The role of universities in transforming the plastics economy
Plastics are used in every area of our lives. While they’re cost effective and durable, approximately 11 metric tons of plastic ends up in our oceans every year. And plastic has another, less visible, environmental impact — climate change.
The New Statesman’s Global Policy Forum: A Sustainable Recovery on on 9 February 2021 convened leaders from politics, business and international organisations for a virtual conference about the world’s urgent sustainability challenges: the climate crisis and sustainable growth.
The University of Portsmouth’s sponsored session on ‘Transforming the Plastics Economy for a Sustainable Future’ brought together a panel of experts, listed below, to discuss the issue and explore the role that universities play alongside business and government in shaping the sustainability agenda.
There was unanimous agreement that universities play a crucial role, broadly categorised in three key areas.
- Steve Fletcher, Professor of Ocean Policy and Economy and Director of Sustainability and the Environment Research Theme, University of Portsmouth
- Cesar Sanches, Director of Strategic Marketing and Sustainability, Valgroup - one of the world’s largest manufacturers and recyclers of plastic
- Nathan Wrench, Head of Innovation for Sustainability, Cambridge Consultants
- Roisin Greene, Engagement Lead, Global Plastics Action Partnership, World Economic Forum
- Chair: Marina Leiva, Senior Reporter, Investment Monitor
Collaboration and sharing knowledge“No single sector, no single organisation can tackle systemic challenges alone,” said Roisin Greene, Engagement Lead for the Global Plastics Action Partnership at the World Economic Forum. Working together, bringing the best leaders from all areas of academia, public sector, private sector, civil society is key. “Only when looking at things through this systemic lens can we really tackle the sticky issue of plastic waste and pollution,” she added.
Roisin praised the University’s collaborative approach, commenting “it's great to see a range of initiatives in Revolution Plastics bringing global initiatives together on the ground and turning those commitments into local action.”
No single sector, no single organisation can tackle systemic challenges alone. Only when looking at things through this systemic lens can we really tackle the sticky issue of plastic waste and pollution
Cesar Sanches, Director of Strategic Marketing and Sustainability at Valgroup, shared this view, adding that the research being undertaken in Portsmouth can set examples to be replicated in other locations across the globe. Cesar acknowledged the value of universities in being able to provide advice, knowledge and networking opportunities, but also in supporting the development of new technologies. “Universities can help us in the private sector—but more broadly, society—to develop solutions that can be scaled up and adopted.”
Supporting sustainability in the private sector
Universities are independent organisations and as such, they can challenge established norms and assumptions and support new thinking. Cesar elaborated “we now understand what we have to do — to eliminate plastic pollution, to reduce emissions — and universities are really the institutions to help us in the private sector to accomplish that”.
Nathan Wrench, Head of Innovation for Sustainability at Cambridge Consultants, echoed the other panellists. He commented on the ability of academia to ‘spread the net wide’ and facilitate collaboration across borders and between highly disparate organisations. “That’s something that you can't really get within the private sector alone, or even within a single territory or country,” he said.
Universities can help in so many ways — to develop policies, to develop networks but also to develop our talents, Cesar said. He concluded “In my opinion, science and education are the foundations of a prosperous society... universities have a very important role in helping talents to achieve their full vocation so that we can create a better future.”
We now understand what we have to do—to eliminate plastic pollution, to reduce emissions—and universities are really the institutions to help us in the private sector to accomplish that.
Data, evidence and actionable researchSteve Fletcher, Professor of Ocean Policy and Economy at the University of Portsmouth, emphasised how universities are drivers of change through the influence of their research and innovation activity. “Universities bring an evidence base, a driver of innovation, to the issue of ‘how do we tackle the plastic problem?’,” he said.
As a product developer and technology consultant helping companies work with next generation products, Nathan Wrench outlined two specific areas where academic research is most helpful. Firstly, the primary research into the properties of materials and the principles behind, for example, molecular recycling. And secondly, the collation of trends and data as an input to the decision making in industry.
Drawing upon her work with the Global Plastic Action Partnership, Roisin explained how evidence is fundamental to their work and national partnerships. “Without data we’re hoping that we're choosing the right decisions... being able to use data as that baseline is just crucial to our work.”
Solving any systemic challenge, such as plastic pollution, requires robust decision making, which must be grounded in data. Academics play an important role as neutral experts, bringing an independent and very thorough review, Roisin explained.
