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An EPIC quest to fight plastic waste

A blog post by: Alieena Mathew

I am a second-year PhD candidate trying to figure out how to get people to consume less single-use plastics (SUPs). I am embarking on this journey with Social Marketing @ Griffith and Plastic Oceans Australasia.

Here is a picture of me at Picnics Unwrapped, telling people about single-use plastic.

I have always been aware of environmental issues and understood that plastic pollution is harmful. Still, it was only about five years ago when I realised how little I was doing to rectify the problem. Social scientists might say that I was experiencing some cognitive dissonance. This mental conflict occurs when your beliefs don't align with your actions.

However, the stars aligned perfectly, and I was given an opportunity to learn more about the plastic issue and find ways to reduce SUP consumption through my PhD.

My first year of research gave me a chance to get into the nitty-gritty of the negative impacts of plastic. The numbers and real-life stories speak for themselves.

Once I better understood the issue, I wanted to see what was already being done about it. I quickly learned that our current approach to the problem consisted of a lot of banning and legislating. While forcing people to do or not do something can be effective, it isn't always received well.

If I told you chocolate was bad for you and took away all the chocolate you had access to, you would likely be mad at me and put up a fight. You would consume less chocolate but might compensate for the missed sugar hit by eating more strawberry shortcakes.

The moral of the story, forcing people to do things can result in unintended negative consequences.

However, when people voluntarily engage in a behaviour, they tend to have more positive attitudes towards the behaviour. For example, if I allowed you to willingly eat less chocolate because you felt it was right, you would do so with a more positive attitude. You might even start thinking of other ways to make your diet healthier. Eating a balanced diet might become a part of your identity.

So, I turned my attention towards less controlling measures. I completed the arduous task of conducting a systematic literature review of interventions encouraging a voluntary change in SUP consumption behaviour.

I was alarmed at the lack of information on voluntary behaviour change approaches. After going through over 2000 papers, I only found 30 that told me about voluntary SUP reduction interventions.

This told me that we need to better understand how voluntary behaviour change programs work.

Enter POA's Engagement in Plastic-free Innovation for Change (EPIC) and School Education Program - the perfect context for our case study.

EPIC is a 12-month program through which businesses are provided with information, tools, and support that aims to help workplaces eliminate single-use plastic.

The School's Program aims to equip children with the knowledge and skills to tackle the plastic pollution problem by seamlessly integrating the program into the curriculum and school activities.

Over the next phase of my PhD I will be working closely with POA to evaluate their behaviour change programs to learn more about how we can encourage people to reduce their plastic consumption.

I will update you all on my journey every three months. So, come along and learn as I continue exploring human behaviour and plastic pollution reduction.

Homework: check out the two programs we will explore over the next few months.


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