Q&As bury your treasure. Your research-based treasure — your ideas, frameworks and solutions — that we need to solve wicked problems.
But sometimes — especially if the platform is high-profile enough — a Q&A might provide an essential push to a researcher’s public authority as well. You just can’t rest on the Q&A alone.
Great example of buried treasure in a Q&A: McKinsey & Company’s interview with Rachel Meidl on what we should do about plastics and plastic waste. Meidl is the energy and environment fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute and a former member of the Obama Administration.
The world desperately needs fresh thinking on what to do about plastic waste — what, with 8 million tons of it pouring into the oceans annually. The intro to the McKinsey Q&A promises that, “because [Meidl’s] preference is to take a lifecycle perspective — that is, measuring all environmental effects from production through disposal — her conclusions can be unorthodox to the point of controversial.”
Indeed they are. But in the 1,950-word McKinsey Q&A, you really have to work to get at them and keep them straight. Which is, of course, the problem with Q&As: it’s hard to direct a conversation to be as pointed and coherent as tight opinion content. So it’s hard to keep our attention as well.
The tl;dr version of Meidl’s key insights from the McKinsey interview goes something like this:
- We have a lot of scientific and data gaps about the impacts of plastics on ecosystems and human health — chief among them, global standardized approaches to scientific and analytic methodologies and risk assessments. Without those standardized approaches, any study you read about plastics might not be valid globally.
- We also don’t understand the unintended consequences and tradeoffs of plastic alternatives, including whether they’re actually worse for climate change and food security.
- Five Asian countries account for about 50% of the plastic in the oceans; ten river systems globally (eight in Asia, two in Africa) transport over 90% of the plastic that it is in the sea. If we’re going to address ocean plastic pollution, we need to address these sources — but we need solutions that will work with these countries’ infrastructures, not with those of more advanced economies.
- Thinking about plastics as “waste” is counterproductive because it devalues plastics and removes them from a circular economy approach of recover and remanufacture. “The point,” Meidl says, “is to have plastics enter and remain in the economy as a valuable commodity or energy source.”
- China’s ban on importing plastic waste has exposed the lack of global systems thinking and investment in innovative life-cycle approaches around plastic. The plastic waste flow has shifted to countries like India, which mismanages 85% of its waste — not optimal.
- Bans on plastic straws and single-use bags in high-income countries won’t impact this global mismanagement of plastics. Furthermore, these bans aren’t informed by clear goals such as marine health or climate change.
- The tremendous business opportunities in recycling plastics will only happen when we make the paradigm shift from considering plastics as waste to plastics as a resource.
Those seven points provide a set of interlocking themes from which Meidl can make trenchant arguments about how to approach plastics as a global problem and opportunity. And, in fact, a Google search reveals she’s starting to do that: in essays for the Houston Chronicle (on banning plastic straws and single-use bags) and Forbes (on China’s nationwide plastics ban) as well as a source for media.
We’re going to be seeing Meidl’s larger theme — product-based solutions vs. system-based solutions — across a number of environmental issues (such as water) in the next decade.
It’s unclear from the outside how much the McKinsey Q&A crystallized Meidl’s thinking as well as elevated her visibility and gave her opportunities such as the Houston Chronicle piece.
What is clear: her thinking was already there. But a long Q&A alone isn’t going to launch your themes. You have to launch them yourself — as Meidl is doing — by continuing to generate more content.