Without data we’re hoping that we're choosing the right decisions... being able to use data as that baseline is just crucial to our work.
Cesar added “When you look at how to tackle plastic pollution, you can recycle, you can reuse and reduce but there is still part of the problem that we don’t have a solution yet. We need universities to work with us to try and find solutions, to develop new policies or regulation, so we can create opportunities for new investments”. Academia has an important role in early stage innovations where it can be difficult for businesses to bring in the investment required and scale up different solutions, Roisin added.
A shared agenda and the confidence to act
Involving universities at an early stage when tackling particular challenges can help to build a shared research and innovation agenda. The University of Portsmouth prides itself on actionable research. “In a sense, that’s really what our Revolution Plastics initiative is all about,” Professor Fletcher explained, “trying to line up those agendas and make sure that collectively we can make a significant difference to what is an extremely challenging problem around plastics and sustainability.”
This point resonated with Roisin, “As a forum we talk about this being the ‘decade for delivery’ and we really need to move quite quickly to tackle the challenge of plastic — how they integrate with climate, with food, with so many other different things”. It's about connecting the dots in the very interconnected world we live in. Commenting on the importance of actionable research, Roisin added “How can we shift from talking into action, from commitments into real solutions, and how can we scale those up rapidly? Universities are in a great position to drive a lot of that work.”
Acknowledging the often slow progress of global policy making, Professor Fletcher explained that by adopting an evidence-based approach, universities can give others the confidence to act. Research can demonstrate how and why certain approaches work, such as community engagement projects underpinned by behavioural science. He concludes “universities are really well placed to bring that sort of evidence to the table and unlock action in the context of the multiple global challenges around the transition towards a sustainable recovery”.
By adopting an evidence-based approach, universities can give others the confidence to act. Research can demonstrate how and why certain approaches work.
Informing policy and legislation“Regulation is a powerful driver of innovation,” Nathan Wrench explained. “For every company that is arguing against environmental change that is being echoed in legislation, there are market leaders who welcome the fact that they are being required to innovate in order to design out these problems”. Consumers and recipients of regulations want to see that legislation is evidence based and sufficient for the challenge we’re facing.
Research can provide this evidence-base to inform policy making. Professor Fletcher remarked “in the plastics space in particular there is a lot of heat but not always a lot of light around what works and what doesn’t work with respect to policy interventions.” To address this, the University of Portsmouth is currently in the process of setting up a global plastics policy hub, thanks to funding from the Flotilla Foundation.
The research hub will examine what types of policy work to alleviate issues associated with plastic. This will provide a fresh, independent eye to the debate and an evidence base for governments and industries to draw upon to inform policy making. What's more, this will give the public the opportunity to scrutinise their government and ask if they could be doing better with respect to policies on plastic.
Regulation is a powerful driver of innovation. For every company that is arguing against environmental change that is being echoed in legislation, there are market leaders who welcome the fact that they are being required to innovate in order to design out these problems.
Collective action on plastics
Plastic pollution is very much a global issue but at the same time it's very local — a lot of the work happens at a municipal level, Roisin added. Action is required on many different levels simultaneously, both globally and regionally. This is especially when you’re looking at transboundary movements of plastic. “It's about diving deep while keeping that broad mindset”, she continued. That’s where different policy interventions come in. But also considering whether there’s a need for a global plastics treaty and how that ladders down.
“There's not a single innovation or a single policy that will address these needs”, Roisin added. But by looking at it from a systems approach, backed up with data, you’re able to see which interventions might have the most impact... and how to help governments and others to prioritise activities”. The only way you can achieve that is through collaboration, evidence and bringing everybody to the table. “This is a tricky problem and it's one that we have to solve collectively.”
It's all about context, Professor Fletcher commented. “We’re in a challenging position globally speaking — there’s the biodiversity crisis, there’s a pollution crisis which includes plastics and, of course, the climate crisis. We’re not talking about a theoretical debate at some point in the future. We’re living it. We’re in it now. And so the responses that we’ve just been talking about — around bringing universities into this debate — it’s something for now, not something for the future”.
For further information about the event and to watch the recorded sessions, visit the New Statesman and Spotlight’s Global Policy Forum: A Sustainable Recovery.