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Understanding Plastic Pollution: Consumer attitudes and knowledge

Last week, PLOS ONE a new Curated Collection – Recent Advances in Understanding Plastic Pollution. In this second installment of our Q&A with authors from this collection, we speak with three author groups who study consumer knowledge and attitudes toward plastic products and the ease of recycling, and the current practices of disposal of household waste.


Emma Berry, Lecturer, Queen’s University Belfast

Emma Berry is a Health Psychology Lecturer in the School of Psychology at Queen’s University Belfast. Emma’s research interests include psychological adjustment to long-term conditions, health and environmental behaviour change, and psychosocial and behavioural intervention development. Emma is also interested in creative modes of communicating information and providing education, particularly in the format of comics.

Emma Berry’s paper in this Curated Collection: Roy D, Berry E, Dempster M (2022) “If it is not made easy for me, I will just not bother”. A qualitative exploration of the barriers and facilitators to recycling plastics. PLoS ONE 17(5): e0267284. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0267284

PLOS: You carried out a study to investigate motivations and barriers to recycling plastics, and the title of your paper is quite telling – it needs to be easy for people to recycle. Was there anything about the results of this study that surprised you?

EB: A novel element of this study was to qualitatively explore how the dexterity of plastic packaging can influence recycling behaviour. It was interesting to find that, in spite of environmental concern, participants openly recognised that the complexity of recycling, which is influenced by both the packaging and the accessibility of recycling resources i.e. bins, is an important barrier to recycling behaviour. Even when people are motivated to recycle, this does not always translate into action. Moreover, experiencing environmental concern does not necessarily make recycling a priority. For many people recycling is one of many competing life priorities, so if it requires too much cognitive and/or physical effort, other competing behaviours will take precedent. Of relevance to plastic manufacturers and retailers, our study reaffirms the usefulness of simplicity in the design of plastic packaging, with clear visual cues to aid decisions about what, how, where, and when to recycle.

PLOS: It is mentioned in the paper that some of the original intentions on how the data was to be used changed. Can you elaborate on how some of these changes occurred? Sometimes it can feel like a lot of pressure for research to always work out like we hoped or planned, so it is nice to hear how things can be adapted or altered for various scenarios during an ongoing study.

EB: The value of qualitative designs is that we can adopt an inductive or bottom-up approach, enabling us to be more receptive of new and unexpected findings. This also means that we can be more flexible (within the realms of the research question) about how the data is interpreted and used, depending on the emergent themes. The decision to integrate the survey data was post-hoc, based on the qualitative themes extracted. The survey work was conducted separately and was intended to provide an overview of recycling awareness, knowledge, and behaviours in a cross-section of people living in Northern Ireland. However, following the analysis of the qualitative findings, we felt that the frequencies observed in the survey data corroborated the salience of themes relating to physical opportunity and motivational factors underpinning intentions to recycle.

PLOS: You chose to publish the peer review history of your paper online together with the paper itself. Can you tell us what motivated you to do this? Was there anything in particular about the peer review process or recommendations from the editors or reviewers that felt especially useful for enhancing the paper?

EB: Publishing the peer review history of the paper supports an open science approach and allows readers to acknowledge how the paper has evolved from the original submission. However, we also wanted to acknowledge the specific recommendations provided by peer reviewers. In particular, the helpful recommendations to improve the structure and reporting of the interview and survey findings, in order to strengthen the narrative and make the most of the data available. Moreover, the peer review process prompted us to clarify the theoretical framework applied to the methodology (the COM-B model), which is a novel and valuable element of the study. We felt it was important to acknowledge the value of the peer review process to reaffirm this.

PLOS: Two other studies in this collection also look at consumer attitudes to recycling and waste, and the use of bioplastics. These are “Chukwuone NA, Amaechina EC, Ifelunini IA (2022) Determinants of household’s waste disposal practices and willingness to participate in reducing the flow of plastics into the ocean: Evidence from coastal city of Lagos Nigeria. PLoS ONE 17(4): e0267739. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0267739” and “Filho WL, Barbir J, Abubakar IR, Paço A, Stasiskiene Z, Hornbogen M, et al. (2022) Consumer attitudes and concerns with bioplastics use: An international study. PLoS ONE 17(4): e0266918. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0266918” Has seeing these other research studies in the collection helped inspire any thoughts about future work you might do, or other advances your research community will make?

