UCL Grand Challenges


Disruptive Voices Episode 4: Behaviour and Plastic Waste

In Episode 4, we speak to Ayşe Lisa Allison, a PhD Student working with the Plastic Waste Innovation Hub, about behaviour and plastic waste.

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Behaviour and Plastic Waste

In Episode 4, we speak to Ayşe Lisa Allison, a PhD Student working with the Plastic Waste Innovation Hub. We explore some of the barriers to environmentally friendly action, and examine the links between behavioural science and design, focusing on biodegradable and compostable packaging and labelling. We also discuss the issue of disposable healthcare items, exploring some of the trade-offs when it comes to health and the environment.


James Paskins  00:06

Hello everyone, welcome back to Disruptive Voices with me, James Paskins.


Nina Quach  00:11

And me, Nina Quach.


James Paskins  00:13

In this episode, we're going to be talking about behaviour and plastic waste.


Nina Quach  00:16

Today we're speaking with Ayse Lisa Allison, a PhD student in UCL's Department of Psychology & Language Sciences, who is also involved with the UCL plastic waste Innovation Hub. Welcome, Ayse. And thank you so much for joining us.


Ayse Lisa Allison  00:31

Thank you. No pleasure to be here.


James Paskins  00:33

So plastic's been around for a long time. But it's only really over the last few years that the issue of plastic waste has received a lot of attention. Some people might say long last, why do you think it's taken so long?


Ayse Lisa Allison  00:45

I've been asked this a couple of times. And I've kind of really sat and thought about this. And I think kind of depending on who you ask, what their disciplinary background is, or kind of what they work in, they might say something completely different. But the way I see it, I've also kind of interpreted this as why is it taken so long for it to maybe be an issue in the UK, sort of the work that I do is kind of UK focused. I think there's the complex interplay of four different things going on. There are two key events that happened, which I'll go on to explain, in 2017. And this coupled with certain psychological biases that we have, and this with the impact of social media, so that this thing called the out of sight, out of mind phenomenon, you might have heard of it, where we sometimes just don't know the impact of things because we don't see them. So it's kind of, maybe we don't want to think about what goes on in slaughterhouses so that we can, you know, either our meat, or we don't want to think about deforestation so that we can enjoy Nutella, even though it might have palm oil in it. So basically, we're just kind of sweeping things under the rug, because we know that we have this tendency, and we see this with other issues as well.


Ayse Lisa Allison  01:47

And on this topic, but actually this really interesting paper by a researcher at King's College London, looking at the relationship between this kind of psychological distance that we know that we can do, plastic consumption and plastic waste exports. And basically, the tenet of this paper is that plastic waste is a problem that's perceived as out of sight and out of mind for citizens in high plastic consumption and typically high income countries like the UK, and that this is influenced by the export of plastic waste to other typically lower income and lower consumption countries for disposal. So essentially, these citizens in these countries are kind of shifting the burden of mismanaged plastic waste, and perceptions of plastic pollution, to these typically low income countries that actually consume way less. So we know that we're kind of, you know, in the UK, maybe for a long time, we were kind of pushing this problem, putting it out of sight out of our minds.


Ayse Lisa Allison  02:39

And then two key events happen in 2017 that meant this issue could no longer be out of sight out of mind, the first thing - the China ban. So after importing nearly half of the planet's plastic recyclable for three decades, China barred the import of most residential recyclables in 2017. And this was huge. Obviously, the ban was their efforts to kind of clean their environment and improve quality of life for people in China. And I think it's no coincidence that the UK plastics pact was released around about this time. But essentially, what this meant is that there were a lot of people being like, "Oh, my God, we consume so much, we've got so much waste, what do we do with it?". So this issue, again, kind of in the forefront of our minds, and then you've got the release in Blue Planet 2 the end of 2017. I really think that was a turning point for the plastic waste issue. And this really meant that this plastic waste problem was no longer out of our minds, it was very much at the forefront of our minds now.


