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How a Band of Marine Researchers Is Solving the Plastic Pollution Crisis in Our Oceans

"Our goal is to teach people the right way to recycle."

Algalita's Ship-2-Shore education program aims to demystify recycling. Image courtesy Algalita.

In 1999, Algalita founder Captain Charles Moore put his small California environmental nonprofit on the map when he was the first to sample the surface waters of what is now known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Since then, the California-based organization has dedicated itself to research and education about plastic pollution in the waterways with the belief that they can solve the problem with the right public outreach and in collaboration with other organizations and scientists. Considering that over 80 percent of marine debris originates from sources on land, there’s no time to waste.

Algalita’s executive director, Liesl Thomas, carries on Captain Moore’s vision of collaboration. “It was always his mentality that if anything is going to get solved, it will be by people working together,” she says from her office in Long Beach.

Liesl Thomas
Executive Director, Algalita

Algalita continues to partner with other organizations, biologists, and even graduate students at local universities to undertake research and education projects. They teamed up with the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where master’s students produced a 256-page report, “Reducing Plastic Debris in the Los Angeles and San Gabriel River Watersheds.” The report is the foundation of a new prevention campaign, which will include education on reducing litter and improving recycling savvy. “We realized that if we really wanted to make prevention happen, we needed to start smaller and look at a more local level,” Thomas says.

On the recycling education front, Algalita has partnered with the nationwide program Recycle Across America, whose goal is to get standardized recycling labels on all recycling bins across the country.

“Our goal is to teach people the right way to recycle,” says Thomas. “There’s a lot of contamination in recycling right now. Sometimes the labeling is confusing. When you go from city to city, you have drastically different recycling requirements, so the standardized labels make it really obvious what can be recycled. We feel that if you make it easy for people, then you have a better chance at a good success rate in terms of recycling.”

Since Algalita already makes regular presentations in K-12 education, bringing the recycling labeling to the schools was a perfect fit. “We already go in and do trash audits and show them what their waste looks like, and point out trash that is recyclable and teach them the distinction. What we are looking to do, since we have strong connection in our schools, is to come in and push the [standardized labeling] issue in the Los Angeles schools. The program has the labels donated and ready to go; we just need to get the schools to agree.”

In the quest to reduce plastic pollution, Thomas says, some organizations skip the crucial step of recycling education in favor of eliminating plastic altogether. “Instead of saying we need to make people stop drinking soda or water unless it’s in a glass, there are realistic ways to educate people, and recycling is an important part of that.”

“We do not recycle near what people think we do,” says Thomas. She points to the less-than-satisfactory recycling rates across the country, with California leading at 50 percent. “A lot of these items make their way into the ocean, and they could easily be recycled. I think a lot of it comes down to educating people. We are literally putting this stuff into the ocean and killing fish. We need to be better stewards of the planet.”

She recommends simple steps that consumers can take, such as not requesting straws at restaurants, drinking from reusable containers, and making sure that what plastic you do purchase is placed in appropriate recycling bins. “People aren’t going to stop drinking their sodas, so recycling has to be a vital part of the conversation.”

Algalita is not sponsored by or affiliated with Arrowhead.

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