People, Planet, Profit in the Digital Age: With or without petrochemistry and plastics?

On Monday 17th of July 2017 I had the pleasure of descending upon London with my boss and CEO of Interactive Scientific, Dr. Rebecca Sage. The mission we had chosen to accept: presenting a convincing argument for the continued use of plastics and petrochemistry in the digital age.

At the first mention of plastics my nose turns up. 5 days ago you couldn’t have convinced me of one positive use of plastics, but a couple of days of researching and a few honest conversations have persuaded something different within me. The key lesson: engaging in the conversation (for or against the system) beats ignorance every time.

The Imperial College London was hosting the British Finals of the European Youth Debating Competition. The prize: a chance at the European Finals in Berlin this Autumn. We arrived around 1pm to a group of individuals well placed in the petrochemical industry who were acting as judges for the day. This included 2016’s winner of EYDC Caroline Gakpetor; who humbly informed me later that there seemed to be more judges this year, before wishing luck to all the students taking part.

EPCA is the European Petrochemical Association and they host the EYDC. 2016 marked their 50th anniversary. EPCA ‘is the quality network in Europe for the global chemical business community.’ Their areas of expertise include Diversity & Inclusion, Education and Logistics. I have recently watched their 2015 film named ‘Petro & Chemistry: Partnership for a better life’ and can honestly say it is the first time a future prospect of our world regarding science has left me feeling positive and excited. I highly suggest you give it a watch if you can.

Turns out we had arrived half way through the day, before the debate began, the morning had consisted of briefings and debate-training for the students. Opening the debate was a 10 minute presentation from each sides of the argument. Dr. Sage presented the argument for the use of petrochemistry in the digital age. Both opening statements were fair and convincing, placing me on the fence. The debate had a rigid timetable of 5 rounds: containing a point for each side of the argument and 5 or more points from free speakers who could choose whether or not to support the use of plastics. Each statement was cut to 1 minute; we had some interesting moments where the bell would ring impatiently waiting for students to stop talking or the mic would be deliberately taken from the student so desperate to finish. This may seem abrupt but it pushed speakers to be concise, deliberate and disciplined in the art of debating.

The winner would be decided based on their ability to express themselves, their knowledge of the debate subject, their persuasiveness and ability to interact with others. Based on these criteria the chosen winner was well placed, speaking multiple times and even expressing views in rap which was met with the largest applause so far that afternoon.

During the debate I found myself as expected favouring the points against the use of plastics. Interestingly, before the day I expected to align best with any student speaking about the use of materials other than plastics, whilst simultaneously arguing the wrong doing of the entire petrochemical industry. There was one such student and I was not truly engaged as the statement became comical and lacked reasoning. I instead found myself most aligned with statements regarding a balance of both arguments, whilst favouring changes that ensure everyone benefits. The student who best portrayed this came third place saying ‘the world is a small place, think about that for moment.’

I argue that there is a third stance; I shall knight it ‘balance’, where we open the conversation up to find that ‘sweet spot’ where people, planet and profit collide to create a positive change for all living things.