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Where does all the plastic go?

Originally published by University of Essex: https://www.essex.ac.uk/blog/posts/2021/11/29/where-does-all-the-plastic-go

Where does all the plastic go? This was the question on everyone’s lips at the ESRC Festival of Social Science event on Tuesday 2nd November hosted by Dr Danielle Tucker and Zara Babakordi from Essex Business School’s Organisation Studies and Human Resource Management group.

Twenty-five members of the public joined our workshop that aimed to help householders understand their role in the journey of single use plastics into and out of their homes.

Participants were members of the general public with a good amount of knowledge about single use plastic and also related topics like food waste and other climate change issues. Many were active information seekers and involved in local initiatives and campaigns. Even so, they were individuals who had questions and were seeking answers, one of two participants even arrived with items of single-use plastic that were posing particular dilemmas in their homes.

Householders are confused about what could and could not go in the plastic recycling for kerbside collection by local councils. People spoke a lot about the ‘word on the street’ but complained they were often unable to obtain concrete answers to their questions from reliable sources. There was a lot of scepticism about the extent to which kerbside collected plastic is recycled in a meaningful way, and several participants believed that what was collected was just incinerated or sent overseas.

They were collectively attuned to the concept of trade-offs between recycling and the impact on other resources e.g. if we have to wash the plastic so as to not cross-contaminate, then isn’t that a waste of water? And this played a role in their decision-making and practices.

The most common methods that households used to reduce plastic waste shared by participants were:

  • Buying products with plastic packaging that could be recycled
  • Switching to products that were in glass or tin containers
  • Creative repurposing (e.g. craft supplies for children, seed pots)
  • Buying larger/bulk versions of products (e.g. shampoos/body wash/hand wash) and decanting them into smaller bottles
  • Buying multi-use alternatives (e.g. water bottles, soda stream)
  • Growing own vegetables, making own soap, making own yoghurt

Through round-table discussion, the workshop explored some of the hard-truths and myths about single-use plastic in the circular economy. Participants were encouraged to explore the wider journey of single-use plastics before and after they come into their homes. Participants expressed concern that manufacturers were using marketing to create ‘problems’ that consumers never knew they had, that were then solved with single-use plastic products.

Although, there was variety amongst participants in terms of their familiarity with alternative waste disposal strategies such as terracycle.com, they were generally less knowledgeable in terms of what happens to plastic waste once it is collected from our kerbside.

The notion that a whole waste disposal industry exists, consisting of multiple stakeholders who trade in waste products, was new to many participants. We were fortunate to have an employee from the local council as a participant who explained that the council had to be able to cover its costs of collecting / handling recyclable waste. This lead to discussion about why it may not economically viable for them to collect everything. Some participants were aware of the importance of the issue of contamination – that mixing or ‘dirtying’ recyclables with other waste can potentially lead to waste not being able to be recycled, but were unsure what counted as ‘contamination’ and how they should best manage this in their own households.

There were quite a lot of ‘assumptions’. Conversations about why people don’t do things differently or change their habits, revealed perceptions that often this was perceived as a ‘can’t be bothered’ attitude to environmentalism in others. Similarly, notions of ‘it was much better ‘in the past’ because we ate seasonally, shopped locally and we shouldn’t use ‘convenience’ as an excuse, were prevalent. Through our discussions we explored how these assumptions might be problematic. Through discussing with other householders from different circumstances, participants recognised that a lot of their solutions required time, money, access, and independent initiative, that wouldn’t be feasible for many people. For example, models of the past rely on gendered stereotypes of household dynamics where one person goes out to work (usually a man), and one person stays home to prepare food/grow vegetables/shop at a variety of shops to optimise ideal household decision making (usually portrayed as a woman).

Overall, participants were passionate and engaged, but also confused and frustrated by their previous experiences with managing plastic waste. This stemmed from a lack of consistency and easily accessible information. They looked at the symbols on packaging but then were frustrated by labels such as “widely recycled”. People want a way of being heard by the council, they want some joined up approaches. There was frustration about why it’s down to householders to find solutions without joined up support from other stakeholders – i.e. between the manufacturers and the distributors as well as the government.

