Don’t confuse me! - Insights into householder decision making around recycling plastic waste

Deborah Roy, Emma Berry, Martin Dempster

Research output: Contribution to conferencePosterpeer-review


The United Kingdom Government has committed to getting rid of disposable packaging by 2042 and move towards having zero plastic ending up in landfill, rivers, beaches and oceans. Despite an increase in understanding of attitudes towards recycling, and significant efforts by Local Governments and charities to raise awareness and educate householders, approximately 60% of plastic waste is not being separated for recycling in Northern Ireland. At an individual level, considerable knowledge deficits still exist, as do situational, psychological, and socio-economic barriers. While we understand what may predict positive attitudes towards recycling, little is appreciated about the point at which the decision making process around recycling falters, or becomes flawed, resulting in a lack of recycling behaviour or the contamination of recyclate. This research thus aimed to provide greater clarity on the complex psychological, pragmatic, and social factors influencing plastic recycling behaviour. In-depth qualitative interviews were used to analyse consumer understandings of what may motivate them to recycle; their own capabilities; and the recycling opportunities available to them, (the ‘COM-B’ system: Michie et al.,2011; Gainforth et al., 2016). Semi-structured qualitative interviews were conducted with 20 consumer and 12 Stakeholders to explore individual, pragmatic and social barriers to plastic recycling behaviour. The interviews lasted between 30 and 45 minutes and were audio recorded and transcribed. The analysis combined a phenomenological approach (Smith, 1996) with a semi-directed content analysis approach (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005) allowing the researchers to consider the findings within the context of the COM-B framework and other relevant theoretical frameworks, while also having a degree of flexibility to make sense of and offer interpretations of all the data. Any overarching topics identified will serve to provide a sound representation of the findings (Braun & Clarke, 2006). These include; public awareness and consciousness about the plastic waste problem is increasing; shopping behaviours are automated and little thought is given to food packaging at the time of purchase; uncertainly and confusion about disposal of plastic waste leads to cognitive dissonance; and the public expect their efforts to recycle to be reciprocated by local recycling companies; by making it easy and simple to do. More efforts are needed to provide householders with simple, clear, consistent information so that correct recycling becomes routine and habitual. Food packaging design needs to be simpler, and the whole package should be clearly marked in an unambiguous way indicating that the item recyclable. If food packaging is split up into different components, the advice on the packing needs to provide advice about every part and if each one can be recycled. Consumers want decision making to be kept to a minimum, otherwise confusion can lead to annoyance and valuable recyclate will continue to end up in the general waste. New insights acquired will lead to a series of recommendations for appropriate behaviour change strategies that encourage the reuse, reduction and recycling of plastics, and help tackle the plastic waste problem. An important innovative component of our research project is that the research findings will be shared directly with the Queens University Belfast Polymer Processing Research Centre (PPRC) design team affiliated with the ACCEPT Transitions project. Eventually the findings will be used to create plastic products that are more likely to be recycled, based on feedback obtained from consumers.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 2020
Event26th International Sustainable Development Research Society Conference - Budapest, Hungary
Duration: 15 Jul 202017 Jul 2020


Conference26th International Sustainable Development Research Society Conference


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