Marieta Francis, Algalita Marine Research & Education

In 1994, Captain Charles Moore founded Algalita Marine Research and Education with the aim of restoring disappearing kelp forests and improving water quality along the California Coast. The Captain thought Algalita meant “little algae” in Spanish (it doesn’t), but after more than two decades, the name certainly has come to mean “great ocean defender.”

Algalita changed course from kelp to plastic pollution in 1997 after Captain Moore took a shortcut while sailing from Hawaii to California and ran into what is now known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Through 11 sea expeditions, numerous scientific papers and a robust educational program, Algalita strives to understand the gravity of our plastic footprint and explore solutions that will protect the future of our marine environment.

We caught up with Algalita’s executive director Marieta Francis on a break from organizing this February’s Plastic Ocean Pollution Solutions International Youth Summit to ask her what it would take to clean up the Pacific, how we can help and why she thinks kids will save the world.

Algalita has been studying the plastic pollution problem for 18 years. What changes have you noticed? When Captain Charles Moore first noticed all those little pieces of plastic in the North Pacific Gyre, it was an unknown phenomenon. The good news is that after publishing in peer-reviewed journals, we have noticed a lot more of what we call the “plastic conversation.” The bad news is we aren’t seeing the problem getting any better at all.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is such a daunting problem. What would it take to clean it up? What’s out there is out there. It would take an enormous amount of resources to clean it up.

So we need to get rid of plastic. There’s no way to eradicate all plastic. Our modern life relies on it. But we can get rid of single-use disposable plastic items that are designed to become trash.  

What are some ways the average ocean lover can make a real difference? There isn’t just one solution. The problem needs to be solved from the consumer, who buys the single-use disposable plastics, all the way to the engineers who are designing the product. Consumers need to think more critically and learn about the issue. We are out of the habit as a convenience society. We also need to talk to our legislators and encourage them to make policy changes.

Like the plastic bag ban? We’re not a huge proponent of the ban. Yes, it has made a difference, but the better answer is to go higher up to the production and design level. The better, more long-term option is to create products we don’t need to ban.

Let’s talk about the POPS International Youth Summit. It’s my most favorite thing Algalita does. It’s amazing to have these kids. They’re so intense and concerned about the problem. They’re the geeky kids, and they come to the summit and they meet other kids like them and they connect. The kids come up with their own solutions to plastic pollution, and we give them the science behind it. This year, we had over 200 kids apply for 90 spots. We’re holding it at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, which is letting us use their labs, and the kids will get to go out on one of their tall ships.

To participate, the young people have to submit ideas on how to curb plastic pollution in their town. What are some of the neatest solutions that have been submitted? In the very first summit, we had a group from Kenya, whose school is right next to an entrance to the Nairobi National Park. There are endangered Black Rhinos in the park, and they were finding rhino carcasses with plastic bags in their stomachs. So their project was to install trash collection bins and signs telling people what trash goes where, so people would toss it away before entering the park. They also proposed planting bushes along the road to catch any plastic blowing in the wind before it entered the park.

Have any of the kids turned their proposed solutions into real-life programs?  Yes! We have a timeline on our website that highlights the amazing accomplishments of our graduates.

What’s next for Algalita? The expedition we took in 2014 to the Pacific Gyre marks the 15th anniversary of our first expedition. We now have 15 years’ worth of data from the same region of the Pacific. We’re working on the analysis now, which we’ll publish in a paper so people can see what we’ve found. Otherwise, we’re going to keep spreading the message and engaging more kids.

 

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