The audience came away with reassurance that everybody is confused about it in some way and that this confusion is not a personal failing but a systemic one. We hope that knowledge that we aren’t ‘alone’ in this fight will give householders renewed energy to continue working to find solutions in their home – every little helps.

For more information about the research that inspired this workshop, please check out our research page or follow us on Twitter @Rethinking_EC

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Interview with BBC Radio Essex

Following our event with the ESRC Festival of Social Science, Danielle spoke with Rob Jelly, from BBC Sounds, regarding all things plastic. You can listen to the interview here from around 8 minutes in.

Thanks for your time, Rob! It was great to speak with you!

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NEW REPORT AVAILABLE: Householder Perspectives from Photo Elicitation and Diary Study

For more findings from our research project, check out our Re-thinking Ethical Consumerism: Report two: Householder Perspectives from Photo Elicitation and Diary Study

Executive Summary:

The purpose of this research was to gain an insight into the complexities in the household and their interaction with the social word in relation to single-use plastic consumption. We focus on understanding lived experiences, processes, interactions, belief systems and everyday decision-making.

The research was conducted from June – August 2020 with 27 household decision makers participating in a seven-day diary study. This was followed by semi-structured interviews.

The study found considerable variation in household dynamics and practices. A key observation was that households comprise multiple individuals, each of whom is informed by their knowledge and experience in making decisions. It is important to acknowledge that household decision making likely does not always reside with the same, one individual. Therefore when looking at household decision making about lifestyle and use of resources in the home the interaction between collective and individual decision making taking place within the household needs to be acknowledged.

Householders are influenced significantly by the services and interactions which they have with outside stakeholders (e.g., retailers from whom they purchase goods, councils and community groups who support waste management and disposal of goods). An interesting observation from our study was that households view their interactions with external stakeholders as a more holistic process than those ‘looking in’ do. Therefore, because other stakeholders are focused on their own uni-dimensional view, the role of the householder (intentional or not) is that it is their responsibility to view the reduction of single-use plastic as a more holistic, more coordinated act. In order to target interventions to householders in a way that could have real impact, stakeholders need to reimagine/recast the householder as ‘a coordinator’.

Regardless of whether households took an ideological stance on ethical consumption as a collective, the practice of ethical consumerism, as it relates to single-use plastic reduction, comprises many small choices made when individuals interact with single-use plastics. This has several implications: (i) Ethical consumerism solutions are side-lined as a priority for investment because they have little financial impact on households; (ii) household members are unlikely to risk conflict situations when household members disagree and will default to options with the least friction; (iii) householders use cognitive shortcuts to make micro-decisions through quick and automatic behaviour prompts.

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NEW PROJECT ANNOUNCEMENT!

To find out more about our projects please see here

Here at Rethinking Ethical Consumerism we are pleased to announce that we are about to start a new research project: The Ethical Household: Rethinking the Meaning of Waste in Multiple Occupancy Households.

In our previous research we have discussed how the heterogeneity of household definitions and dynamics makes it difficult for interventions and government policy to make an impact on household ethical consumerism. Particularly difficult to understand and predict are the behaviours of those who live together with unrelated occupants. How the varying relationship dynamics between these individuals impacts on ethical decision-making within the household is still somewhat of a mystery. With house prices in the UK rising and an increase in single people living in shared spaces, this section of the community has the potential to have a significant impact on the effective implementation of policy initiatives to reduce single use plastics.

This new project will use online design thinking workshops to create a discursive forum to elicit collectively discussed, householder-driven, solutions to the issues identified in the previous diary and interview study.

Online participants will be drawn from particular areas of London focusing specifically on the household decision making about single use plastics in multiple-occupancy households where issues of responsibility and control differ from a traditional family context.

This research will inform a pathway towards long-term sustainable management and greater understanding of the householder’s experience with single use plastics.

We are grateful to Birkbeck, University of London, who are funding this project.

If you would like to find out more about what we have planned, or have information that you think would help to inform our study, please get in touch.