EB: Our paper, in conjunction with the two other studies in this collection support the need for research that focuses on the design and evaluation of interventions to support appropriate recycling behaviour and minimise inappropriate disposal of plastic waste. The paper by Filho et al. (2022) is interesting as it considers how plastic material can be altered to improve the ecological footprint of the production and degradation of packaging, and this resonates with a previous paper we collaborated on by Meta et al. (2021: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.spc.2020.12.015). All three papers collectively affirm the need to provide more behavioural scaffolding to assist recycling in day to day life. This means adjusting the choice architecture by focusing on the design of plastic packaging and the availability of cues and resources required to recycle more effortlessly.


Nnaemeka Chukwuone, Senior Lecturer, University of Nigeria Nsukka

Chukwuone Nnaemeka is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Nigeria Nsukka and Director of the Resource and Environmental Policy Research Centre (REPRC)- EfD Nigeria. He holds a Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics with a specialization in Resource and Environmental Economics. His research focuses on climate change, fisheries and marine economics, forestry, agricultural finance, economic valuation and carbon pricing.

Nnaemeka Chukwuone’s paper in this Curated Collection: Chukwuone NA, Amaechina EC, Ifelunini IA (2022) Determinants of household’s waste disposal practices and willingness to participate in reducing the flow of plastics into the ocean: Evidence from coastal city of Lagos Nigeria. PLoS ONE 17(4): e0267739. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0267739

PLOS: Can you set the scene for what waste disposal and collection typically looks like for the respondents? How far do people have to walk or travel to dispose of rubbish or recycling? Are there any collections at individual households?

NC: Waste management is a major challenge in Lagos. Some households have dumpsters in their locality, while others do not. On average, residents walk ten minutes to dispose of their waste. Some dispose of it legally in dumpsters provided by government or private sector practitioners (PSP), while most dispose of waste illegally. Waste collection, transportation and disposal are officially carried out by PSPs appointed by the Lagos State government. However, many households use informal collectors to handle the waste they generate, while some dispose of waste in open spaces. In fact, most households (67.42 percent) in Lagos dispose of the waste they generate through illegal means (Chukwuone et al. 2022). Although 86.7% indicated that they bag waste they generate, only 19.7% sort waste (Chukwuone et al. 2022).

According to a PSP who was a key informant, “waste management in Lagos emanated from a crisis point of view where there was waste everywhere and there was need for management. Over the years Lagos has managed the collection and transport of waste but they have struggled with disposal. The waste managers have developed the expertise in collection and transporting waste but disposal is weak. There is a need to think about recycling. Few people containerize and bag their waste. Once a week evacuation is not working as the people do not have containers to keep their waste. There is a problem of bagging and containerizing of waste in Lagos. In terms of managing plastics, there are scavengers that move about to pick plastic waste but this is cannot help in managing the high volume of wastes. Currently, due to non-separation of waste at source, wastes are comingled and little is done in terms of separating plastic wastes”.

PLOS: Was there anything about the results of this study that surprised you?

NC: Yes. I was surprised that the majority (67.42 percent) of the residents of Lagos dispose of waste through different illegal means. I was also surprised that although most of the residents dispose of waste through illegal means, the majority (75.50 percent) were willing to clean up road gutters and drainage channels before the onset of rain to limit plastic flow into the ocean. This suggests that people will dispose of waste legally if they have the infrastructure. Only 39 percent of the households had dumpsters in their localities. The study found that having a dumpster in a locality significantly reduced the likelihood of illegal waste disposal (Chukwuone et al., 2022).

PLOS: Several of your findings may be useful in managing household waste in Lagos. Which outcomes are you most hopeful about?

NC: We have continued to disseminate the study’s findings through workshops and quarterly meetings of the Nigeria Circular Economy Working Group (NCEWG) and conferences. I am hopeful that the government of Lagos and many states in Nigeria and elsewhere will enhance the sensitization of the citizens on proper waste management and the dangers of illegal waste disposal on marine plastic pollution. I am also hopeful that the study’s findings would encourage the government to use the people to clean up road gutters and drainage channels and other clean-up campaigns to reduce the incidence of blocked drains, flooding and marine plastic pollution.

