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Sea-trivia site generates cash for ocean cleanups

The game is simple: Answer the daily ocean trivia question and a piece of plastic will be plucked from the world’s oceans, beaches and sea-bound rivers on your behalf.

Since 25-year-old Mimi Ausland launched the Free the Ocean website in August 2019, it has paid for the removal of 17.8 million plastic pieces, according to the site’s running tally. Money generated by the site’s advertisers covers donations made to two non-profits involved with plastic waste cleanup as well as generating income for Ausland’s for-profit, Santa Monica-based business.

The more visitors to the site, the more people see the ads and the more revenue is generated. And growth in those visiting the site has been steady, going from 140,000 unique users in May 2020 to 169,000 in May 2021, according to Kelly Ausland, Ausland’s dad and co-founder of the website.

Mimi Ausland said the pandemic may have helped attract visitors, who play for free.

“I think it’s because so many people want to help with plastic pollution but don’t know where to start,” said Ausland, the company CEO. “It’s something that has a tangible impact without being out and around people.”

Growth has also been reflected in company staff, which began with just Ausland and her dad, and now numbers 11. Players come from all 50 states and more than 120 countries, according to the site.

But success in Free the Ocean’s environmental mission would mean an end to the current business.

“That’s what we want,” Ausland said. “It would be great to be put out of business because that would mean there’s no more plastic in the ocean.”

Path to the sea

This isn’t Mimi Ausland’s first rodeo.

At the ripe age of 11, she came up with the idea for as a school project, which her parents then helped turn into a functioning website. She was inspired by, a site that rewards participants in its trivia game by raising money from advertisers to buy rice for the world’s hungry. Freekibble applied that formula to buy food for shelter pets and was so successful that the Auslands eventually sold it to Greater Good charities.

Free the Ocean, based on the same model, has its roots in Ausland’s trips to the ocean from her childhood home in Bend, Oregon.

“The ocean has been a special part of my life since I went to the coast in Oregon,” she said. But it wasn’t until she moved to La Jolla in 2017 that the ocean’s plastic problem hit home.

“I’d never seen the impact of plastic pollution in the ocean until then,” she said. “It definitely triggered something in me.”

The sole initial beneficiary of the site was Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii, which does ocean cleanups throughout the Hawaiian islands.

“Mimi and Kelly care so much about our mission and about the future of the ocean,” said Rafael Bergstrom, executive director of Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii. “They’re definitely one of our biggest impact partners – it’s a huge help to a small non-profit like ours.”

Bergstrom also applauded the educational component of the Free the Ocean website.

“Their trivia questions help people who don’t live near the ocean understand it better,” he said.

In February, Free the Ocean added a second partner in The Ocean Cleanup. The large, international nonprofit is best known for its innovative effort to remove all the plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but is also active trapping plastic in the world’s largest rivers before it reaches the ocean.

However, after fewer than five months, the partnership with The Ocean Cleanup is ending in the next few weeks.

“We want to work with smaller groups that don’t have access to large revenue streams,” Kelly Ausland said. He added that a new non-profit partner is expected to be announced by the end of the month. The Ocean Cleanup did not respond to an inquiry about its relationship with Free the Ocean.

Undisclosed finances

There are two types of advertisers on the Free the Ocean site.

At the top of each page are the same type of network ads found on many commercial pages – a cross-section of advertisers that may or may not be tailored to the visitor’s web history, but which don’t necessarily have anything to do with environmentalism. Along with ads for Target, Lowe’s and Breyers ice cream, one recent ad was for Crocs, the plastic shoewear that is neither recyclable nor biodegradable.

The other type of merchant can be found on “Shop Sustainably” page, featuring Earth-friendly 159 products from 75 vendors. Among them is Friendsheep, a San Juan Capistrano company that handcrafts reusable wool dryer balls and cat toys. Friendsheep founder Valeria Isaacs was enthusiastic about the partnership.

“We have the same values, the same mission,” Isaacs said. “And Mimi is a wonderful person. We pride ourselves with very high quality but our prices are a little higher. This helps expose us to like-minded customers.”

Each purchase from the Shop Sustainably page results in the removal of 10 pieces of plastic. There’s also a membership option at $5 a month that can result in as many as 72 pieces of plastic being gathered monthly.

It’s unclear how much of the revenue goes to the nonprofits that pluck the waste and how much stays with the company. Mimi Ausland referred questions regarding revenue, donations and cost-per-plastic-piece data to her father, who declined to give specifics. He said such numbers might distract and deter visitors.

“The whole idea is that small actions create big impacts,” Kelly Ausland said.

Source: Orange County Register

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