Will solutions to the plastic crisis come from academia-industry collaboration? (key talking points)

On Wednesday 26th January, we ran our online ‘green carpet’ event, a conversation with three experts from academia and industry to discuss research collaborations and partnerships, and what role they can play to find solutions to the plastic crisis. This was the grand finale in our Virtual Series, which ran alongside our Global Challenge campaign, looking to uncover novel sustainable plastics innovations to tackle the plastic crisis, through university-industry partnerships.

You can access the recording of the event via our new dedicated webinars webpage. Feel free to share it with any colleagues who might find it useful.

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An introduction from our panellists – what is your organisation doing to find solutions to the plastic crisis?

The first panellist to speak was Professor Andrew Dove, Professor of Sustainable Polymer Chemistry at the University of Birmingham, where he focuses on degradation processes of polymers. Professor Dove is part of the Birmingham Plastics Network, an interdisciplinary team of more than 40 academics working together to shape the sustainable future of plastics.

The challenges surrounding plastics have changed a lot over the last 15 years, and Andrew stressed that a redefinition of priorities is needed. We didn’t know that the disposal and degradation of plastics would be such a prevalent issue as it is today. Over the last few years, there has been a surge of attention drawn to the global impacts of plastic debris in oceans, which is having a knock-on effect on consumer behaviour, legislation, and industry R&D trends – a phenomenon dubbed the ‘Blue Planet effect’. However, Andrew said that we need to accept that plastics are here to stay: they are incredibly useful and could even be a part of the solution for a sustainable future. 

Professor Rachael Rothman is a Professor of Sustainable Chemical Engineering and the Co-Director for the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures at the University of Sheffield. Her specialities include the circular economy, plastic life cycle assessments, and redefining single-use plastic. She emphasised the importance of considering existing recycling infrastructure when considering any new alternative plastic materials. If manufacturers move towards bio-based, biodegradable, or compostable polymers without the proper infrastructure to sustainably recycle these materials, these could end up being just as problematic as conventional plastics.

Martin Weber is an entrepreneur and co-founder of one.five, a co-owned sustainable materials discovery and scale-up platform based in Hamburg, Germany. One.five is a company that positions itself at the intersection of academia and industry, in a way that incentivises young scientists to get buy-in with the company through a co-operative ownership model, scientist in residence programs, and research funding. From Martin’s experience of working with larger companies, there needs to be a large shift in the mindsets of big industry players in the plastic packaging space that have been complacent until now. 

Key talking points

What are the benefits of university-industry collaborations in generating new solutions to the plastic crisis?

Andrew said that what he enjoys about working with industry is the problem-solving element: industry is looking for solutions to particular problems that they have identified, and academics can rise to the challenge. 

Rachael added that collaborations allow industry and academics to define their aims for a project together for more effective partnerships. In her experience, companies want to do the right thing with regards to reducing plastic waste, but in some cases the technical solution to do that might not exist yet, providing opportunities for academics.

The problem of scale

All of our panellists agreed that one of the big challenges in university-industry collaborations is the ‘milligram to kilogram gap’, which is the gap in scale between what can be achieved in a laboratory environment, versus a commercial manufacturing environment.

University vs industry pull: who should lead development?

All of our panellists agreed that some level of co-development is ideal when it comes to academic-industry partnerships. Andrew explained that plastics producers need to understand the future of sustainable polymers, meaning that these solutions can’t be confined to a university laboratory. Martin believes that scientists already have the solutions required to solve the plastics problem, and there are now challenges to bridge the gap between scouting and solutions, which he proposed could be addressed using machine learning. 

Highlights from the Q&A 

Following on from these insightful discussions, we hosted a live Q&A session with an audience of over 90 people who tuned in to the live webinar. 

We received numerous questions from the audience, covering topics ranging from plastic taxes to large public and privately funded multi-institutional collaborations between academia and industry to find solutions to the plastic crisis.

How do we create a large multi-institutional collaboration between academia and industry (for example, to scale-up prospective new plastics) that is attractive enough to secure a lot of government and industry funding? – David Hobson, University of Guelph

Rachael started off by referencing the UK Plastic Packaging Fund, which she said has done a good job of bringing together academics, and small and large businesses with this targeted stream of funding to address the plastic crisis through developing smart sustainable plastics – she said it’s a great start but we need to progress further. Andrew pointed out that packaging makes up only 40% of plastic produced, and so focussing only on plastic packaging will not solve the end-of-life problems we have. The problem, he said, is that these projects aren’t going back to address the systemic issue of our relationships with plastics.

Martin is sceptical about the efficacy of public consortia and legislation as solutions to the plastic crisis. According to Martin, a more effective approach would be to mount more pressure on industry, and part of this pressure will come from younger tech-based companies disrupting the bigger, established companies: incumbents will be heavily disrupted with the threat of bankruptcy if they do not overhaul their strategy, as consumer perspectives on plastics shift.

What kind of legislation is being pushed and drafted to force the big chemical companies (that have billions in revenue coming in) to step up and make the facilities that we academics (not making billions in revenue) need to scale up some of the technology that has been developed as potential replacements for materials like PE? – Mariel Price, Colorado State University 

Andrew referenced an ongoing inquiry into plastic waste in the UK Parliament that he and Rachael gave evidence on, which is raising big questions on how to tax plastic waste. But he also mentioned the limitations with this approach, as the UK is just one relatively small country, while the plastic pollution crisis is very much on a global scale, requiring global-scale solutions, especially including countries with greater pull such as the United States. 

Regarding a plastic tax, Rachael said that taxation revenues have the opportunity to drive innovation (for example, taxing plastic waste through extended producer responsibility), but that this can also be driven by low carbon/net-zero incentives. However, this raises questions on whether you’re prioritising reducing plastic waste or carbon footprint. Additionally, she raised the question of whether fossil-based plastics should be taxed more than bio-based: this way biobased could become cheaper comparatively and become a more viable alternative.

Martin emphasised that legislation needs to be transparent. He said that the impact of such taxation will be revealed in the balance sheets of plastics companies, and so should be made publicly available, to be able to see how effective this approach is.

Watch the full conversation through our new dedicated webinars page.

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Image credit: Naja Bertolt-Jensen


What is a Global Challenges campaign?

Check out our brand new Global Challenges webpage! Browse previous global challenges campaigns, including our open calls for research addressing Covid-19. 

In the spring of 2020, we launched our first Global Challenge campaign (formerly named an ‘open call for research’), where 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 prioritised dissemination of these technologies to industry teams with aligned interests, to help rapidly deploy interventions against the pandemic. Through this Global Challenge campaign, we facilitated more than 60 introductions between universities and relevant industry R&D professionals. We ran a second open call for Covid-related research in the spring of 2021, creating further connections. 

This time around, we are building on the success of these campaigns and turning our focus to sustainable plastics, polymers, and alternatives.

Read more about the most recent Global Challenge campaign on sustainable plastics, including more information on the R&D priorities from all the companies who participated in our Virtual Series.

Read our Global Challenges FAQ for more information.

Written by Anabel Bennett. Edited by Jake Mitchell and Alex Stockham.

Copyrights reserved unless otherwise agreed – IN-PART Publishing Ltd., 2022: ‘Will solutions to the plastic crisis come from academia-industry collaboration? (key talking points)’ 


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