Ayse Lisa Allison  03:36

You know, it was purposefully designed to raise public consciousness on this issue, the Blue Planet 2 producers aim for the show to provide, you know, a platform that got the broader message about plastic pollution out. I don't know if you've watched it, but it's got some really harrowing scenes depicting the impact of plastic pollution on marine life. I think like 14 million people across the UK watched it. That's crazy reach that's like, if my arithmetics are right, like 20% of the population. So I mean, that's a lot of people watching Blue Planet. So you've got these two events happening, coupled with the fact that we live in a world where social media just leads to utter social and behavioural contagion. So you know, we've seen this with other things I just remember, like off the top of my head, you know, the ALS ice bucket challenge that was just everywhere. Obviously, with the issue of plastic waste, it hasn't quite gone away like that. But for example, an analysis of Twitter activity relating to plastic waste, found the conversations around this topic in the first quarter of 2018 have more than doubled compared to the same period in the previous year. So I guess in the last four years, this is just really blown up here in the UK. And now you've got Seaspiracy. So I just I just don't think this is going anywhere, anytime soon.


Nina Quach  04:48

So following this sort of explosion in public awareness about issues around plastic pollution and climate change, what are the current barriers to environmentally friendly  behaviours because clearly, we're not there yet - why do we still see that gap, I suppose between our understanding of the problem and the actions that we're willing to take to solve that problem?


Ayse Lisa Allison  05:12

I think something that we see time and time again amongst the psychological and behavioural sciences is this intention behaviour gap. So simply raising awareness on an issue, simply imparting knowledge is just not enough to change behaviour. And this is precisely where the value of behavioural science comes in. So, solving many of the cultural, social environmental problems that face our societies today are reliant in changing human behaviour, issues of plastic waste, not immune to that. But this is also the case for many issues related to health, so many health related issues find the causes in maladaptive behaviour. So, you know, obesity, cardiovascular disease, rooted in part in maladaptive diet and patterns of physical activity. So, the kind of causes of these issues sometimes are behavioural - so behaviour change is a good way to, to alleviate these. This is also the case for problems related to environmental health, you know, plastic waste - my research area - these problems are inherent and behavioural in that they're due to overconsumption and poor waste management, which are behaviours.


Ayse Lisa Allison  06:14

So in order to change these environmentally significant behaviours, we need to design behaviour change interventions, and to design good behaviour change interventions - so interventions that don't just rely on increased awareness, educate increased knowledge - we need to draw on behavioural science. And in fact, guidance for developing and evaluating the kinds of complex interventions needed to tackle these types of problems, point to the importance of grounding interventions in theory and evidence, local and more general.


Ayse Lisa Allison  06:41

So this is why we really need behavioural science. You know, we have an artillery of models, theories and frameworks that can be used to provide a behavioural analysis of a problem. So to define it in behavioural terms to sort of hear how we think you know, the issue of plastic waste, really, we can conceptualise it in terms of issues related to overconsumption, and poor waste management. It helps us understand why behaviours occur, so we use these models and tools and theories to help us understand what are all the different options, what are all the different factors that could be driving behaviour. It's not just things related to our psychological capability, which would be awareness and knowledge. But it's also things to do with, you know, social opportunities. So what are our friends doing? If all my friends consume heaps and heaps of plastic, maybe that's what's influencing my behaviour, even though I have an awareness of it being an issue, and it polluting the environment. And also, you know, we can then use this knowledge to facilitate the design and evaluation of interventions to change behaviour. So I think behavioural science really has a key role to play in the fight against plastic pollution.


James Paskins  07:46

So you work within a framework called COM-B, which some of our listeners might not be familiar with. Could you just explain what that stands for? And then what that actually means?


Ayse Lisa Allison  07:55

Yeah, sure thing. So the COM-B stands for capability, opportunity, motivation, behaviour model, and it was developed by Professor Susan Michie and colleagues here at UCL. So there, there are lots of different behavioural and behaviour change theories. But COM-B is great because it's a really simple yet really comprehensive model for understanding behaviour and behaviour change. Basically, what this model posits is that for a behaviour to occur, people need to have capability - and that can be physical capability, so you know, strength and stamina, or psychological capabilities, so these would be things like factors related to our memory, and attention and decision making processes, knowledge, awareness - and then you also need to have opportunity. And that could be social or physical, the social opportunity would be things like social norms, opportunity might be the physical environment that we find ourselves in. So you know, I can't recycle if there isn't a bin in my kitchen. And then we also need to have motivation as well. And this can be automatic or reflective. An automatic motivation just kind of relates to those things going on underneath our consciousness. So things like emotion, habit, for lots of behaviours, if we want to make a behaviour to happen, sometimes the best thing you can do is to just make it habitual. And then the reflective motivation are kind of the more sort of conscious deliberate processes, so things like beliefs, attitudes, values. So that's basically the COM-B model in a nutshell, it's basically just is a really simple model for understanding all the different things that could be influencing behaviour.