PLOS: Two other studies in this blog post also look at consumer attitudes to recycling and waste, and the use of bioplastics. These are “Roy D, Berry E, Dempster M (2022) “If it is not made easy for me, I will just not bother”. A qualitative exploration of the barriers and facilitators to recycling plastics. PLoS ONE 17(5): e0267284. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0267284” and “Filho WL, Barbir J, Abubakar IR, Paço A, Stasiskiene Z, Hornbogen M, et al. (2022) Consumer attitudes and concerns with bioplastics use: An international study. PLoS ONE 17(4): e0266918. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0266918” Has seeing these other research studies in the collection helped inspire any thoughts about future work you might do, or other advances your research community will make?

NC: Yes, especially in our future research to explore ways to reduce marine plastic pollution and enhance circular economy.


Jelena Barbir, Deputy Director, FTZ-NK

Dr. Jelena Barbir (PhD, MSc, MSc, BSc) joined the FTZ-NK (Forschungs- und Transferzentrum Nachhaltigkeit und Klimafolgenmanagement) team in 2019 as an expert in the HORIZON project management. She now leads the BIO-PLASTICS EUROPE project, funded by the Horizon 2020 Programme. She has a strong background in sustainable development, conservation of biodiversity and environmental sciences. Her current research focuses on environmental sustainability, mindfulness and climate change.

Jelena Barbir’s paper in this Curated Collection: Filho WL, Barbir J, Abubakar IR, Paço A, Stasiskiene Z, Hornbogen M, et al. (2022) Consumer attitudes and concerns with bioplastics use: An international study. PLoS ONE 17(4): e0266918. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0266918

PLOS: You carried out a study to investigate attitudes towards bioplastics. Your study is international, with results coming in from 42 different countries. Can you tell us what motivated you to do this? How did you accomplish this sort of widely-distributed survey? Did it come with any unexpected challenges or rewards?

JB: It was not easy to reach the participants, however it has been achieved due to wide connections and especially via BIO-PLASTICS EUROPE project network.

PLOS: One aspect of your survey touched on the definition of ‘bioplastics’. Do you think that the research community will come up with different definitions for bio-based plastics and biodegradable plastics? If so, could these sort of semantics help consumers understand the various aspects of plastic recycling better?

JB: It is a complicated issue. We have decided to continue using the term “bioplastics” in the study, since the general public is more familiar with it than “bio-based biodegradable plastics”. It is still unclear in which direction the final decision will go, but it seems that for now the EU is not willing to maintain bioplastics as an official term used for bio-based and biodegradable plastics.

PLOS: Your results indicate that one barrier that your respondents perceive is that they have limited information on bioplastics and limited availability of bioplastics. Do you have a sense for how the access to or availability of products made of bioplastics differ between the countries studied?

JB: It is hard to say, but we have observed that in Europe the trend is rather well accepted. However, even in Europe it differs from country to country. For sure, bioplastics are becoming more available on the market, and the benefits of those materials in comparison to fossil-based plastics are becoming more obvious and scientifically confirmed.

PLOS: Two other studies in this blog post also look at consumer attitudes to recycling and waste, and the use of bioplastics. These are “Chukwuone NA, Amaechina EC, Ifelunini IA (2022) Determinants of household’s waste disposal practices and willingness to participate in reducing the flow of plastics into the ocean: Evidence from coastal city of Lagos Nigeria. PLoS ONE 17(4): e0267739. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0267739” and “Roy D, Berry E, Dempster M (2022) “If it is not made easy for me, I will just not bother”. A qualitative exploration of the barriers and facilitators to recycling plastics. PLoS ONE 17(5): e0267284. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0267284” Has seeing these other research studies in the collection helped inspire any thoughts about future work you might do, or other advances your research community will make?

JB: It is always a pleasure for me to read new insights from different researach teams. It will definitely motivate me to move forward, since a lot is still to be studied when it comes to bioplastics.


Stay tuned for more interviews with authors from this collection.

Cover image: Port of Dover, 2014 Beach Clean (CC-BY 2.0)

Disclaimer: Views expressed by contributors are solely those of individual contributors, and not necessarily those of PLOS.

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