Plastic Pollution Challenges & Solutions!

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:,,

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:

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

Zero waste coaching:

Los Angeles:

San Diego:

Denver and Boulder, Colorado:

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

Society for Invertebrate Pathology, 2017

This week has been intense and fun, as yesterday was the last day of the five-day SIP Conference  (Society for Invertebrate Pathology) in San Diego California!

This society and conference focuses on invertebrate pathogens, with seven different divisions, and works in conjunction with the Journal of Invertebrate Pathology.

The seven divisions that make up the Society for Invertebrate Pathology (source:

Personally I am the most involved in the Microsporidia division, but have been attending some tremendously interesting talks across all of the divisions!

As my current postdoc work is not focused on pathogens, I presented a poster at this meeting on a side project that I did in 2013 where I surveyed local honey bees for Nosema apis and Nosema ceranae (microsporidia) in Mo’orea and Tahiti, French Polynesia. Below is a clip of my poster!


Some of my favorite talks have ranged from discussing the ‘Pathobiome (discussed briefly in this linked article)‘ to Biological Control of Bed-Bugs using Beauveria bassiana (in video form here) to Nematode behavior and host searching (nematodes are so cool!), to the talks in the symposium featuring Ann Hajek and David Shapiro Ilan’s new book “Ecology of Invertebrate Diseases” with many of the great authors highlighting findings of their specific chapters (release date is November 2017!).  I also of course enjoyed hearing all of the famous microsporidian researchers discuss their work in the Microsporidian Symposium, including the work of four microsporidian researchers I hadn’t met in person prior to the meeting: Charles Vossbrinck and his work on the phylogenetics of microsporidia, Joe Maddox, John Henry (his work on the biological control of grasshoppers with Nosema locustae) and Louis Weiss’s work on human microsporidia (and of course on the similarities/differences to microsporidia in invertebrates). Here is the full meeting program from this year.

Most of the participating Microsporidian researchers after our symposium

I also attended a workshop on RNAseq and Bioinformatics on Monday evening, and learned about the wonderful online GUI platform: Galaxy. This is a great platform to upload your RNAseq data and to do bioinformatics WITHOUT ANY CODING! WOW!

As the Student and Postdoctoral Chair for SIP, I was also responsible this year for organizing the youtube video contest (see all the winners here!), and the workshops and meetings for the students and postdocs. For the Student Workshop this year, we had a workshop on Science Communication- including how to work with the press and media, giving an elevator talk, and using social media to your advantage. (If you are interested- you can read more about some tips for science communication here). Then for the student business meeting, all of the students and postdocs (myself included) discussed what they would like to see in future SIP meetings (workshops on career opportunities, and scientific writing seemed to be the most popular requests!).

It was fun interacting with all of the students and postdocs, but definitely resulted in a busier conference than I’ve ever had before… it was difficult to get in my workouts- but nevertheless I succeeded with fitting some short workouts in and still have my ~ 10 year streak going (haven’t missed a day since Oct. 2007.. and that was because I was on a plane to New Zealand for almost 24 hours…)…

The other awesome part about this conference is that every year we spend half of a day going on group excursions. This year we went to the San Diego Zoo (and some folks did the Midway Excursion) – and it was a great chance to catch up with other researchers about both life and science!

In addition, every night we have social events ranging from a BBQ (this year there was no BBQ meat though which was funny- but we had fantastic tacos!), A Welcome Banquet and a Goodbye Banquet with Dancing (the last night is always the best!).

We also have a 5K run/walk every year- which I  usually attend but this year I stayed at a friend’s house a bit far away from the conference and couldn’t manage to get up early enough for that… ha (5:30am wake up I think not!).

And with that, I look forward to next year’s SIP conference in Australia (I’m trying to research potential fellowships for that as I will not have my current fellowship at this time next year).