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The role of social networks in household decision making about single use plastic

Photo by Leah Kelley on Pexels.com

Aleksandra Besevic, 19th February 2021

In the 2014 paper published by member of this research team in Journal of Business Ethics it was found that social influence of friends and family played a key role in the update of bags for life for grocery shopping. Seven years later, we again find that social influence can be empowering and the practices of one household are often incorporated by others within their communities. We asked participants to tell us about individuals or groups outside of their household that influenced their behaviour towards reducing single use plastics. Responses ranged from personal connections such as friends, extended family, local community groups, and also wider social media networks.

Social networks influenced participants in a number of ways:

  1. Educating them about ways to be more ethically conscious

Many participants describe difficulty in finding ways to dispose of certain plastic objects in their home. Sharing ideas with friends, family or social media groups was often a way to discover local opportunities to increase recycling, or ways to reuse items in the home.

Similar to earlier work, we found that the attitudes of family and friends also influenced the ways that people thought about plastic in their home and their own responsibility in managing it.

I think my beliefs and behaviours are influenced by education via word of mouth this might be information passed on by friends or families, reading, podcasts, places I have visited.

participant 2

2. Reinforcing values and providing confidence

Discussion between members of a social network can help individuals to connect and share with like-minded individuals who can reinforce their values and relationships. In addition, blogs or podcasts can provide further reinforcement and increase confidence to practice these behaviours.

Being part of a community can provide the opportunity to guide and instruct on certain practices by being part of support group related to environmental issues. Social connections can develop and unfold over time and individuals gain support from groups to understand the collective impact their actions have on overall environmental practices.

3. Creating accountability

Engagement in social media as a member of the community also provided a sense of accountability to encourage not only short-term changes but growing mind-set to change. For example:

I follow a few people on Instagram that are doing their bit. I started my own feed too, more for myself, to push myself to keep considering ‘what can I change next’. I am far more thoughtful about what I buy these days. When something breaks, I now consider whether there is a more sustainable option. E.g. my plastic mop bucket cracked, so I brought a metal one instead. It’s lasted much longer so far and is easy to recycle if it does.

participant 17

Whilst, not everyone needs a social media account to keep them accountable, seeing others behaving in an ethically conscious way ensured that such actions remained at the forefront of people’s minds as they made household decisions.

For more findings from our research project, check out our Re-thinking Ethical Consumerism: Report two: Householder Perspectives from Photo Elicitation and Diary Study

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How do households make decisions about ethical consumerism

Aleksandra Besevic, 13th February 2021

Relationships in the household are important as they can shape values which influence behaviour on a day to day basis. Decision making in a household is a highly differentiated and complex system. In each household there are both micro-moments and interactions with others that affect wider decision making dynamics. Navigating both fixed and shifting behaviours can be challenging in a household with more than one occupant. It is important to consider that patterns of purchasing items for the home will interact with factors such as employment and disposal income and can change over time. The amount of control the household member has over spending can also impact the authority they have to take other decisions.

Joint and divided decision making

In our diary study, the most popular description of household decision making was ‘joint decisions’ where two or more adults within the household made decisions together. There was variation in how decisions were made, for example some couples created systems where they could add requests to a list:

The household decisions are made jointly. E.g. we have a food shopping list where we both add items, and then the online shopping is done jointly

Participant 4

Other participants divided responsibility depending on the types of purchases. The most popular division of decision making related to shopping and cooking responsibilities:

Photo by Katerina Holmes on Pexels.com

There are two people in my household (my partner and I), and we make decisions jointly. However, I do most of the good shopping and cooking, and therefore most of the decision making in these areas is on me

Participant 19

Households implied that they treated decisions differently depending on the long term and impact of those decisions. For example, that easy and quick decisions did not need more than one individual to be involved in the decision making. Whereas larger decisions which would be likely to have long-term consequences required joint process. In other cases, power was attributed to the primary income earner on making decisions

Decisions on spending are kind of shared. But, my husband has last say, and I check with him on occasions (normally when I already think it’s a bit expensive, but hope he may say it is fine) as he is the earner at the moment

Participant 17

Shopping decisions can be important in terms of single use plastic which can accumulate in the household. It is reported that women take control of shopping for the family. However, it is important to consider that while individuals may report they have this control over certain decisions others in the house may have differing perspectives on how household decisions are taken. Depending on how decisions are made, and by whom, can impact ethically conscious behaviour. The management of household decision making can be time consuming and require a level of planning to ensure finances are stable.

