Plastic Pollution Challenges & Solutions!

https://cmbc.ucsd.edu/plastic-challenge-2021/

Wow- I’m not sure about you.. but this summer is flying by! I started off the summer w/ an exciting 10-day adventure in Oaxaca Mexico, and a couple days after I flew back to California- my new team and I (Team SD Zero) participated in and won the final 2-day competition to conclude the 6mo Scripps-Rady Ocean Plastic Challenge !

It seems like just yesterday that I was starting the Scripps-Rady Ocean Plastic Pollution Challenge, which I wrote a little bit about in my previous blog post on how to use and waste less (especially single-use plastics). In a nutshell, this 6 mo (Jan-June 2021) accelerator program and competition aimed to create solutions to marine and coastal plastic pollution in San Diego County, California (USA). This program brought together a diverse group of people passionate about solving the plastic pollution problem, with backgrounds ranging across academia, nonprofit organizations, government, industry and other sectors. For the first three months, we attended virtual (zoom) sessions with speakers including policymakers, nonprofit leaders and scholars who research organizational and behavioral change. Afterwards, we were divided into different teams (‘Changing Human Behavior’, ‘Evaluation Solutions’, ‘Data Mapping’ and ‘Yes! In my Backyard, San Diego’), each focusing on specific aspects of the plastics pollution problem. For this part of the accelerator program, I was placed on the data-mapping team where we sought to collect, analyze and map plastic pollution data in San Diego County.

Being on the data mapping team was an awesome opportunity. Our specific goal in a nutshell was to analyze and map data on plastic pollution and related mitigation efforts in areas adjacent to and inside of the San Diego MPAs in the Pacific Ocean. I got to dive into all the available trash cleanup data portals- and then use my R-coding skills to subset and wrangle the data frames so that they were ready to use and map for the GIS mapping specialists on my team. Then I also did some graphics and stats in R as well to help visualize and analyze some of the trends we found. We ended up using the Marine Debris Tracker Data Portal (NOAA and National Geographic) and the Coastal Cleanup Data Portal (Ocean Conservancy), as these datasets were the most complete and accessible. On May 17th we presented our ArcGIS Story Map to the other teams and panelists- check out the full story map presentation here!

Our Data Mapping Team found two hotspots of plastic waste in the San Diego region:

(1) Areas visited by high numbers of tourists and special events

(2) River outlets from large rivers running through urban areas

We also found that the majority of plastic waste items (by count) are: 1) smoke-related products (cigarettes, cigars, packaging, e-cigarettes, vaping pens, etc) and 2) single-use food and beverage waste items (packing, serviceware, bottles, etc.).

However, on a positive note we found that bans work! Such as the notable plastic-bag bans which started as early as 2014, but most were fully implemented in San Diego County by 2016. You can see below in the graphic I compiled that the proportion of collected waste comprising of plastic bags significantly declines after 2014 in San Diego County!

Following the conclusion of my work in the data mapping team, we had a small break (at which point I ran off to Mexico), and then came back and were mixed up into new and smaller teams for our final 2-day competition from June 6th-8th to conclude this 6 mo accelerator program. My new team (Team SD Zero) comprised of: myself (USC Postdoctoral Fellow- science educator, researcher and data analyst), Lauren Hackney (MBA Candidate at UCSD Rady School of Management), Kristina Phipps (Contract Policy Analyst and Attorney at The Nature Conservancy), Tanya Torres (California Sea Grant Extension Fellow working with NOAA’s Marine Debris Program) and Jake Reynolds (The Behavioural Insights Team. Energy, Environment & Sustainability Policy, UK).

Drawing on behavioral science research we knew that although educational campaigns can raise the public’s awareness of environmental issues and result in public support for policy changes; these campaigns don’t typically affect people’s behaviors in the long term. The SD Zero team and I brainstormed potential solutions to the plastic pollution problem in San Diego by using existing information from all of our unique experiences and knowledge. During the 48 h – we came up with a proposal to implement a zero-waste event policy paired with a business accelerator. Our proposal centers around a policy change prohibiting single-use plastics at large events in San Diego (> 75 people), in addition to a business accelerator program to provide monetary support and resources to help organizations meet the new zero-waste requirements. The policy will leverage the city’s existing event permitting process and will require events to be single-use plastic-free or pay a fine and undergo zero-waste training. Events that become plastic-free will be certified as an ‘SD Zero Ocean Hero’ as their reward that they can publicly display.