James Paskins  09:34

You work at the intersection between behavioural science and design. So how does design interact with behavioural science and are there any ways to build in kind of pro-environmental nudges into the way you design packaging or the way you design plastics?


Ayse Lisa Allison  09:49

Yeah, so design is a really key aspect of issues relating to plastic waste into the circular economy more broadly. At the plastic waste Innovation Hub, we just believe that waste comes from a failure of design. So design is absolutely essential to solving this problem. It goes without saying, but I guess we don't really think of it as it being a separate discipline or an entity on its own. Rather, we're all designers. So I consider myself a designer as well, I design behaviour change interventions. And so all of us at the plastic waste innovation have come from these different disciplinary backgrounds. We're coming at this issue of poor system design through our own lens. And it's not just design in terms of labelling and packaging either - when we say plastic waste or the failure of design, we mean, it's a failure to design plastics that are reusable, recyclable or compostable. The material in itself. It's a failure to design waste collection methods that encourage a more proactive approach to recycling.


Ayse Lisa Allison  10:47

So you know, how can we adapt food waste systems management systems so that they can deal with compostable biodegradable plastic waste. It's also a failure to design economically viable mechanical and chemical recycling processes. And also a failure to design the market incentives that ensure local authorities can invest in waste management technology. And so each of these design failures influence and compromise the whole system leading to waste and creating an economic burden on the UK. The whole issue of plastic waste boils down to design in all areas of the system. So it's not just obviously, you know, we can tell - I've done research in this as well - that you know, labelling at the moment on biodegradable compostable plastic packaging and other types of packaging as well don't meet citizens needs. They don't know which bin to put it in, they don't understand what the terms used to label packaging actually means. But this isn't the only area where we need to basically just redesign.


Nina Quach  11:43

That's such an interesting overview of how different elements come into play at various stages. And I suppose it's much broader than how we would normally understand it. But I'd like to pick up on your point about cross-disciplinarity and ask, you know, how other disciplines can contribute and maybe which disciplines are at the moment, still excluded from that conversation?


Ayse Lisa Allison  12:09

Well, to be honest, I actually think that it was behavioural science and the social sciences that was kind of excluded from this conversation for the longest time. There was a lot of focus on technical innovation, so, though, I definitely think it's changing. I think the value of behavioural finance is definitely being seen with issues related to the circular economy. But I mean, there was just there's been a lot of investment in designing novel materials, you know, engineering, packaging from fungi or engineering it from seaweed. So there was a lot of focus on technological innovation, to kind of shift towards a more to a circular economy from a linear one. So to be honest, I actually think it's possibly behavioural science that was the most neglected, but I do think that that's changing.


Nina Quach  12:53

You've mentioned efforts to change the composition of packaging, etc. But replacing plastic with biodegradable solutions, and alternatives is a very different issue to reducing the amount of packaging in the first place. Does trying to increase sustainable alternatives actually undermine efforts to reduce waste production in general?


Ayse Lisa Allison  13:17

I think that's a really interesting point. And I kind of always go back to the EU waste framework, which has this little waste management hierarchy. And basically, what it does is it ranks the waste management options in terms of what's best for the environment. So as you say, waste prevention and reuse are the most preferred options, you know, you might as well just take it out of circulation rather than deal with it once it's there. Then it's followed by recycling, and this includes composting, then energy recovery, and waste disposal through landfills and incineration, the very last resort. So yeah, definitely, we definitely need to consider certain things before we push biodegradable and compostable alternatives and new materials.