Decision making between unrelated housemates

One of the aims of our study was to understand a variety of household situations. As we might expect, household decision making was more complicated between individuals who were not related – for example, young professionals living together. Often decision making was not equal. With households who live in a flat share there is both an element of individual and joint decision making. Some households might decide to go food shopping together while others might live their lives quite separately.

Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

I live in a household of 3 adults. General household items are split between all 3 of us. The actual decision on what we buy for the household is split mainly between myself and one other house mate. I would say these decisions are generally made together. The other house mate contributes but doesn’t tend to make decisions on what household items we buy.

Participant 2

Decision making matters

In relation to single use plastic, decision making matters. Many participants reflected that if there was a change in circumstances it could impact the types of products entering the household.

If my husband did the shopping/made the decisions like this, we would probably have much more snack packaging – his usual inclination is to spend as little time in the shop as possible. I expect we’d all be shocked still if we saw all our waste in a heap though!

Participant 11

I think it might be slightly different if my 15year old daughter was a part of decision making. She is so on tune with the environment and tries to make better choices with packaging, including using paper or reusable straws which I do not like very much

Participant 13

From these accounts it is evident that often there is a household ‘champion’ who ensures the household recycle or are environmentally aware. Understanding who makes decisions in households is therefore important to understanding the role of the household in ethical consumerism.

For more findings from our research project, check out our Re-thinking Ethical Consumerism: Report two: Householder Perspectives from Photo Elicitation and Diary Study

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It is not as easy as just taking the bin out!

Aleksandra Besevic, 29th January 2021

The household is full of products ranging from food, clothing and general appliances. Each product in a household at some point is disposed of. Waste is generated by activities and practices of households. It is important to consider the wider disposal practices of households because these disposal practices can impact storage space and shopping frequency. In our research to understand how UK householders manage single-use plastics in their home, we explored the dominance of the kerbside collection in influencing behaviour and also other options which they utilised to manage plastic waste.

Kerbside Recycling:

Disposal practices in the UK are aided by waste reduction policy and prevention schemes. Each local council provided bins or containers for the disposal of waste and offer kerbside collection schemes which can influence behaviour. All 27 household decision makers in our study stated that they recycled plastic via kerbside collection from their council ‘if possible’. This was generally the first option considered:

Plastic is recycled as much as possible, according to the council’s regulations

Participant 4

These entries support the notion that recycling is undertaken as a normal and routine household practice. Our study revealed the power of the regulations of the local council in determining what is and is not recycled. Determining what could be recycled via kerbside collection was the first thing that householders considered and the mechanism which would be prioritised about others for convenience.

It is important to consider that for household decision makers to participate in recycling schemes an adequate local infrastructure is needed to ensure success. Each council collects its plastic recycling differently and this can cause confusion to household decision makers. In addition, information from the council is often required to inform household decision makers of the options to recycle and the facilities located nearby.

Alternatives to kerbside

Participants also indicated that some households are part of local and wider recycling schemes. Families may also be involved in reducing plastic with school initiatives which can aid involvement in recycling.

Photo from our diary study

Our kerb recycling only takes plastic bottles, so they go in there. Stretchy plastics go in the carrier bag bin at the supermarket, and [our local] Primary School takes a selection of other plastics that are accepted by terracycle. Other plastics unfortunately go in the general waste bin

Participant 15

Other householders discussed how they take the opportunity to reuse plastic when kerbside collection was not available. Household decision makers shared how they prioritised reusing plastic where possible:

A photo from our diary study

I wash and reuse any plastic bags that look strong and clean – they can be used for storing the organic veg that we have delivered… We’ve been reusing some of our empty single use boxes that came with soft fruit or tomatoes in for growing herbs or little salad leaves from seed

Participant 14

Although reusing plastic takes additional effort it can be useful in other areas of the household such as the garden. The ease of reusing is linked to willingness to engage in such behaviour. The way in which a household decision makers perform, repeat and renew a product can determine the overall waste of the household.

