Despite the adoption of advanced waste disposal and recycling systems, plastic continues to enter the environment, for example through littering, the illegal dumping of waste, and the use of waste-based fertilisers in farming. Plastic and micro-plastic waste is accumulating in soils and waterbodies around the world.
Funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the research consortium "Development of New Plastics for a Clean Environment by Determining Relevant Entry Pathways" (ENSURE) seeks to develop innovative plastics with environmentally optimised degradation characteristics and which degrade rapidly with minimal environmental impact while maintaining current standards of stability. Module 4 of this project ("Perception and behaviour"), which will be hosted at the IASS, will use empirical social research methods to investigate the factors influencing the use of plastics.
What encourages consumers to use plastics more sustainably?
The researchers will conduct a comprehensive literature review in order to capture current learning on the use of plastics across the field of behavioural research. Drawing on the insights and methods of environmental psychology, the researchers will develop a better understanding of consumer interactions with plastics, tracing their use from acquisition through to disposal. Interviews and focus groups with experts from civil society, science, business, policymaking, and government will be conducted to identify patterns in both social perceptions and the use of plastics. These will explore, for example, people's awareness and perceptions of the environmental impacts of plastic and will seek to identify and explore various factors that encourage, hinder or otherwise influence the acquisition, use, and proper disposal of plastic products.
Round table to offer policy recommendations
Further research will build on this foundation with the aid of an online survey to determine the scale and prevalence of these practices in Germany. The types of plastic covered in this research include PE (polyethylene, e.g., plastic bags, films, packaging) PET (polyethylene terephthalate, e.g., drink bottles, polyester fibres), and PBAT (butylene adipate-co-terephthalate, e.g., organic waste bags, films used in agricultural contexts) and their fields of application. In addition, the research team will seek to identify factors that promote or inhibit reductions in the use of plastic. Following the analysis and evaluation of these findings, recommendations for action to reduce the overall environmental impact of plastic will be developed and presented for discussion at conferences and public events.
Finally, a round table will be convened, bringing together representatives from politics, manufacturing, retail, consumer protection, the waste and water management sectors as well as partners from the research consortium and scientists from relevant disciplines. The round table will discuss transdisciplinary approaches to reduce plastic in the environment and develop a catalogue of measures with recommendations for action.