Ayse Lisa Allison  13:57

But I guess two things that I kind of think about here is what's the wider system around managing biodegradable and compostable plastic waste, if we're going to think about putting these types of products. So we're going to also just kind of want to take the time to say here, there's no such thing as good or bad materials or good or bad behaviours really, in this context - just good or bad systems. So like you say, in one context, we might want to increase people's purchase of biodegradable and compostable plastic packaging, but this kind of behaviour change, it's not very good, really, or sustainable if there isn't the wider system to manage that kind of waste. And then I think the other thing we need to ask ourselves is, what are you planning on applying the biodegradable or compostable plastic to - so what are the applications? And as we said, you know, reducing waste should definitely be the main goal. But there are some applications where reducing or reuse might not really be feasible or practical for various reasons.


Ayse Lisa Allison  14:52

And WRAP have this brilliant consideration for compostable plastic packaging, they have a little guide, which I think is great. So if you're a business and you're listening to this, and you're thinking about using biodegradable or compostable plastics, go look at that guide. And one of the things I get you to consider is, do you actually need this item at all? Sometimes using traditional materials, you know, like PET plastic, which everyone kind of is like, "oh, bad plastic" sometimes it can be even better because there are established recycling routes for these materials, and they might even be less resource intensive to make. So when we think about sustainability, we have to think of the whole lifecycle.


Ayse Lisa Allison  15:29

But naturally, there are some applications where it might not be feasible, things like flexible packaging that's likely to be food contaminated. So like, ready meal trays, in these kind of instances are sort of on aeroplanes or at hospitals, reducing might not really be a practical option, and reuse is just not really an option either. So it's these sorts of applications where biodegradable compostable plastics might really be more sustainable options. You know, hygiene products as well, so baby wipes sanitary products, nappies, medical contexts, these, you know, it can really be a viable option for various practical, even socio-cultural reasons. So kind of wrap that up, while reusable alternatives and just preventing waste in the first place should always be prioritised, where possible, we just need to be mindful that there are going to be contexts where it's not going to be feasible. And that's kind of where maybe we should think about biodegradables coming in. Because it's not this mega sustainable material. It's just not. And sometimes it's marketed in that way. But that borders on greenwashing, because, you know, currently in the UK, especially we don't have the infrastructure to deal with this kind of waste. That's not to say that we might not in the future, if we did. then it definitely could be more sustainable material. But kind of on that point, yeah, it's really important to remember that there aren't good or bad materials, just good or bad systems.


James Paskins  16:52

So Ayse, you've recently published a paper on the barriers to biodegradable and compostable plastic packaging. Tell me more.


Ayse Lisa Allison  17:00

Yeah, I have actually, it was a this was a really fun paper, actually, a shout out to the Big Compost Experiment. We have a brilliant citizen science project going at the UCL Plastic Waste Innovation Hub, called the Big Compost Experiment. And we basically collected over the course of six months, something like 6,000 responses from UK citizens all over the UK, basically just asking them, are you more likely to buy this type of packaging and why? So they gave us all sorts of reasons, all sorts of influences on their behaviour. And I conducted a thematic analysis. Basically, I just analysed the data to find out what is driving purchase of this type of plastic packaging, and what's hindering it. And this is really interesting. One of the key findings from this paper was that the current system just does not meet citizens' need and it's just not particularly sustainable. The UK waste infrastructure cannot cope at the moment with biodegradable and compostable plastics nationwide. And even I mean, some of us who have access to separate food waste collection services, some of us don't, sometimes even within London rules can change from borough to borough.


Ayse Lisa Allison  18:07

So basically, there's just widespread citizen confusion, and this really came through in this paper, they just don't understand what biodegradable and compostable mean. Compostable is a little bit more clear, but biodegradable, I don't know, what does it mean? Everything biodegrades, you know, my glasses will eventually biodegrade. So it's just a very kind of useless term. We kind of knew this anecdotally. But it's really good to have an evidence here to back that up. And I think this was really the key finding. And kind of what has sparked this change in my PhD and kind of going to go down this eco-labelling route, because we just learnt that eco-labels on packaging just don't meet citizens' needs, they have no idea which bin they have to put it in. And this is particularly the case of biodegradable and compostable plastic packaging, which is a huge issue. If I don't know which bin I'm supposed to put this in, then the whole system is compromised, the value of that material just gets completely lost. If it's recyclable, and I don't put it in the recycling bin and it goes to landfill, that's not a sustainable system.


James Paskins  19:07

And what would you recommend? How would you change the labelling and the information?


