29 September 2021

Shifting attitudes and behaviour around plastic food packaging

Judith Allan MIMMM, Chair of IOM3 Packaging Society summarises the key points from attending the Plastic Packaging in Peoples’ Lives project event.

Lancaster University, UK, are running a 3-year project sponsored by UKRI and IOM3 is proud to be a project partner. 

The Plastic Packaging in Peoples’ Lives project (PPiPL) focuses on how plastic food packaging is embedded in consumers’ day-to-day lives. 

The aim of the project is to gather behavioural insights to enable policymakers and industry to bridge the gap between consumer attitudes to plastic packaging reduction and their behaviour. 

The project is taking the food sector as an exemplar, examining the whole packaging supply chain, from production through consumption through waste disposal. 

PPiPL speaks directly to the UK's Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging (SSPP) Challenge objectives. It will clarify social and cultural attitudes to plastic packaging and unpick consumer and business behaviours regarding plastic use.

Knowledge Exchange event

On 23 September, I joined their first Knowledge Exchange event. Ian Schofield FIMMM kicked off the event with a keynote speech on responsibility and plastic packaging, setting the scene for what is currently happening in the industry, what is already being done to tackle some of the challenges and highlighting the need for more continued action.

As a really engaging way to put both sides of a complicated debate forward the PPiPL team then staged a mock court case, creating a scenario where a popular carbonated drink manufacturer was put on the stand and the question of whether or not they should be held responsible for the sustainable disposal of its packaging was debated.

The arguments were given by the prosecution and the defence looking at the following:

  • How does consumer behaviour and responsibility influence the debate?
  • How much can a company do in terms of its responsibility?
  • What responsibility does consumer have? How informed are the consumers?  
  • What is the company already doing? How much more can be done?

The verdict of this case with the audience of the webinar as the jury was that the company was guilty, that they should be responsible for the sustainable disposal of the packaging.  It would be fascinating to see what the verdict of the same case would be with a much broader audience.

The second half of the knowledge exchange event broke the stages of plastic packaging life cycle down into pre-consumption, consumption and post-consumption, each stage was brought to life with two talks covering research examples and the debates around the subject from literature surveys as well as a Q&A session.

Pre-consumption - considered the whole packaging supply chain up to the consumer

Research was presented into current situation examples in Spain, looking at who is responsible in the supply chain for plastic packaging and how companies along the chain from plastic supplier to packaging machinery and food packaging manufacturer, food packaging company and retailer can collaborate in the implementation of circular economy’s 3R principles of reducing, reusing and recycling. 

The debate around plastic waste and supply chain implications highlighted that in the current model sustainable initiatives tend to flow back from final customers and supply chain partners as pressure is needed on companies upstream to force a response. A little change by a retailer can however signal a change of priority upstream.

Retailers are at the forefront of the plastic debate and are seen by many to have prime responsibility to influence consumer behaviours around plastics.

Consumption - looked at the debate around consumer responsibility

There were some stark observations about where we currently are:

  • Consumer reliance on plastic food packaging is ubiquitous and taken for granted
  • Plastic has become so commonplace in the British kitchen that we often overlook how much we use
  • In 2019, across 10 major supermarkets 896,853 tonnes of plastic packaging were place on the market (Environmental Investigations Agency, 2021)
  • Plastic food packaging has become so normalised that it is difficult to imagine our lives without it.

Looking at consumers and responsibility there are also some important positives in the evolution of more compliant recyclers

  • Reform of the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) system will make a big difference
  • Actions by producers will enable consumers to play their part
  • Clear understandable recycling labels make a difference – however, recycling labels represent just one piece of information that have a role to play in the fate of consumers plastic food packaging.
Post consumption considered the issue of waste

Starting with a thought-provoking talk about the normalisation of waste and the challenge to change the thinking about waste being an accepted normal part of any of our processes. 

Posing the question what if single use bottles had never become a legitimate packaging format? Then asking whether or not efficient food waste management normalises the wasting of food?

The debate around plastic waste covered very clearly the different ways in which plastic waste is covered in academic articles, industry articles and reports, policy reports and newspapers.

Academic, industry and policy articles and reports focus on: 

  • the impact of linear economy on plastic recycling sector
  • discussion and critiques of circular economy as well as the move towards a circular economy
  • value of plastic waste and the challenges of recycling
  • legal frameworks to reduce plastic waste

Whereas newspaper and media reports largely focus on:

  • symbol of overconsumption
  • marine pollution
  • personal endeavour in reducing plastic consumption

While authorities, companies and consumers are all stakeholders in the reduction of plastic waste each has different responsibilities and implications as a result of our actions and inactions. Communication that lifts the fog around the use of plastic and the actions that can be and are being taken to reduce its inappropriate use in packaging is essential.

In conclusion

The session really highlighted the complexity of the challenge and how interdisciplinary it is, which as we all know means that collaboration is absolutely key. 

It also brought out the need for real choice and an understanding of the need to ‘lift the fog’ around the use of materials to ensure that consumers can make really good choices that will make a real difference not just a slightly less bad choice. That includes changing our behaviour to consider reuse of packaging and the uptake of reusable packaging systems.

As a first knowledge exchange session it shared some really thought-provoking information in an interesting and varied way. I look forward to future sessions for what we can learn about plastic packaging but also what we can then take forward to other areas of packaging and across to all sectors.