendra Caruso)
People tour the American Promise, the Rozalia Project's research vessel, in Belfast Harbor July 31. (Photo by: Kendra Caruso)
A volunteer stands on the American Promise in Belfast Harbor July 31. The Rozalia Project research vessel travels the Gulf of Maine cleaning beaches, educating communities and conducting research on pollution in the ocean. (Photo by: Kendra Caruso)
Isla Hughes stands aboard American Promise, the Rozalia Project's research vessel, in Belfast Harbor July 31. (Photo by: Kendra Caruso)
Etta Hughes, left, aboard the American Promise, the Rozalia Project's research vessel, with friends after touring it in Belfast Harbor July 31. (Photo by: Kendra Caruso)
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