LUMS event sparks lively debate around plastic waste

Plastic bottle waste © Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

An event hosted by Lancaster University Management School (LUMS) has been hailed a success after attracting a range of international speakers from industry and academia and generating lively debates about sustainability, plastic packaging and waste.

The Knowledge Exchange Event, held last week, focused on the theme of responsibility and plastic packaging, exploring the issues for the whole packaging supply chain.

The event was arranged as part of a series of activities stemming from the UKRI-funded project, Plastic Packaging in People’s Lives (PPiPL) led by Prof. Maria Piacentini and Dr Alison Stowell from Lancaster University Management School. The PPiPL project brings together 9 academics and 11 partners, and aims to develop insights to enable policymakers, industry and consumers to rethink the gap between consumer attitudes to plastic packaging reduction and their behaviour.

The event’s keynote speaker, Ian Schofield (Packaging & Sustainability Leader/Non-exec Director, Born Ugly Design/ Packaging Head, Butler’s Farmhouse Cheeses and Owner of IHS Solutions LTD) was the driving force behind Iceland’s commitment to eliminate all plastic packaging by 2023, and brought a wealth of experience and insights into packaging in the FMCG sector to the event. Ian outlined some of the most important issues in relation to sustainability and plastic packaging in the industry and highlighted that we need to act now to tackle plastic waste, stating that ‘it’s not just about the material, but a whole new way of operating - from the top to the bottom.’

He said: “We all have a duty for our future generations and the world we live in. Packaging plays a vital role delivering safe food and drink, and plastic plays an important role. However, its role is changing from single use, to reuse or being recycled or worst downcycled. It should never enter landfill or find its way into our oceans or rivers. Every brand and retailer is working hard to solve all the issues without significant cost increases to ensure food is affordable to everybody. The journey is now accelerating with new investments across waste streams and in new materials made from recycled plastic or moving away from plastics. We must design in sustainable solutions at the start of the New Product Development process to succeed."

During the event, the University of Manchester’s Dr Amy Benstead sparked a plastic packaging debate to get the audience thinking about the issue of multi-stakeholder vs single company responsibility when it comes to plastic waste and disposal. Ian Schofield coordinated an exercise that saw the attendees acting as a jury, having to cast their vote.

Other speakers during the event focused on issues relating to responsibility through the production, consumption and disposal of plastic packaging. Prof. Paul Coughlan and Gonzalo Espiga Paraiso from Trinity College Dublin discussed the idea of responsibility in supply chain packaging based on their academic research in Spain. Posing the question ‘who is responsible in supply chain packaging?’, they argued that that there is an absence of external pressures for sustainable plastic solutions. Dr Savita Verma, a member of the PPiPL project team, then elaborated upon the issue of responsibility in the supply chain within the context of the food industry.

Similarly, Dr Caroline Moraes from Birmingham Business School focused on consumer responsibility in the context of sustainability and plastic packaging, reminding us that not all consumers have the luxury to make sustainable choices. Dr Charlotte Hadley, another PPiPL team member, presented some of the initial findings on consumer responsibility, indicating that environmental concerns don’t simply translate into changes of behaviour.

Prof Hervé Corvellec from Lund University, Sweden presented on the normalisation of waste and suggested that “efficiency at production levels can lead to increased production of waste”, questioning the legitimacy of plastic bottled water. Matteo Saltalippi concluded the session on post-consumption, presenting insights on current debates around plastic waste.

Acting LUMS Dean, Professor Claire Leitch, said: “The question of responsibility in relation to plastic packaging is an important and complex one, set in the context of concerns to optimise the use of plastic materials, alongside responsibility to reduce levels of plastics in circulation.

“As signatories of the UN initiative Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME), LUMS is fully committed to these principles around social responsibility and sustainability in business. The themes discussed at this conference are extremely important and align with the School’s central aims. We are absolutely delighted that the event has attracted such interest from a diverse range of partners including industry, policymakers, students, other universities, and the public. This is so important for co-creating innovative and pragmatic solutions to these complex problems.”

Sara Banning UKRI Innovation Lead for Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging attended the event and said: “I was delighted to join the knowledge transfer event organised by the Plastic Packaging in People’s Lives team at Lancaster University, and experience the discussions with partners and stakeholders representing the latest thinking for the plastic packaging supply chain.

"As a material, the benefits of plastic are substantial and yet nowadays it is far easier to demonise plastic than sing it’s praises. The Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging Challenge seeks to drive the transition from a linear to a circular plastic packaging supply chain. The conversations from the event illustrate how complex and disjointed responsibility for making this happen currently is. Projects such as PPiPL are an important step towards building our understanding of how can we rethink our collective approach to plastic packaging and achieve the behaviour change needed in this design, resource management and psychology puzzle.”

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