Ayse Lisa Allison  19:11

Well, this is kind of the next project that we're working on at the Hub. How would I change that? Well, first of all, just generally, I will just make it much clearer what the end of life instructions are to citizens. So that I know right "Do I put it in my food waste bin? Do I put it in the recycling bin? Or do I put it in the bin meant for landfill?" Not even that even with compostable, it goes two different ways as well. It can be industrially composted, or it can go in the bin for home composting.


Ayse Lisa Allison  19:40

If it's meant to be home compost, and I put it in the bin meant for industrial composting might not be too much of an issue. But home compost can't manage waste in the way that industrial composters can. So I think what I would do is I would just make it much more clear to the citizen via labelling what they need to do with that packaging at end of life. And I would also communicate a little bit more information with respect to its environmental sustainability. So we found that people kind of want to know, "Where does it come from?" And so I would probably communicate that information on packaging as well. There's already so much going on on packaging. I mean, I don't know, if you go and get something like a tea box in your cupboard. You look at it, there's actually so much going on there anyway. So kind of striking this balance, not overwhelming people. I don't know, I don't I don't quite know yet how I would change packaging. But I think that's a good place to start.


Nina Quach  20:30

Can I change the topic slightly and pick up on a point you brought up earlier about the health and medical sector, and talk about the thorny issue of disposable face masks. So we've seen in the past year that it's not just a matter of convenience, but also safety and health. And so there's very clearly a dilemma to resolve here to help ensure that long term sustainability isn't forgotten. But that we also address a very urgent and pressing need of sanitary and safety concerns.


Ayse Lisa Allison  21:04

Yeah, this is something we've, I remember the very beginning of something I felt I was like, "Oh my God what if a single use surgical mask is going to protect me better than this disposal mask? What do I do?" It's a dilemma. I don't really have, you know, clear cut answers, I can just provide some food for thought. I guess context is really key here. So based on the limited information we have available to us at any one time, we have certain perceptions about various outcomes. And so kind of depending on this so constantly weighing up the potential health benefits with potential environmental costs, and vice versa.


Ayse Lisa Allison  21:40

But I guess we ask ourself questions don't we like, are we talking about frontline health care workers, or citizens popping to the shops and going for their government mandated walk around the park once a day at noon? What's the risk of transmission? Well risk of transmission might be really high in a hospital, or on a plane, or in an airport, there might be much less in the park. So our judgement and decision making processes might be quite different. But I also think it's really key to differentiate between perceptions of hygiene and truth. I mean the evidence, I'm going to say evidence, not truth. So I guess in terms of evidence, what we know about the environmental and health impacts of disposable and reusable masks that we do have some evidence. So I kind of answering this question like what are the, you know, hygiene implications and environmental implications of single use and disposable masks? We actually did this analysis at the UCL Plastic Waste Innovation Hub last year. We did what I think is a really cool, multidisciplinary comparison between these two different types of masks based on their anatomy, standalone effectiveness, behavioural considerations, environmental impacts and costs.


Ayse Lisa Allison  22:43

So it was a pretty comprehensive analysis. And in terms of the environmental impact, it basically showed that reasonable masks are better. Basically, what we did was we did, I didn't do this, we have a brilliant material flow analysis, lifecycle assessment guru on the team. We basically did this for five different mask use scenarios and showed that when four masks used in rotation without single use filters and are machine washed, this had the lowest environmental impact in all of the impact categories. And I won't go into detail to those now, if anyone's interested, they can go to the paper, but we basically did a scenario analysis on five different options. And the MFA corroborated this and showed that citizens' use a reasonable masks significantly reduce the amount of waste entering the general waste stream.


Ayse Lisa Allison  22:44

So we have evidence of this producing less waste. What about hygiene? Although current single use masks have a higher standalone effectiveness against bacteria and viruses, our study showed that reusable masks have adequate performance in slowing infection rates of respiratory viruses as well. So they both are effective, though standalone, it seems to be that surgical masks are slightly more effective. But more than their standalone effectiveness, what we're kind of interested in is the likelihood of the virus getting to us and making us sick. So kind of more than thier standalone effectiveness, we kind of found out that it may be the hygiene protocols around these two different types of masks that make them more or less effective.


