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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 author groups who study consumer knowledge and attitudes toward plastic products and the ease of recycling.

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.

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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