How should academia and industry tackle the plastic pollution crisis?
Plastics are here to stay. Since their introduction to the market in the early 20th century, plastics have become an essential material for the manufacture, transportation, storage, and marketing of products such as personal care items, medical devices, food packaging, pharmaceuticals, and electronics. However, the impressive durability of plastics that makes them so convenient has led to a global crisis of plastic waste.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, half of all plastic produced is designed for single-use purposes – used just once and then thrown away. It is estimated that 75 to 199 million tonnes of plastic are currently found in our oceans, with about 300 million tonnes of plastic waste produced every year. That’s nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population.
We understand that in order to deal with the crisis of plastic pollution, we need to address both the technical and big-picture challenges. And ultimately, this is a global challenge that requires innovative changes across all levels of the value chain: whether that is manufacturing bio-based plastics as alternatives to fossil-fuel derived conventional plastics, to improving and expanding recycling infrastructure to ensure we can achieve a truly circular economy.
The Global Challenge campaign that we ran through the winter of 2021 aimed to bring the academia-industry community together to generate new solutions to the global plastics crisis. Through the campaign, we heard in-depth the current issues surrounding the life cycle of plastic from the perspective of industry R&D experts, academics, and technology transfer professionals.
What have we learned from academia and industry about the plastic pollution crisis?
Through the virtual event series we hosted alongside this Global Challenge campaign, we spoke to leading players in the plastics industry (PepsiCo, Avient, one.five, and Dow) and discussed their R&D and external innovation priorities. Through these ‘industry exposition’ events alone, we initiated 18 new conversations between attendees from academia, and our industry panellists. We summarised the R&D needs of these companies, the research submissions that received the most attention from industry, as well as many other valuable data insights in our sustainable plastics white paper.
For the second event in our Virtual Series we spoke to three technology transfer and knowledge transfer professionals from across Europe: Samuela Franceschini (Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia), Helder Lopes (Universidade Nova de Lisboa) and Jack Tasker (University of Birmingham). We learned how they have supported sustainable plastic collaborations between academics and companies to address the plastic pollution crisis.
We rounded off the campaign with our ‘green carpet’ event, to discuss the question ‘Can the plastics crisis be solved through academia-industry partnerships?’ with a panel of industry and academic experts.
Through the campaign, we found that recycling technologies (both mechanical and advanced) were commonly mentioned by our industry panellists as a research priority area. While innovative breakdown methods and recycling technologies were submitted to the campaign by universities, the most common category of technologies submitted was biobased alternative materials.
And through the virtual event series, we learned that the technical solutions to the plastics crisis may already have been discovered in university laboratories, and there are now challenges to bridge the gap between scouting and solutions. Additionally, improving awareness of research commercialisation and technology transfer amongst academics, as well as strengthening relationships between technology transfer offices (TTOs) in universities and academics, could be the key to bringing sustainable plastics solutions to solve the plastics pollution crisis in the real world.
Speaking the same language: how can academia and industry communicate better?
While the campaign facilitated many meaningful university-industry interactions, is it possible for academia and industry to better communicate their interests and priorities to each other on a broader scale?
In our 2022 annual survey, we asked our industry, academic, and TTO communities the same question: “If you could improve one thing about the relationship between industry and academia, what would it be?”. Out of our industry audience, 20% of respondents said the main thing they would improve would be better communication between industry and academia. A further 19% said the main thing they would improve would be for academia to better understand industry needs.
When the same question was asked of academics, 23% of respondents said the main thing they would improve would be more engagement from industry in academia. 18% said the main thing they would like to see was improved communication between industry and academia, including sharing expectations for collaborations.
As many within the industry-academia research ecosystem will know, improving communication and honestly sharing expectations between stakeholders is not always a straightforward task.
In the virtual series of events, university-industry collaborations and sponsored research were hot topics. Many panellists from both academia and industry said some level of co-development is ideal when it comes to academic-industry partnerships. As Professor Andrew Dove said in our final panel event, academia cannot solve the plastic crisis alone without industry know-how, capital, and manufacturing capability. And industry is unlikely to solve it alone without access to the knowledge from academia.
How do we tackle ‘throwaway culture’ with plastics?
It’s clear that we need to change the way we make plastics, especially single-use plastic packaging, but also we need to rethink the way we use plastic on a day-to-day basis. One of our panellists for our green carpet event was Professor Rachael Rothman, a Professor of Sustainable Chemical Engineering and the Co-Director for the multidisciplinary Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield.
One of their current research projects that Rachael mentioned is working to tackle ‘throwaway culture’. Through this project, academics from disciplines from chemical engineering to psychology are working together to research and propose technical solutions for reducing plastic waste by exploring reusable packaging solutions. In addition, they are employing social science methods to look at how research can help businesses and consumers to change their relationship to plastic, to encourage re-use rather than single-use. To achieve this aim, academics are also working together with industry through this project, including Morrisons, Co-op, packaging manufacturer Berry Global, and zero-waste store Unpackaged.
The plastics industry has insight into consumer behaviour that is not as easily accessible to academia. This understanding of behaviour is crucial if we are going to achieve a meaningful shift from throwaway culture. Together with technical sustainable plastic solutions, this fully integrated approach, with a plan for implementation using industry know-how, is the way forward to embed sustainability at all stages of the plastics lifecycle.
Where do we go from here?
Through this Sustainable Plastics Global Challenge campaign, we started 64 new conversations between teams in academia and industry in total (81% of which were international). These will hopefully accelerate the development and deployment of new technologies and innovations to tackle the global plastic crisis. Further insight about these conversations, and a full breakdown of the outcomes of this campaign can be found in our white paper on sustainable plastics research trends.
Our first Global Challenge campaign (formerly named an ‘open call for research’) was launched in the spring of 2020. We reached out to all the universities and academics in our extended global network to share with us research at their institute addressing Covid-19. We ran a second open call for Covid-related research in the spring of 2021, creating further connections. At the end of this campaign, we speculated whether the response to Covid-19 could help address other global challenges. And so following this Sustainable Plastics Global Challenge, we will be launching a new Global Challenge campaign in the Spring of 2022.
Our upcoming Global Challenges campaign will follow on from this sustainable plastics campaign, by seeking academic research and innovation to address water pollution and treat wastewater. We hope that by exploring further environmental challenges we will build on the successes of our sustainable plastics campaign.
On the plastic pollution crisis, there is hope for the future. On 2nd March 2022, representatives from 175 nations endorsed a historic resolution at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) in Nairobi to End Plastic Pollution and forge an international legally binding agreement by 2024. The resolution addresses the full lifecycle of plastic, including its production, design and disposal. We hope that the research innovations developed by universities and industry R&D will be a part of reaching these ambitious targets to end plastic pollution.
Image credit: Michael Dziedzic / Unsplash
Written by Anabel Bennett. Edited by Jake Mitchell and Alex Stockham.
Copyrights reserved unless otherwise agreed – IN-PART Publishing Ltd., 2022: ‘How should academia and industry tackle the plastic pollution crisis?’
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