Certainly in the absence of recycling facilities and schemes it would be challenging for a household to recycle responsibly. Overall, for household decision makers to participate in recycling it requires time and labour, increasingly sorting through waste. It is not as easy as just taking the bin out. An efficient waste disposal system heavily relies on households taking the effort to manage the process.

For more findings from our research project, check out our Re-thinking Ethical Consumerism: Report two: Householder Perspectives from Photo Elicitation and Diary Study

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How we collected household diaries to understand the single use plastic journey

We used Padlet to see patterns and trends over the week

Aleksandra Besevic and Danielle Tucker, 26th January 2021

In our recent study on understanding different householder roles in effecting sustainable change we utilised diary study methods and photo elicitation to capture ethical decision making at the household level during COVID 19.

In designing this study, we paid special attention to creating a usable diary design.

The design of the diary had to take into account:

A photo taken by one of our participants
  1. The structure of the diary: It was key that we captured the data that we set out to. Our priority was to capture decision making in situ, therefore we asked participants to take a picture of a single-use plastic in their home and tell us about how it came to be there and what they did with it. This process asked them to articulate the thought process of that item and explain decisions to us. We left the choice of what to photograph to the participant. We were interested in not only what they chose but why they chose it.

2. Providing prompts to engage in wider influences: In addition to the daily photo we asked participants an additional question each day to explore some of the broader influences and dynamics on the household decision making process. These questions (one per day) were semi structured to ensure a range of content was captured that was relevant to the research question. We asked the same questions to every participant. A potential weakness of this structured approach is that by asking particular questions this may affect the way in which the participant conceptualises responses or change the view of the participant. To overcome this open-ended questions were used to encourage more engagement and allows for a wider range of answers. 

Photo by Jhosua Rodru00edguez on Pexels.com

3. Using different technologies to ensure ease of collection of data: A common challenge of diary studies is decline in participation over time.Firstly, we kept the contribution time to 7 days to ensure that participants did not become fatigued by the study. We also allowed a variety of technologies (including email and whats-app) to ensure the participant was confident in communicating and asking questions if needed. Further, regular contact between the researcher and the participant via that platform ensured that participants maintained motivation and encouraging responses. We also ensured that the length of time a participant could be asked to complete the diary study was kept to under 10 minutes to avoid fatigue, drop out or disinterest.

The diary study was conducted online due to external factors (government imposed lockdown). It meant that we needed to rely on digital means for participants to complete the study and therefore this required participants to be computer/ mobile literate. However, there were several benefits in using online technology such as mobile smart phones and cameras. Firstly, there was only one dropout (via email correspondence). This suggests that technology is not only convenient for participants to use it but also fits in with their own digital usage. Secondly, as participants were using their own computer/ mobile there was no need for additional training. Finally, the cost of the project was reduced as no equipment needed to be purchased for the participants. It is highly likely that the use of digital technology in diary studies will be used more frequently and developed over time.

One of the benefits of this sustained interaction with participants was that we could see the evolution of their responses over the week as they were being asked to reflect more on the decisions they were making. Whilst most participants did not change their practices significantly in this time, we found that responses became more nuanced and honest (particularly about restraints on their choices) as the week progressed. We used Padlet to create boards for individual participants which allowed us to see patterns in the photos they provided.

We found photo elicitation and diary study methods provided an accurate and meaningful insight into the decisions which householders make about single use plastics. We learnt a lot about the challenges and choices which they face on a day to day basis. Coming up in future blogs we will share some of these findings with you.  

For more findings from our research project, check out our Re-thinking Ethical Consumerism: Report two: Householder Perspectives from Photo Elicitation and Diary Study

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Why we used diary study methods to capture ethical consumerism at the household level during COVID 19

Aleksandra Besevic, 15th January 2021

Photos elicited from participants during our study

Last year, we pivoted our research methodology to understand the household decision making journey of single-use plastics to incorporate photo elicitation and diaries to capture people’s experiences in real time directly from their home environment. Here’s why we chose this method.

