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Ocean Plastic Adobe Stock plastic bottles in water

Ocean Plastic Innovations: MBA Students Evaluate Options

University of Chicago project team examines innovations that would help decrease the volume of plastics entering oceans.

Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to interface with instructors and students at various packaging schools and related universities. In every instance I’ve been impressed by the students’ knowledge, enthusiasm for the subject, and drive to learn more.

It’s been a while since I’ve had that experience, but the drought ended in the last two weeks when I was contacted by an MBA candidate at a university about 20 miles away, Sarah Presant, who sought to learn more about ocean plastics. Presant is enrolled in a social innovation class at the University of Chicago Booth of Business and is part of a group that’s focused on identifying potential solutions for ocean plastics, with the goal of identifying organizations for a potential grant or investment. 

After she and her colleague interviewed me posing intelligent, probing and at times unexpected questions during a stimulating hour of discussion, I turned the tables and proposed a Q&A interview about their research.

Here’s what I learned from Ms. Presant, not only for the informational benefit of the PlasticsToday audience, but also because the group welcomes hearing from subject matter experts as soon as possible. You’ll find more about that below and along with contact information at the end.

The project was sparked by an elective, Scaling Social Innovations.

Our group is enrolled in an elective class at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business called Scaling Social Innovations,” says Presant. “This topic was one of a few that was selected from a list our professor gave us to study for the quarter.  We all had an interest or passion for the marine plastics space and chose this project area from a list of a projects. I personally have been fascinated with this space since high school.”

Ocean Plastics Innovations team members include clockwise starting top left Sarah Presant, Devyani Gupta, Ariadne Souroutzidis, and Sam Mardyla.

The team seeks to determine the best social innovation to address ocean plastics.

“As a team, we developed an approach to identifying solutions within ocean plastics and the criteria for evaluating them,” says Presant. “A big part of our project is that we need to develop, propose, and present to a philanthropic organization’s leadership (and other experts) the best social innovation to address our sub domain, ocean plastics. Since starting, we’ve narrowed in a bit more to examine innovations targeted at improving the economics of plastics recycling with a goal of decreasing the volume of plastics that could potentially enter oceans, as well as examining innovations focused on improving collection of dumped plastic in coastal areas. Our goal is to identify a handful of innovations, and to suggest the best mechanism by which the innovation could be scaled such as expansion of an existing organization, creation of a new organization, or adoption by an existing institution.”

How they define scalable.

Throughout the course, we’ve talked through both Case Studies and theories on how one defines scalable,” explains Presant. “Rather than focusing on just growth, scaling in the social sector encompasses diffusion of the social impact solution. It could mean that it is capable of growing or increasing the size of the solution or that it could be applicable to other geographies or organizations.

The resources they are tapping.

We’ve reached out to industry experts and stakeholders across the world that we’ve identified relevant to the solutions space including folks in academia, waste and recycling companies, start-ups, and Non-Governmental Organizations,” says Presant. “Every individual we have connected with has been fascinating and helpful as we have learned this space. We’ve been able to get up to speed quickly on the challenges and successes made to date, and uncovered the fact that we have so much more to learn in order to help address this global crisis.

We hope to bring a well-constructed grant or impact investment opportunity to the philanthropic institution that is advising this project in the hopes that they decide to fund the project.

“If you are interested in chatting with us about this topic, we’d love to hear from you as we are looking for a diverse set of perspectives on this topic both inside the plastics industry, and those tangential to it in the for profit and non-profit spaces!”

What she’s learned so far is encouraging news to all.

“Everyone is looking for a panacea, and there’s a lot of interesting innovations and organizations that are partnering in new ways to identify new solutions,” Presant points out. “There’s also a lot of momentum to solve this problem, and a lot of smart and passionate people are looking at it from new angles.”

The most rewarding aspect of the experience is…

Having the chance to uncover all of the exciting new opportunities emerging in this space both bridging non-profit and the for-profit space,” responds Presant.

The project is past the midway point.

Our group is focused on identifying the drivers of plastic pollution and challenges faced by current waste management systems,” says Presant. “In particular, we’ve started focusing on collection systems and improving the economics of existing recycling systems. We're a little over mid-way through the project, and still narrowing in on our focus areas and potential innovations. We have a lot more work ahead!”

The deadline for input is the end of May.

“We are continuing expert interviews for the next few weeks to continue to build up our expertise in the space,” says Presant. “We have until the end of the quarter, which is through the first week of June, to align on our suggestions. We’d love to discuss current challenges, trends, and innovative solutions happening in the plastic recycling space, and we’re eager to talk to anyone who has suggestions for innovations in the space, or that can share their expertise before the end of May so we can include these learnings in our presentation.”

If you have insights into innovations in ocean plastics to share, please contact spresant@chicagobooth.edu or ariadne@chicagobooth.edu

Image: James Thew/Adobe Stock

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