Winning team in first Ocean Plastic Pollution Challenge proposes barring single-use plastics at large events

Team SDZero won the first Ocean Plastic Pollution Challenge.
Team SDZero, whose plan is for the city of San Diego to institute a policy change prohibiting single-use plastics at large events, won the inaugural Ocean Plastic Pollution Challenge.
(Courtesy of Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

To address the daunting task of reducing the flow of plastic into the ocean, UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Rady School of Management named a winner of the inaugural Ocean Plastic Pollution Challenge during an online ceremony June 8.

Team SDZero, whose plan is for the city of San Diego to institute a policy change prohibiting single-use plastics at large events, took top honors and will meet with mentors to try to bring the idea to fruition.

The Ocean Plastic Pollution Challenge started in January as an accelerator program focused on identifying effective, evidence-based approaches to curb the flow of plastic into the ocean, with a specific focus on marine conservation and cultural preservation areas along California’s coast. Twenty-nine finalists (from an applicant pool of more than 300) engaged in a series of virtual short courses, conducted research to fill gaps in solving the plastic issue, such as policy solutions and human behavior, and competed in a final two-day challenge to pitch potential solutions to a panel of experts.

During an introductory video, challenge co-director Ayelet Gneezy said: “One of the challenges when you work on the problem of plastic pollution is, the more you learn about it, the more overwhelming it can become. So you realize how big a problem it is, how much has already been [tried] to curb it, which can be extremely overwhelming for anyone, especially for someone trying to fix a problem. … It was important for us to find the right people.”

The challenge assembled UC San Diego students, alumni, community partners and ocean leaders representing 10 states and five countries. Working in five teams, they produced five different proposed solutions.

With the win, Team SDZero earned a coaching session with Gwen Nero, Scripps Oceanography’s director of corporate affiliates, business development, industry outreach and innovation, to talk about strategies for the winning proposal.

Team SD Zero representatives said they propose a policy change for the city that uses the leverage of event permitting to prohibit single-use plastics at large events. The intent is to start small to prove the concept and refine implementation and then expand to other events and food service businesses. The events would need to be free of single-use plastics or the organizers would pay a fine and undergo training. Through a business accelerator program, monetary support would be available to help host organizations transition to the new mandates.

Calling the proposal “elegant,” Nero said, “You proposed a policy change that aligns with existing municipal goals [and] provides the city a phased process to put their plastic waste goals into a reality.”

Other projects included creating a new bond measure to move corporate dollars to address solutions on a large scale; establishing a “plastic patrol” campaign of fifth-graders in local schools to reduce plastic at the schools and their communities; assembling a coalition to reduce plastic use with representation from throughout San Diego; and innovating sensor technology for trash and recycling bins at area beaches to collect data about plastic and trash accumulation.

“We were incredibly impressed with all five teams, and deliberations were intense. Each of you should be commended for your thoughtful, innovative strategies that were developed in just 48 hours,” Nero told the contestants.

Upon hearing that Team SDZero was the winner, team member Lauren Hackney, an MBA candidate at the Rady School of Management, said, “I think we’re all a little shocked right now.”

One of the team members could not participate in the ceremony due to being in London, where it was 1 a.m. at the time.

Gneezy said the idea wasn’t “flashy” or “mind-blowing” but demonstrated “an understanding of the complexity of the problem. It involves many actors, many players, many that care about it, some that don’t, many that don’t know what to do about it … instilling in us how important it is to approach problems, especially complex problems, with a complex, interdisciplinary approach.” ◆