SCRIPPS-RADY OCEAN PLASTIC POLLUTION CHALLENGE
Examples of plastic pollution. Photo credit, bottles with marine life courtesy of Scripps Institution of Oceanography;
By Charlotte Stevenson, March 18, 2021
“There is no problem that is so obviously anthropogenic in origin than marine plastic pollution,” said Professor Stuart Sandin, Co-Director of the Scripps-Rady Ocean Plastic Pollution Challenge and Director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Only invented within the last century, plastic may now be the most abundant substance on earth.
Challenge participants have learned about disheartening statistics, but they have also been learning from experts about systemic thinking and change, successful environmental policies, non-greenwashed business plans, effective behavioral psychology, and innovative material companies and their investors.
For the next three months, the Challenge participants are divided into four teams focused on four different areas: changing human behavior, evaluating policy solutions, data mapping, and assessing local support of plastic reduction initiatives in the Challenge’s home town, San Diego.
Teams have already begun working on white papers and deciding how they will contribute to the state of knowledge about ocean plastic pollution in California. Ideally, these papers can help inform future funding efforts or even policies as California considers the future of its network of marine protected areas. In a final 2-day “hackathon-style” event, the participants will have an opportunity to apply the knowledge gained in these four white papers to creative plastic-reducing proposals that will be presented in front of a panel of judges.
By Charlotte Stevenson, February 22, 2021
It is easy to get discouraged when looking at the many environmental issues facing us today. Read the headlines, and there will inevitably be a story about another species on the brink of extinction, critical habitat loss, pollution, or a glacier that is almost gone. However, Dr. Nancy Knowlton, Sant Chair of Marine Sciences Emerita at the Smithsonian Museum for Natural History, was determined to have the Scripps-Rady Ocean Plastic Pollution Challenge participants leave her course with a sense of optimism.
Along with panelists Dr. Fiorenza Micheli, David and Lucile Packard Professor of Marine Science, Co-Director of Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station and the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions, and Professor Mark Jacobsen from the Department of Economics at UC San Diego, they introduced Challenge participants to success stories from their work in greenhouse gas emissions and fisheries, and tried to help participants think about how certain attributes of solutions might be transferable to the problem of marine plastic pollution.
Dr. Micheli emphasized that one of the major benefits of the Baja California fisheries being more inclusive was an increase in innovation. “More diversity brings more innovation,” said Dr. Micheli. Dr. Ayelet Gneezy, Co-Director of the Scripps-Rady Ocean Plastic Pollution Challenge, added that “innovation is not necessarily creating something new. It is not just new technology. It can be who you bring to the table. It can be how you are thinking.”
By Charlotte Stevenson, February 19, 2021
Plastic is now the most ubiquitous human made substance on the planet. Whether we intended it or not, we are leaving a plastic legacy. Unfortunately, we cannot point a blaming finger at one source, one policy, or one situation. The factors that have enabled this global sea of plastic pollution are vast. Investment in oil and gas infrastructure continues to increase, virgin plastic is much cheaper than recycled plastic, multi-material plastic is impossible to recycle, and microplastic is virtually impossible to capture.
Just as there are many factors contributing to the exponentially-growing problem of marine plastic pollution, there will have to be many factors contributing to the solution. Dr. Winnie Lau, Senior Manager of Preventing Ocean Plastics Program in The Pew Charitable Trusts, walked the Scripps-Rady Ocean Plastic Pollution Challenge participants through the types of holistic, systemic, solutions from her 2020 Science paper and Pew Report during the Challenge’s sixth short course. Many conditions will have to change at many levels, and with many stakeholders, to enable success.
Although many local governments have begun to regulate certain aspects of plastic pollution, often in the form of bag-bans or taxes, Virdin is skeptical that this type of regulation will enable success. “The challenge I see is the mismatch between the scale of the problem...large product supply chains that cross borders...and the scale at which we are regulating,” said course panelist, John Virdin, Director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy Program at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy at Duke University. “If there is a patchwork of local regulations, is that enough to drive change for a whole supply chain?” Virdin’s big question is whether some of these big companies can step up and help solve the problem without government action. Challenge participant, Colin Duncan, Product Development Lead at Forever Wild Seafood, agreed: “If the big companies were to take serious steps towards sustainability, it would be much easier for smaller firms to follow in their wake.” The trickle down effects in society could be huge.
By Charlotte Stevenson, February 17, 2021
Because we are human, we like to think human behavior is easy to understand, and, therefore, easy to change. Dr. Ayelet Gneezy, Co-Director of the Scripps-Rady Ocean Pollution Challenge, Professor of Behavioral Sciences and Marketing, Rady School of Management, UC San Diego, assured Challenge participants that human behavior is far from easy to understand.