We based this proposed idea on data presented by my previous data mapping team and several case studies that have demonstrated the effectiveness of zero-waste related policies. Bans such as the well-known plastic bag bans remove plastics from the consumer choice context and therefore reduce both plastic usage and the amount of plastic waste that ends up along our coastlines and in our oceans.

Furthermore, my previous data mapping team demonstrated that events in San Diego are typically very close to the coastlines, and similar to tourism can be a source of plastic pollution that can then leak into our waterways and oceans (figure embedded below).

Events provide discrete opportunities for piloting and evaluating the impact of interventions. Furthermore, implementing this policy requires only a simple modification to the language of San Diego’s existing permitting rules for events, and our team has already identified local zero-waste businesses (linked at bottom) that can help event organizers transition away from single-use plastics. We know this policy will be effective based on other case studies. For example, through similar waste intervention mandates, > 4 k water bottles and 1 mil plastic bags can be avoided annually in the San Francisco Farmers Markets. In another example, Jack Johnson’s All At Once Greening tour (40 concerts) eliminated 36,000 single use plastic bottles and 200,000 single use plastic cups. We see this as a starting point and ability to create an early concrete success that can eventually be expanded to restaurants and other jurisdictions across the nation and globe- ultimately leading to cleaner and healthier oceans.

Event Density and Plastic Pollution | From the Data Mapping Team White Paper | Fig. Credit: W. Quinn & J. Hopper | Data Credit: https://debristracker.org/, https://www.coastalcleanupdata.org/, http://insideairbnb.com/san-diego/ https://public.opendatasoft.com/explore/dataset/airbnb-listings/

For the finale, we presented our proposal to the other challenge participants and the judging panel (comprised of 11 distinguished professionals). We were a bit shocked when we found out we won since all of the other ideas presented by the other teams were also pretty amazing! However, now I realize we won because our idea incorporated everything we had learned throughout the past 6 months- from policy to human behavior and our proposal was based firmly in the data with easy-to-implement structure. You can watch the finale embedded below!

Our prize for winning this challenge is a meeting with Dr. Gwen Nero (Director of Corporate Affiliates, Business Development, Industry Outreach, and Innovation at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography) and Ian Clampett (State and Local Government Relations at Scripps Institution of Oceanography) to help us strategize and connect to the right people so that we can hopefully put this policy and business accelerator into action! The meeting is coming up soon.. so I will post an update once there is more progress on this initiative!


Related Press:

https://www.lajollalight.com/news/story/2021-06-11/sio-radys-name-a-winner-of-inaugural-ocean-plastic-pollution-challenge

https://dornsife.usc.edu/wrigley/environmental-studies-julie-hopper-wins-clean-beaches-competiti/


Businesses that can help you and your events become zero-waste and plastic-free!

Zero waste coaching: https://thinkzerollc.com/

Los Angeles: https://sustainla.com/event-planning

San Diego: https://www.ecocycle.org/zero-waste-events

Denver and Boulder, Colorado: https://www.ecocycle.org/zero-waste-events#largeevents


Blog post I wrote on zero-waste tips for your everyday life:

https://julie-hopper.com/2021/02/28/sustainability-and-covid19-part-ii-wasting-less/

Sustainability and Covid19 Part II: Wasting Less

Happy 2021! Here we are.. still in a pandemic, but at least the political scene in the USA has improved since I wrote last (Great news for Mother Nature and Society!). Anyhow, as I mentioned in my last post, I’m currently part of the 6 mo Scripps-Rady Ocean Plastic Challenge, an accelerator program that culminates in different workgroups trying to solve some of the many complex issues inherent in the global plastic problem, particularly the plastic that ends up in our water ways and oceans. I’ve definitely learned a lot in the past two months, with experts speaking about issues ranging from human behavior and what incentives are necessary to decrease littering and wasteful behavior; to the policies and regulations involved in trying to decrease plastic waste as well as the difficulties of getting corporations on board for the long-haul, and the ins and outs of obtaining and analyzing data on the types and amounts of plastic waste that we find in the environment! Shout out to the Trash Data Treasure Trove via Win Cowger and his colleagues on the latter! https://osf.io/k4th7/

