Exploring perceptions of environmental professionals, plastic processors, students and consumers of bio-based plastics: Informing the development of the sector

Neha Mehta*, Eoin Cunningham, Deborah Roy, Ashley Cathcart, Martin Dempster, Emma Berry, Beatrice M. Smyth

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Abstract

Bio-based plastics are produced from bio-based raw materials such as sugar cane, potatoes, corn, and agricultural and slaughterhouse waste. The evolution of the bio-based plastics market is affected by the stakeholders involved owing to their role in production processes, environmental guidelines and purchasing decisions. It is therefore imperative to understand the perceptions of stakeholders in order to inform the development of the bio-based plastics sector. This novel exploratory study investigates the perceptions and opinions of three stakeholder groups: environmental professionals and plastic processors; university students; and consumers in Belfast, Northern Ireland. During the focus groups (25 participants in total), samples of bio-based plastics, including starch-based monolayer and multilayer, and polyethylene terephthalate (PET), were presented. A qualitative analysis using the framework method revealed that environmental professionals and plastic processors were aware of both the benefits of bio-based plastics, such as a reduction in use of fossil fuels; and the challenges, which include the utilisation of agricultural land for biomass substrates and possible contamination of current conventional plastic recycling streams. Although there was a general lack of knowledge among students and consumers about bio-based plastics, they conveyed their beliefs that the use of agricultural waste will lead to closed-loop systems, resulting in a balanced approach to production and waste management. Some students and consumers, raised concerns about contamination of food by bio-based packaging prepared from slaughterhouse waste. However, these participants supported the use of slaughterhouse waste in the production of bio-based plastics for non-food contact items. The students and consumers and some of the environmental professionals and plastic processors were reluctant to pay more for bio-based plastics. The results indicate that manufacturers of bio-based plastics could benefit from informing consumers about the environmental impacts of beginning-of-life parameters, such as production processes and feedstocks, by using life cycle assessment parameters. This should be incorporated into information provided on labelling using standards from neutral organisations. This research could inform future communication strategies around bio-based plastics with both the public and industry.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)574-587
Number of pages14
JournalSustainable Production and Consumption
Volume26
Early online date15 Dec 2020
DOIs
Publication statusEarly online date - 15 Dec 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was completed as part of the ACCEPT Transitions project – Advancing Creative Circular Economies for Plastics via Technological-Social Transitions. This study has received funding from the EPSRC under UK Research and Innovation through the Plastics Research and Innovation Fund (reference number: EP/S025545/1) and from ESRC Internal Business Boost Funding. Sincere thanks to: the ethics committee (EPS Faculty) for assisting with the ethics application, the Polymer Processing Research Centre for providing samples, Alice Liddell for taking notes during the focus group discussions (Queen's University Belfast), Dr Thomas King (National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, Italy) for helping in making Fig. 3 , the focus group participants, and, last but not least, the two anonymous reviewers for their suggestions and insights for improving the manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020

Copyright:
Copyright 2020 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.

Keywords

  • Bio-based plastics
  • Bioeconomy
  • Focus group discussions
  • Greenwashing
  • Stakeholders’ perceptions
  • Transition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering

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