Coastal city residents hope to do more to minimize their single-use plastic waste and are attempting to recycle more, even items that cannot be recycled, often called “wish-cycling.”
However, they are unable to do so due to the existing infrastructure challenges and accessibility barriers, according to a new study.
The study also discovered that, while young people are worried about the use of plastic, their purchasing habits frequently contradict their beliefs.
Scientists from the University of Portsmouth’s Revolution Plastics initiative surveyed 400 city residents. They were surveyed about their plastic consumption, purchase, use, and disposal habits.
Researchers investigated what factors influenced people’s attitudes and behaviors toward plastic, as well as what inspired or limited their ability to reduce, reuse, and recycle what they used.
90% of people agreed that recycling was vital, and 83% thought littering was a serious problem in Portsmouth that needed to be addressed. According to the findings, 79% of people would recycle more if there were more recycling options available.
However, there were evident barriers to recycling. People perceived a lack of recycling information and opportunities, with 65% admitting they frequently did not know how or where to recycle plastic items.
Portsmouth is a highly populated coastal city, with a population density of 5315 people per sq. km in 2020 (Office for National Statistics 2021). This makes it the UK’s second most densely populated city after London (5727 people per sq. km in 2020; Office for National Statistics 2021).
Portsmouth is also the UK’s only island city, and the city’s proximity to the ocean poses several pollution risks, including erosion of historic landfill sites and beach litter.
Portsmouth has a restricted kerbside recycling collection system. Only card, paper, metal cans, plastic bottles, tins, and aerosols are presently recycled (Portsmouth City Council 2022). Portsmouth’s current recycling rate for all waste is 24.7%, one of the lowest in the UK and significantly lower than the national average of 46.2% (Letsrecycle 2021; DEFRA 2021).
As both a coastal city and the second most densely populated environment in the UK, Portsmouth can provide critical insights into the role of plastics in everyday life. These include the challenges of managing plastic waste in a tightly packed urban setting. Understanding how people use plastic items within households is important to inform effective policy development, particularly with the emerging and developing global plastic treaty.
Steve Fletcher, Director and Professor, Global Plastics Policy Centre and Revolution Plastics, University of Portsmouth
Another significant finding was the effect of age on the outcomes. The 31–50-year-old age group was found to shop in Portsmouth zero-waste shops more frequently than their counterparts, whereas the oldest age group (over 50 years) reported being less conscious and less wanting to shop in these retailers.
Younger respondents (those under 30 years old) were more worried about plastic waste entering the ocean than their older counterparts (over 50 years).
Younger residents were generally more worried about the issue of single-use plastic waste, but this was not supported by their plastic purchase and use habits. In contrast, the older generation, who claimed to be less concerned, frequently bought fewer plastic items, notably plastic bags.
In an average week, 85% of respondents aged 51 and up purchased no plastic bags, compared to 39% of the youngest age group (less than 30 years).
Other social and economic demographic variables, like a resident’s Portsmouth location, income, and vehicle ownership, were prospective indicators of individuals’ attitudes, accessibility, and incentives to reduce plastic purchases and recycle their plastic waste.
Our findings show that although consumers have a role to play in plastic use and recycling, their behavior is heavily influenced by factors which are largely out of their control, such as price and availability. Ultimately it is not consumers who should be responsible for systemic change. This responsibility lies with those who are in charge of plastic policy.
Stephanie Northen, Lead Researcher, Revolution Plastics, University of Portsmouth
Northen, S. L., et al. (2023) From shops to bins: a case study of consumer attitudes and behaviours towards plastics in a UK coastal city. Sustainability Science. doi.org/10.1007/s11625-022-01261-5.