It’s estimated that between 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean in a given year (based on the year 2010: Jambeck et al. 2015 https://science.sciencemag.org/content/347/6223/768) Image

Even though corporations do have a large role in a lot of the plastic waste observed in our environment, I came out of this short-course series with still the same main opinion I had at the start: INDIVIDUALS (YOU AND ME) STILL HAVE A POWERFUL ROLE IN DETERMINING THE AMOUNT OF WASTE THAT IS PRODUCED, AS WELL AS THE DOWNSTREAM HANDLING OF THAT WASTE (aka – preventing it from getting into the natural environment!). So let’s stop waiting for corporations to start changing/taking action, and let’s talk about what you and I can do (some of which includes buying less of the more wasteful products and single-use plastics which then puts financial pressure (aka incentives) on the corporations to change their ways! Take that! Karate Chop! HiYah!

ILLUSTRATION @KennaAloha

Thus I’ve put together a list of tips that I’ve gathered from the expert zero-wasters (people like Lauren Singer who literally and incredibly only have a jar-full of waste from years of living on Earth!), as well as from my own life experience of trying to cut down on waste (while on a budget!).

Tips for How to Waste Less

  1. Biggest Tip: WHAT YOU DON’T BUY = YOU DON’T USE
    • Below are some swaps for things that you can stop buying (and save $$!):
  • For cleaning cooking, drinking and eating:
    • Instead of Single-Use Water Bottles – use a Reusable Water Bottle, and get a cheap water filter for your home tap water (if you are concerned about your tap water). Honestly, unless your are in Flint, Michigan (and my heart goes out to you guys)- the water quality in the USA is pretty well regulated (typically more so than bottled water)-and you can just google ‘water quality’ and the name of your city to find out what is in your water- see here for California
    • Instead of SaranWrap – use Tupperware, or Beeswax Wrap
    • Instead of Paper Towels- use Washable and Reusable Cloth Towels/Rags
    • Instead of Paper Napkins- use Washable and Reusable Cloth Napkins(you can make both of the above from old tshirts or towels if you are short on cash)
    • Instead of Ziplock bags– use Tupperware, silicon ziplock bags or do what I do, and reuse the ziplock bags from trailmix, and other snacks that you buy from Trader Joes or other stores that use too much packaging!
    • Instead of Aluminum Foil or Baking Sheets- use a silicone baking sheet, or keep your food in a covered pot in the oven. I will admit though that this can be tough for very large dishes such as a Turkey… but that is only once a year- so a box of foil could last you a life time!
    • Instead of single use Cleaning Cloths (such as the lysol ones)– use a soapy sponge- works just as well and is less toxic and cheaper.
    • Instead of One-Time Use Masks: Use Reusable/Washable Cotton Fabric Masks -ideally the ones with 2-3 fabric layers (unless you are working in the medical field of course).
  • For Self Care:
  • Self Care- What you can stop buying:
    • Instead of Cotton Rounds/Balls – make your own washable ones by cutting up an old tshirt into little squares (you can sew the edges if you want them to look pretty, but I just stuff my cotton squares int a glass jar and call it a day!). Pro-tip- use a lingerie bag to wash and dry the little pieces so they don’t clog your washer or get lost!
  • Use Refillable Products!
    • Instead of buying dish soap, laundry detergent, and all of the other household products that come in plastic containers- check out these cool detergent pods that you can use in refillable containers! https://www.blueland.com/
    • Instead of buying new shampoo, conditioner and body soaps in plastic containers: buy the bar forms of shampoo, conditioners, soaps and lotions, or buy refillable products where you can return the containers and the companies sterilize them and reuse them! My favorite is: https://www.plaineproducts.com
    • Instead of floss in plastic packaging, use refillable floss containers w/ waxed silk floss
  • Instead of plastic toothbrushes- use bamboo toothbrushes (that are not wrapped in plastic packaging!)
  • Fix, Trade or Thrift instead of Buying New
    • Instead of Buying New Clothes- go to a Tailor with Existing Clothes from your closet or a friends closet to spruce them up, make them fit better and/or fix that zipper (or do it yourself)
    • Instead of Buying New Shoes– take your shoes to your Local Shoe Cobbler – they can replace the heals, fix the straps, and shine them up like new!
