Can Psychology Increase Sustainability by Design? [Part 1]

By Ellen Poliakoff on behalf of SLH

As part of the British Science Festival, I wanted to hear how psychologists are bringing their insights to sustainability.

Making Peace with Plastic (2021)

Professor Thomas Webb from the University of Sheffield challenged some of our pre-conceptions about plastic. For example, cucumbers wrapped in plastic might not necessarily be bad since they can last a week longer and therefore reduce food waste. Thomas argued that rather than seeking a complete ban on plastic, we should explore how to make reuse mainstream so we can still capitalise on the benefits of plastic. Repurposing – such as continuing to use a takeaway box to store your food in – does not reduce the need for production (although repurposing is of course still helpful). In contrast, if we return packaging to the business to use again, this can significantly reduce plastic production.

So where does psychology fit into this? We know that intending to do something, such as reusing plastic, is not enough for us to actually carry it out. Thomas has been exploring psychological barriers to reuse as part of a broader project (“Many Happy Returns”). He has been considering fears that people might have about contamination and the appearance of used plastic containers. They are currently trialling reusable containers at food outlets at Sheffield University. Customers use an app to check out the container and then can return it later; they are charged if they fail to return the container. I think it would be very interesting to compare this to reusable coffee mugs where there is greater onus on the customer to buy their own cup for reuse.

Prof Thomas Webb project:

Dr Ellen Poliakoff is the Recorder of the Psychology Section of the British Science Festival and Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Manchester.