“Industry is often blamed for environmental problems such as plastic waste and climate change,” the article reads. “Some people openly see such collaborations as academics ‘selling out’ and industrials ‘buying’ scientific results…It’s time for the sustainability field to leave these outdated views behind. Plastics are here to stay — they can be replaced by other materials for some applications, but not all. The enormous use of personal protective equipment and disposable food and drink containers and utensils during the Covid-19 pandemic provided an illustration. What matters is which plastics are used and what their fate is at the end of their life. Materials must be identified that are sustainably sourced, meet the approval and rising demand of consumers, and have acceptable end-of-life scenarios, thereby enabling a more-circular economy,” the authors argued.
“The plastic industry has certainly had a role in the current plastic pollution crisis, but so has consumers’ unchecked demand for plastic goods. Although some uses of plastic are out of their hands (such as the packaging of products), consumers can, to some extent, control the amount of goods they purchase and how they manage their waste (for example, by not littering). And the lag in adopting legislation to help curb plastic pollution has also played a part. Plastics were first detected in the ocean more than 50 years ago, incidentally by scientists working at WHOI, yet a global treaty to enable a circular economy and to limit the leakage of plastic waste into the environment is only now being negotiated,” they continued.
The scientists shared five tips to build successful partnerships between industry and academia:
Foster trust and free communication
“The sooner sensitive topics (such as the publication of findings, holder of intellectual property and oversight models) are discussed, the more successful the partnership will be,” the scientists advise.
Keep an open mind
Academics are not the biggest fans of monthly meetings and constant reporting, but this group found that meeting regularly improved communications and helped both partners to learn what was most valuable to the project, for example.
Adjust the metrics for academic success
An industry-partnership may not be a key goal for a lot of early-career researchers, who are focused on getting permanent positions, but the value and impact of research goes beyond peer-reviewed publications, the scientists argue.
Reimagine funding models
“We recommend that scalability be a key criterion considered by the [Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships at the US national Science Foundation] and by other programmes with similar strategic goals (such as the Alliance to End Plastic Waste).”
Invest, don’t divest
“Common divestment arguments suggest that industry funds academic research to shape the findings to its benefit, or to persuade the public that, although manufacturers are investing in change, they continue to reap the profits (often referred to as greenwashing). Although this might be true for some collaborations, it points back to our first recommendation: form partnerships that you trust. These concerns are furthest from the truth for us. In our experience, the scale and interwoven nature of the plastic pollution problem has necessitated collaboration, leading to rapid, interdisciplinary discoveries that would be unachievable by working independently,” the academics concluded.