Ayse Lisa Allison  24:33

So essentially, again, here we have behaviour towards mask use being a major contributing factor towards the overall effectiveness of masks in slowing the spread of infection. By hygiene protocols. I just mean like how you don, doff and dispose or in the case of reusable masks, prepare it for reuse. So obviously in the reuse scenario, there are a lot more actions that get done, which just increases the risk of transmission, you know with a single use mask you to kind of put it in the bin. Whereas for a reasonable mark, you've got to take it off, you might put it somewhere, put it in the laundry bin, there's just a lot more chance for the virus to reach you than in the single use option.


Ayse Lisa Allison  25:12

So the evidence at present kind of indicates that it's the effective post-use management and washing that's really important for reusable masks to protect against viral transmission. So yeah, it's a dilemma. It's definitely a dilemma. And I'm kind of making these all the time. You know, I recently flew back home from Cyprus. And because I was quite anxious on the flight, I was double masking the surgical mask. But again, this is based on my perception, even though I'm a scientist and I'm working in this area, I still fall victim to our psychological biases.


James Paskins  25:44

What disruptive change would you like to see happen so that we can solve the problem of plastic waste worldwide?


Ayse Lisa Allison  25:50

Oh, my goodness, the issue of plastic waste, if I had a magic wand... I tell you why this is hard, because the plastic waste problem, it's a wicked problem. I can't remember who first coined this phrase, but wicked problems are social or cultural problems are just difficult or impossible to solve. Either because incomplete or contradictory knowledge. So we just kind of don't know enough about the plastic waste issue I think yet. The number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. So I just honestly don't know. Yeah, because it's such a complicated problem. And it's very difficult to disentangle the issue of plastic waste to issues of public health, inequality, to kind of, I mentioned in the beginning how, in higher income countries and countries where we consume way more plastic, we shift the burden to lower income countries. And we're able to do this because inequality exists.


Ayse Lisa Allison  26:50

So I think capitalism is the problem. I don't know if I can say that, I don't know if I can say that. I think in order to solve the plastic waste problem, we really just need to, I think, really reconsider how we organise society, how we consume - the money question, isn't it - I just think we really need to completely reorganise our society in order to solve this problem, because the problem isn't just plastic waste. It's issues with our governments, issues with with citizens, you know, maybe if I didn't have to worry about putting food on the table, maybe if I didn't have health issues, maybe if I didn't have all these competing priorities, and I could just focus on saving the environment. It's just a multifaceted problem. So okay, I had a magic wand, I would, I would just try and eradicate inequality and poverty. Because I really think that is a root cause of just so many of the world's problems.


James Paskins  27:48

But then we'd have to deal with our own plastic waste. That's terrible. Is there nothing coming out of the Plastic Waste Innovation Hub that's going to solve all these problems then in the next in the next 10 years?


Ayse Lisa Allison  28:00

I don't know, if you maybe if we go on for 10 years, we'll be able to solve the problem. I mean, we're still in our early stages, and we're doing that's the thing, these things take time, it takes time to get good data, it takes time to analyse data. And again, I guess, to reduce plastic waste, we need to essentially make it more profitable to reduce plastic waste, because unfortunately, that's the kind of world that we work in, we need to make it more profitable to behave, and to function in ways that are more sustainable. But I just think the greener we become, on the whole, the closer we're going to get to solving the plastic waste issue. I don't think we're going to solve the plastic waste issue without addressing climate change without addressing meat consumption without addressing overfishing. I mean, even when, you know, if we want to Seaspiracy, you've got this intersection between the issue of plastic waste and the issue of overfishing. So I just think until we transition towards a more greener way of being, yeah I just can't see this issue being solved. I mean, I guess at the Plastic Waste Innovation Hub, we're doing a lot of technical research and behaviour change research. So there's only so much that we can do without you know, wide scale infrastructure and policy change.


James Paskins  29:09

Thank you for joining us today. That was a really fascinating conversation, and has given us a lot to think about.


Nina Quach  29:17

This episode of Disruptive Voices was presented by James Paskins and Nina Quach, edited by Nina Quach and produced by UCL Grand Challenges. Our guest today was Ayse Lisa Allison. The music is by David Szesztay.. For more episodes of Disruptive Voices, visit UCL Minds or follow us on Twitter @grandchallenges.