**Note: This is part of a series of stories leading up to the 2014 International Coastal Cleanup.

In 2002, when Marieta Francis joined Algalita Marine Research and Education, the small nonprofit’s 80-sq.-ft. office in Long Beach, Calif. was relatively quiet.

“Our phone didn’t really ring unless it was one of our board members,” recalls Francis, now Algalita’s executive director. “Now, a lot of people know about the serious issue of marine debris.”

This heightened awareness is due, in part, to Algalita’s research expeditions and educational outreach, which illustrate how every individual can be part of the solution to the escalating, and increasingly complex, challenge of trash in the world's waterways.

“We’re like the mouse that roared,” adds Bill Francis, Algalita’s Secretary. “Our message seems to resonate with people. We provide access to information so individuals and organizations can make good decisions for the future.”

Algalita’s peer-reviewed findings are first presented to the environmental community but are open to the public. “Our goal is awareness, so we share our research willingly and thoroughly so people can integrate it into their own research and put a proper perspective on the problem,” Bill Francis adds.

In 1997, Algalita’s founder, Captain Charles Moore, was sailing from Hawaii back to California when he came across a swirling vortex of trash in the North Pacific Gyre. Two years later, he returned to the area, which eventually became known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the symbol of the marine environment’s threatened condition, to study the accumulation of debris and publish a scientific paper on his team’s findings. 

This summer, Algalita completed its eighth expedition to the accumulation zone, about 1,000 miles offshore. Over the course of a month, Moore and his small crew of researchers collected water samples and assessed the impact pollution is having on ocean life.

the Alguita
Algalita researchers take water samples during their recent month-long expedition, where they also observed the impact marine debris is having on ocean species.

The voyage was Moore’s first in five years. While results are still being processed, Moore wrote in a recent op-ed in The New York Times that he was “utterly shocked to see the enormous increase in the quantity of plastic waste.”

And the United States isn’t the only culprit. Currents have carried post- 2011 tsunami debris from Japan into the area, and an increasing volume of plastic from China is funneling in, too.

“It’s not a surprise, considering China’s rapidly developing economy, big coastal population and lack of infrastructure to manage their waste,” adds Bill Francis, who represents Algalita on Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Alliance, a cross-section of business, science and conservation leaders, of which Coca-Cola is a founding member.

Part of the Alliance’s focus, he said, is mitigating the primary sources of marine debris by finding ways to integrate environmental, political and industrial structures and policies worldwide. Bill Francis notes that debris found in the Pacific Gyre is a microcosm of a global issue, adding that four other gyres in oceans around the world also clogged with refuse, too.

the Alguita
Alguita, a 50-ft. oceanographic research vessel captained by Algalita founder Charles Moore, recently completed its 8th expedition to the area known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Recruiting Citizen Scientists

Algalita is in the process of compiling a database of samples collected over the last 15 years. Soon, students and scientific organizations will be able to visit Algalita’s website to pull up maps, run data queries and search for trends. The organization is also developing a mobile app that will give everyone the opportunity to add to its expanding body of research.

“People out on canoes who see debris will be able to take a photo on their phone and send it to us so we can monitor what’s happening everywhere, not just in middle of the Pacific Ocean,” Marieta Francis said. “We want to get people involved and empower them to become citizen scientists.”

This approach aligns with the mission of Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup, the largest single-day volunteer effort benefiting the marine environment. Last year, nearly 650,000 volunteers in 92 countries picked up more than 12.3 million pounds of trash along coastlines and waterways. The 2014 cleanup – which Coke will support for the 19th consecutive year – takes place Saturday.

“The scope of what we’re trying to do is huge,” Bill Francis says, “but if we’re ever going to solve the problem, we’ve got to think globally and act locally.”