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The ethical household: Rethinking the meaning of waste

A look into the way that household decision-making impacts the recycling and reuse of single-use plastic bags and longer-term sustainability goals.

people carrying shopping bags

In their 2014 article, "‘Bags for Life’: Embedding ethical consumerism” (Journal of Business Ethics), the research team argued that both individuals and institutions play a significant interactive role in encouraging a sustained behaviour change towards ethical consumerism of single-use plastic bags.

With the subsequent introduction of the five pence charge for single-use plastic bags in major supermarkets and retailers in the UK, recent data from various government sources have indicated that the purchase of single-use plastic bags have dropped significantly (e.g. from 140 bags per person in 2014 to four in 2020).

In an effort to reduce the purchase of single-use plastic bags even more, from April 2021, the government increased the charge to ten pence, with the charges applying to all retailers.

The initial project was designed to understand the way decisions are made at a household level and consider what interventions would be effective in changing this. That project brought together a research team from Essex, Kent and Birkbeck to develop a better understanding of the household decision-making journey of products entering and leaving the household sphere.

What we are researching:

This research project will examine how the role of the householder relates to tackling the prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse of single-use plastics in a sustainable way. This project will use design thinking workshops to create a forum to elicit collectively discussed, householder-driven solutions to the issues identified.

In previous research, the team discussed how the wide range of household definitions and dynamics makes it difficult for interventions and government policy to make an impact on household ethical consumerism. It is particularly difficult to understand and predict the behaviours of those who live together with unrelated occupants.

The Office for National Statistics defines a household as: One person living alone, or a group of people (not necessarily related) living at the same address who share cooking facilities and share a living room, sitting room or dining area. A household can consist of a single family, more than one family or no families in the case of a group of unrelated people.

This particular research will explore some of the challenges and barriers faced by householders, particularly amongst multiple occupancy households.

“(The UK Government defines single-use plastics as) all products that are made wholly or partly of plastic and are typically intended to be used just once and/or for a short period of time before being disposed of.”

build up of plastic waste

What will the impact be?

By focusing specifically on the household decision-making about single-use plastics in multiple-occupancy households where issues of responsibility and control differ from a traditional family context, the team hope to inform a pathway towards long-term sustainable management and greater understanding of the householder’s experience with single-use plastic.

Any new insights will help in building solutions in line with the UN Sustainability Development Goal objective 12.5, which aims to substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse by 2030.

Project Fact-file

Full project title: The Ethical Household: Rethinking the meaning of waste.

Project funding:  £14,879.62 (combined Eastern Arc and Birkbeck)

Supported by: Department of Management (School of Business Economics and Informatics)

People: Dr Pamela Yeow, Department of Management, Birkbeck, University of London; Dr Danielle Tucker, Senior Lecturer, Management, University of Essex; Dr Alison Dean, Senior Lecturer, Strategic Management, University of Kent.