    • Check out trendy thrift stores near you– like Crossroads Trading Store in Santa Monica! They actually have very fashionable and new-looking (lightly used) items. It is so fashionable that they consistently reject all of my clothes when I try to sell my stuff to them… .lol Don’t judge me!
    • Conduct clothing swaps w/ friends (outdoors or after the pandemic of course)
  • Eat at Home More Often (no this does not include takeout): It’s Cheaper + Less Plastic WasteTo make this easier- try food-prepping or cooking while watching a tv show on your laptop or listening to a podcast- or better yet- do it with a friend!
  • If you do go out to eat to support the local restaurants: Be sure to Support the Businesses that do NOT use Styrofoam, and ideally support businesses that use compostable or recyclable or reusable containers + Don’t forget to bring your own utensils and ask the restaurant to hold off on the single use silverware/ and straws (for takeout). If you are dining in/outside then bring tupperware with you when you go out to eat so you can pack the leftovers in your reusable containers.
  • Instead of Buying Coffee at Starbucks or another cafeMake it at Home –and please don’t use those plastic pod coffee things.. yuck! Although if you must, they have ones that use recyclable pods. Ideally use a french press or an italian espresso maker. If you do go get coffee then use a reusable coffee travel mug (during non-covid19 times…)
  • Bring reusable grocery bags to the stores – Almost all stores are now letting you pack your goods in your own bags again now (thank goodness!). If they don’t let you then just take the unpackaged goods to your car and load it in a bag in your car. A little more effort on your part makes a lasting effort on Earth : )
  • Shop at places that have bulk items in bins to so that you can pack dried goods in reusable cloth bags (or ones you make out of old pillow cases that you wash and sew). The bummer is right now most places that used to do this are pre-packaging their bulk items in plastic- yuck! However! You can try to find shops like this one in Los Angeles (Tare Grocery) where they will pack up goods for you in your own glass or aluminum containers (no cloth allowed right now). I actually just went to this shop last week! They pack everything in paper brown bags (from recycled paper) if you don’t bring your own reusable containers.
  • Similarly- Don’t use Plastic bags for Produce! I mean really.. do you really think you are being more sterile by putting it in plastic instead of directly in your cart? How do you think the produce got to the store and onto the display cases? (people’s hands!) I just put mine directly on the cart (wet and everything) and then on the checkout counter directly before putting it into my reusable grocery bag. I have not gotten Covid19 from doing this for the past year… you will be fine as long as you rinse off your produce before eating it (which I’m sure you do anyhow).
  • Don’t buy/use Plastic Garbage BagsUse biodegradable bags– I mean .. really.. why are we buying plastic just to throw it away? The biodegradable ones work great- especially if you compost your food waste in a separate container.
  • Compost your food waste (no meat or diary, just fruit, veggies, eggshells, coffee grounds, tea, etc.). Just keep a small container under your sink next to the trash so it is convenient to use. Then if you have a garden, you can get a compost tumbler and use the compost-produced soil for your garden; or if you don’t have a yard then chance are you can throw the fruit and veggie scraps into your green yardwaste bin! USA cities typically provide every household (and apartment complex) a green waste bin for free.
  • Use rechargeable items, and use re-cheargable batteries for items that cannot be recheargable.

Remember: Take it one small step at a time– don’t try to go completely zero waste all at once, just see which of the tips/tricks and online suggestions work for you the best and start there. You got this!


Below are some resources for zero-waste goods that you can buy online

(I don’t get any kickbacks of any sort- these are just the companies I use).

https://packagefreeshop.com/

-They carry plaine products shampoo/conditioner/etc as well as the leaf razors and many other awesome products such as bamboo tooth brushes etc- that you can buy all together.

https://www.blueland.com/

-This is where I buy my dish soap powder and tablets for hand soaps and household cleaning products