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Tuesday Teardown: The Word is Plastics

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.