Mimi Ausland found it impossible to ignore the plastic that washed up on the coast of California when she moved from Oregon to San Diego.
Two years later, she launched a website that chips away at the 150-million-ton-problem piece by piece.
On freetheocean.com, anyone can remove one piece of plastic from the Hawai’ian coastline by answering an ocean-related daily trivia question. The website donates 100% of its advertising revenue to the nonprofit Sustainable Coastlines Hawai’i, which organizes several volunteer beach cleanups each year that draw hundreds of volunteers and remove thousands of pounds of debris from Hawai’ian beaches.
“Once I knew about the plastic problem, I couldn’t not do something about it,” Ausland said. “It’s a huge, daunting issue, and I wanted to give other people a way to make an impact.”
Like most members of her generation, 23-year-old Ausland is keenly aware of the climate crisis. While Free The Ocean is designed to allow users to make an impact quickly and easily, Ausland’s hope is that the website will inspire people to reduce their plastic consumption and push for legislation that keeps plastic from ending up in the ocean in the first place.
Ausland, now a Santa Monica resident, is uniquely prepared to embark on that mission. At 23, she already has more than a decade of experience in nonprofit work.
When she was 11 years old, Ausland started a click-t0-donate website called freekibble.com with the help of her parents to help feed shelter animals in her hometown of Bend, Oregon. The website quickly attracted media attention and a sponsor company, and has since donated more than 24 million meals to homeless dogs and cats around the country.
Ausland was serving was the face of Freekibble, but she was also learning what goes on behind the scenes of a click-to-donate website. Today, Ausland leans on that knowledge to handle the day-to-day operations of Free The Ocean — with advice from her father, Kelly, a business consultant, and help from Mittun, a Santa Monica-based website provider for nonprofits.
“I worked with her closely on the tech part of it, but it’s completely guided by her in approach and voice,” Kelly Ausland said. “She’s true to her purpose and I think people respond to the authenticity of that.”
In the roughly 40 days since Free The Ocean launched, it has generated enough revenue to remove more than 500,000 pieces of plastic from the ocean.
Equally important is the education that Free The Ocean provides those hundreds of thousands of unique users, said Rafael Bergstrom, executive director of Sustainable Coastlines Hawai’i. In addition to the trivia questions users answer, the website also includes a list of 10 things people can do to reduce their plastic consumption and a broad overview of the plastic issue.
“Free The Ocean will create a much larger awareness of plastic pollution, which is crucial because the solution to the problem really lies in stopping the pollution at its source, which requires changing consumer habits, policy and business decisions,” he said.
Bergstrom said he admires Millennials like Ausland who are dedicating their youth to addressing climate and environmental crises.
“It shows an understanding of how dire these situations are. When I was 23, I didn’t have that much foresight,” he said.
Ausland said her initial goals for Free The Ocean are removing one million pieces of plastic and reaching 50,000 daily users.
She’s also hard at work finding ways to retain an active community of users. Incentives to keep coming back to the site include a leaderboard of how many pieces of plastic users have removed and photos of Sustainable Coastlines Hawai’i’s cleanups — and in the future, top users may be flown out to join the cleanups.
“I want people to be able to see the impact they make,” Ausland said.