But there is a science to changing other people’s behavior, especially when it comes to environmental initiatives. As moderator of the Challenge’s fifth short course, Dr. Gneezy delivered a fascinating introduction to behavioral science walking Challenge participants through absolutely critical truths about human psychology which must be understood to employ an effective behavioral science solution to an environmental problem.
Panelist Dr. Elizabeth Keenan, an Assistant Professor of Business Administration in the Marketing Unit of Harvard Business School, researches factors that drive or inhibit environmentally-friendly behavior. Dr. Keenan gave examples of a more subtle tool to influence people’s behavior: a nudge. “A nudge gently steers choosers toward or away from a certain choice,” said Dr. Keenan. Examples include auto-enrollment in a retirement plan or auto payments on credit cards.
Dr. Keenan took participants through a few examples, including nudging people to use dual flush toilets correctly, to take the stairs versus the escalator, and to separate their recycling into various bins. Like Dr. Ayelet Gneezy pointed out, people’s intuition is much stronger than their reason. Therefore, designing choices and nudges that appeal to people’s intuition and gut reactions is important when considering behavior around environmental challenges.
By Charlotte Stevenson, February 8, 2021
The Scripps-Rady Ocean Plastic Pollution Challenge participants have been challenged to think on a “systems” level about the issue of marine plastic pollution. What is systems thinking? Systems thinking is a more holistic way to seeing the world, making connections and relationships more visible. It moves away from simple good vs. bad or powerful vs. powerless ways of thinking, and instead strives to illuminate the rich complexity of players, incentives, leverage points, and dynamics within a given system or problem.
Dr. Sterling said that being able to see our blindspots is a huge advantage. “There is a perspective that we have to break out of to really see the whole system. We have to rethink what we think. Rich pictures or mental maps will help us see if someone has a completely different vision of what we are seeing,” said Dr. Sterling. Betley added, “A tweak in one part of the system might affect a part you never thought about. As more perspectives are added, the more complex it becomes.”
Challenge participant, Steven Wright, Co-Director 4Walls International, raised the issue of power. “Isn’t it its own feedback loop if we only bring those with power to make change to the table? Shouldn’t we be including those that have been excluded from power?” he asked. Dr. Sterling agreed and suggested that forming coalitions can give power and a louder voice to those who traditionally may not have had a seat at the table. Challenge participant, Kristina Phipps, Independent Legal and Policy Consultant, remarked, “I found the stakeholder assessment exercise to be a fabulous tool for not only brainstorming potential stakeholders, but also identifying potential stakeholder alliances and dynamics.”
By Charlotte Stevenson, February 1, 2021
We know that some of the best solutions to any problem are informed and guided by facts, and one of the best paths to cold, hard facts is through data collection. To many of us, collecting and analyzing data can be intimidating, but to some remarkable individuals, looking at data is like following a map to buried treasure.
Recently, the Scripps-Rady Ocean Plastic Pollution Challenge participants learned about California’s trash policy, monitoring, data availability, and usage. Shelly Moore, Research Scientist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute and Executive Director of the Moore Institute for Plastic Pollution Research, moderated an information-packed course on California’s plastic problem through the lens of data mapping. Shelly and her panelists--Greg Gearheart PE, Deputy Director, Office of Information Management, California State Water Resources Control Board, and Win Cowger, a Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Sciences at the University of California, Riverside--made quite a case for the treasure that can be mined out of data sets and the power of data when it is driven by the right questions.
Panelist Win Cowger shared more information and resources with the participants than perhaps has ever been shared in a 20 minute period of time. Win walked participants through various data sets and case studies that illuminated the importance of how you obtain, visualize, and then interpret data. One roadblock he often finds, especially when looking at plastic pollution, is that data is labeled differently by different monitoring efforts. Win emphasized the importance of labeling data consistently. To a computer, a “bottle” is not the same as a “beverage container,” so a “taxonomy” of trash is imperative to ensure data sets can be combined. For instance, when data sets from several different river, beach, or ocean cleanups can be combined into mega data sets, the true treasure is revealed. Big data--which can reveal regional patterns and clearer evidence for sources of pollution--are necessary to inform real policy change at state, country and industry levels.
