Since its founding more than two decades ago, Long Beach-based Algalita Marine Research and Education has sought to understand the relationship plastic pollution plays in the environment — particularly within our oceans.
Its story begins in 1997, when founder Captain Charles Moore discovered a massive area of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean while returning from a voyage to Hawaii. He was the first researcher to sample this mass of plastic in the remote North Pacific Gyre region, and Moore and his organization would spend the next decade studying the gyre 1,000 miles away from the nearest land.
"It was hard because the media spun it as a trash island," Algalita Executive Director Katie Allen said. "The public got this idea of it as an island and it was a difficult time trying to reeducate people.
"But in a way," she added. "It may have been the myth that we needed. Created by the media taking words in the story to a level not meant, but brought so many eyes on this instantly."
In the last decade, Algalita has expanded its scope beyond the seas to explore the global impact of plastics down to the microscopic level, as well as to educate today's youth on the role they play in protecting the planet.
"We know so much now," Allen said. "We wanted to focus on young people, to create educational experiences that allow them to deep dive into the movement."
In recent years, Algalita has reached younger audiences through collaborative efforts including with Cal State Long Beach to study the impact of plastics on lanternfish, the city of Long Beach Environmental Services Bureau for the Great Peninsula Cleanup and through its International Youth Summit meant to educate students from across the globe on the long-term effects of single-use plastics.
Just this past Sunday, March 21, members of the organization boarded the very same vessel Moore sailed when he discovered the infamous garbage patch to tour around the Long Beach coastline.
The vessel was adorned in banners that highlighted the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, a bill originally introduced last February to set forth requirements related to waste and recycling collection systems for a variety of products and materials, including plastics.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley (OR) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (CA), builds on statewide laws across the country and outlines plastic reduction strategies, which include:
- Reducing plastic production by phasing out unnecessary single-use plastic products, pausing new plastic facilities, holding companies accountable for their products, and expanding reuse and refill programs;
- Increasing recycling rates through standardized labeling, nationwide container refunds, minimum recycled content requirements, and tighter regulation of toxic chemicals;
- Protecting frontline and fenceline communities by calling out false solutions like incineration, which disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color.
"After decades of treating our land, waterways, and oceans as plastic waste dumping grounds, we now face a global plastic pollution crisis,” Lowenthal said in a February 2020 statement. “Recent scientific studies show that plastic waste particles are now found everywhere we look — in the soil, in the rainwater, in the food chain, and even inside our own bodies.
"It is time for multi-billion-dollar companies to step up and cover the costs of cleaning up the waste from their products," he added. "We are running out of time to deal with this crisis of our own creation, and this legislation is a bold first step on the path to implementing lasting solutions.”
Lowenthal, Allen said, has been a huge partner in their efforts — he regularly attends their beach cleanup efforts in the city.
"(The act) is the most comprehensive piece of legislation we've seen and the first national effort," Allen said. "But because of the pandemic, the pinnacle of our work came at a bad time and the movement was decided to be put on the back burner.
"But we must be firm this time," she added. "This has got to be it, we can't keep planning and pushing it back."
Merkley and Lowenthal will take part in a webinar next Wednesday, March 31, for a conversation to explain how their proposed legislation will work to address plastic reduction strategies that could potentially improve health for both humans and the planet.
"This is it," Allen said. "This is our real chance to get at this."
More information on the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act is available on Algalita's website, algalita.org.