The phot elicitation allowed an open format allows participants to record events, thoughts, feelings, and behaviours using their own words. This research adopted the ‘snippet’ technique or event contingent protocol, which enables the participants’ to record short snippets of information about activities as they occur rather than continually logging of activities (Bolger and Laurenceau, 2013). This allowed flexibility by allowing the participant to elaborate their responses later in the day if needed. This process allows participants to capture decisions in real time and reflect on them when they have time to reflect. Furthermore, a 5 minute diary is relatively unobtrusive and participants could work around their own schedule (meaning they were more likely to stick with the project for the whole week).

The advantages of using the diary method alongside photo elicitation was that it allows for in depth engagement of participants with their own experiences, occurrences or feelings as opposed to more convenient but possibly un-reflected automatic surveys or tracking. It was intended to explore the rationales and experiences people provide about single use plastics. The diary method was more likely to capture occasions in which single use plastic is used as participants might view these moments as insignificant or simply forgot when asked in other circumstances. The method bridges the gap between the moments of use and connecting these to previous experiences about consumption and disposal (Reid, Hunter and Sutton, 2011).

However, there are limitations of this method. We had little control over the quality entries over the course of the week – it was expected that the quality of the data may deteriorate over a period of time, although we saw no evidence of this in practice. Further, as with any research regarding behaviours there is the possibility of inaccurate or socially desirable reporting. In next week’s blog we will explain in more detail the methods and process we used to conduct the study and share with you our top tips for consistent participation.

For more findings from our research project, check out our Re-thinking Ethical Consumerism: Report two: Householder Perspectives from Photo Elicitation and Diary Study

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Why did the 5p bag tax work?

Plastic bags are still hanging around years later. Adrian S PyeCC BY-SA

Danielle Tucker, 7th January 2021

“I’m constantly surprised that the 5p charges made such a difference because it is such a nominal amount of money and yet it seems to have had a huge effect”

Phil Ward, Eastern ARC Podcast

In July 2020 Defra, published research showing that the distribution of single use plastic bags is down 95% since the government’s 5p charge was brought in.  With the UK government recently announcing an increase the charge of single-use plastic bags from 5p to 10p by April 2021, we review some of the ways that the 5p bag tax, introduced in 2014 have changed behaviours of UK shoppers.

  1. A behaviour nudge which had been a long time coming

In our 2014 article in Journal of Business Ethics we found that a lot of people had the drive to be more ethically conscious – they wanted to use less plastic bags, but lacked the mechanisms to nudge that intention into actual behaviour change. The 5p charge created a tipping point to change small behaviours which have led to more sustained behaviour change. For example, shortly after the introduction of the charge it became common to witness people carrying single items out of shops in their hands or apologising to cashiers for not bringing bags. Bringing your own bag became the default.

2. Plastic bags have become a commodity that you spend money on

Our research found that people often reused single-use plastic bags within their home for some other purpose (e.g. bins, storage). When bags were free this was a good idea but when the 5p charge was introduced plastic bags became something that you had to pay for and think about as having a value. When there was no cost associated with it, people took for granted the constant replenishment of bags in their home. When they ran out, householders had to make decisions about how else to get that utility. Many coming to the conclusion that an alternative would be better quality, value for money, easer to obtain and more ethically conscious than continuing to pick up single use bags when they shopped.

3. It brought the objectives of supermarkets and consumers together

Our 2014 article argued that both individuals and institutions play a significant interactive role in becoming ethically conscious and it was very positive to see that since then public awareness about single use plastic has increased public awareness has increased. In our recent research we have found that the influence of influential policy interventions, such as the UN SDGs, the Ellen MacArthur circular economy model and the UK Plastics Pact, have shaped institutional interventions to help support consumer decision making.

Photo taken by participant in our diary study (2020)

Whilst there are still debates about what types of plastic are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ there has been a nudge towards consumers becoming more proactive in findings solutions to plastic waste in their home (for example reusing plastic tubs as storage containers or plant holders).