By Charlotte Stevenson, January 22, 2021
Borders. Jurisdictions. Districts. Zones. Walls. So much of our human experience is divided by these types of boundaries. Yet, these boundaries are virtually meaningless when we consider some of the most pressing issues, including a global pandemic and the impacts of sea level rise. Ocean plastic pollution is a similar global issue that shows no respect for arbitrary human borders, with 11 million metric tons of plastic leaked into the world’s oceans annually.
Participants in the Scripps-Rady Ocean Plastic Pollution Challenge attended their first course last week, moderated by Dr. Kristen Goodrich, the Coastal Training Program Coordinator of the Tijuana National Estuarine Research Reserve. Working along the U.S.-Mexico border for the last decade has provided her with a unique perspective, and she challenged the participants to think about boundaries in the context of marine plastic pollution. “What is in and what is out of the boundary you are considering? In those boundaries, who benefits? And who is disadvantaged?” she asked.
Part of the challenge of the Scripps Rady Ocean Plastic Pollution Challenge is that participants come from a great diversity of experience and will have to bridge across these different fields of expertise. They will have to be boundary-spanners. “Traditional and narrowly focused approaches will not reduce plastic pollution fast or significantly enough. It's clear that this cohort has a wide range of experiences to draw from and that will fuel their determination to combat plastic pollution,” said Dr. Goodrich of the 29 challenge participants.
By Charlotte Stevenson, January 15, 2021
University of California San Diego itself claims that it “makes changemakers,” and this week’s kick-off of the Scripps-Rady Ocean Plastic Pollution Challenge is no exception to that claim. Of the almost 300 applications from 28 countries, 22 U.S. states and territories, 29 were selected for the full program, and six are UC San Diego students or alumni.
This team-based, competitive Challenge will push the participants over the next 6 months to be innovative, even radical, and to cooperate across sectors that often do not cross-pollinate. In her welcoming remarks to the program participants this week, Rady Dean Lisa D. Ordóñez asked them to remember, “that no one discipline can solve the problem of marine plastic pollution...very different perspectives are very important here.”
Lauren Hackney, a current MBA candidate at Rady, is part of the Challenge team which will focus on San Diego's capacity and desire for preventing ocean plastic pollution. Lauren is also concerned about the recent increases in single use plastics due to the COVID-19 epidemic. “I am interested in learning how we can continue the plastic pollution efforts while also ensuring our communities remain safe from the virus,” she says. Lauren believes that her time at Rady has prepared her well for this type of interdisciplinary challenge. At Rady “we all come from different industries and backgrounds and we are able to use our strengths to our advantage and forge cross functional solutions together.”
Kara Wiggin is a current Ph.D. candidate at Scripps studying the effects of microplastic pollution on marine organisms. Kara has already begun asking the hard questions: “How do we get people to care? How do we get the public to support the structural changes necessary to address this issue?” Although Kara comes from a scientific perspective, she is looking forward to collaborating as with the diverse group of applicants in the Challenge. “I believe that a more diverse group is able to develop more creative and effective solutions,” says Kara, “and I am looking forward to seeing what we can learn and develop over the course of this challenge.”
By Charlotte Stevenson, January 4, 2021
These days, it’s not common to hear good news on the topic of plastic waste in the ocean. Today, though, we have great news. A new program, the Scripps-Rady Ocean Plastic Pollution Challenge begins January 12 with 29 incredibly talented, diverse, open-minded participants who are ready to completely rethink how we protect marine conservation and cultural areas from plastic pollution.
The participants are coming prepared for a real challenge, and are eager to be part of something impactful. “A complex challenge often requires a complex solution,” said Colin Duncan, Challenge participant and Product Development Lead at Forever Wild Seafood in Oregon.
The participants also bring a range of experience with plastic debris. Some have very little plastic experience, like quantitative analyst, Adam Mihalik, but who has built impressively impactful forecasting models for wind farm power generation, customer energy demand, and shipping fleets. Others live and breathe plastic waste, like Alex Ferron, Rise Above Plastics Leader with the Surfrider Foundation, and Cleo Ninja Stratmann, a Ph.D. candidate, studying water, environmental and urban systems in France.
“The competition for this program was really steep. We received almost 300 applications from 28 countries, 22 U.S. states and territories, and from a broad array of different fields of work and study,” said Stuart Sandin, Challenge Co-Leader and Professor and Director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation (CMBC) at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego. The Scripps-Rady Ocean Plastic Pollution Challenge is a partnership between the CMBC and the Center for Social Innovation and Impact (CSII) at the Rady School of Management, UC San Diego. “What is so exciting is that these 29 participants really understand what we are trying to do,” said Sandin.
- Scripps-Rady Ocean Plastic Pollution Challenge Article by Scripps News