Many Happy Returns - Enabling reusable packaging systems

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Psychology

Abstract

Our current approach to packaging food and other products is not sustainable; being primarily based on single-use plastics that, when disposed of incorrectly, cause significant harm to the environment. Recycling, while clearly a better option than landfill, also has its limitations - e.g., the functional properties of plastics degrade as a result of the recycling process. And reducing consumption is only possible to a certain degree. It is therefore clear that we - that is science, industry, government, and society - need to find ways to enable people to reuse packaging, such that it stays in circulation longer before ending up in the waste stream. The proposed research, led by a multidisciplinary team of scientists working in partnership with key stakeholders, will explore models of reuse and provide the insights needed to enable a wholesale shift toward reuse.

Our research will be structured around five work packages (WPs). WP1 will examine the language that people use to describe different types of plastic and actions associated with their reuse / disposal. We will study the extent to which public understanding of plastic and actions is aligned with that of stakeholders (e.g., local authorities, manufacturers), and how language can be used as a tool to promote changes in thinking and behaviour (e.g., by describing materials and actions in different ways). WP2 will look at both historical (e.g., doorstep delivery of milk) and contemporary (e.g., supermarket refill stations) models of reuse, as well as standardised models of packaging (e.g., tin cans) to identify what role reuse might play in the future and what factors might facilitate and/or impede this. WP3 will identify what people might be willing to reuse, when, and why. We will also consider the point at which deterioration in materials and / or potential contamination makes reuse unacceptable; and, critically, how such decisions might be shifted in an effort to promote (appropriate) reuse. WP4 will use life cycle assessment to identify the environmental impacts of a range of different reuse models in a range of different contexts; thereby providing the data needed to accurately determine which model of reuse is "best". Finally, WP5 will investigate the suitability of current and emerging polymers, and other materials for reusable packaging by simulating repeated washing and potential contamination by ingredients in food, personal care, and household products.

Together, the outputs of the proposed research will be an understanding, based on robust scientific data, of when and how reuse models for plastic packaging make good sense. For example, our research may lay the groundwork for promoting a societal-shift in thinking toward buying the product, but renting the packaging. Our approach recognises that a new system that prioritises reuse, and then recycling, of durable materials requires a step change in behaviour and that truly creative and novel ideas occur at the interfaces between disciplines, when different perspectives are brought together in an open and 'safe' environment. The applicants have demonstrated their ability to work together as a multidisciplinary team alongside key stakeholders as in an on-going single use plastics project. The present proposal describes the research needed to translate this expertise and initial ideas into scientifically rigorous and joined up data that can provide the basis for delivering reuse as a national (and potentially international) vision; thereby, preventing plastic from entering the environment and stimulating more sustainable business, supply chain, and economic models.

Publications

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