Published 2021-11-24

This post is also available in Swedish

Golden opportunity for stricter plastics policies

It is now the perfect opportunity for decision makers to implement more far-reaching plastics policies. This is the view of researchers from Mistra Steps, who in a report show that public opinion strongly supports stricter regulation.

In the autumn of 2021 the research programme Mistra Steps – Sustainable Plastics and Transition Pathways published the report The future of plastics? – Swedish public opinion on plastics policies. The report is based on a survey conducted by the SOM Institute at the University of Gothenburg looking into Swedes’ attitudes to the regulation of plastics. The survey found that Swedes think the way plastics are currently handled involves major environmental problems and that they are positive to more stringent rules for using plastics.

Karl Holmberg, doctoral student at Lund University and researcher within Mistra Steps.

“A couple of years ago we wrote a summary on research into behaviour and attitudes linked to the use of plastics,” says Karl Holmberg, doctoral student at Lund University and researcher within Mistra Steps. “What we did not find, and therefore became curious about, was the attitude to the regulation of plastics and policy issues. There are studies about individual policies, but there is no overall picture. That’s what led to the survey that the SOM Institute have now helped us conduct.”

The participants in the survey received 18 proposals for how plastics can be regulated, and the results show that there is support for all the proposals – however far-reaching they were. Less controversial proposals, such as standardised information on packaging, demands for recycling of new products and state subsidies for materials production with better environmental credentials, received greater support. Stricter measures, such as a tax on single-use products, a ban on fossil-based plastics by 2030 and the idea that shops selling plastic products should offer to repair them, received less support.

“There is strong support for regulation. But the support decreases for tougher measures that more extensively address behavioural changes and do not only concern nudging or giving consumers alternatives,” Holmberg says.
“Nevertheless, it is important that we do that to achieve greater changes to consumption patterns.”

Suggestions such as an expanded deposit-refund system, which means a higher price in the shops, are substantially supported in all social groups and are highlighted as one of the most effective types of measures. According to Holmberg, an expanded deposit-refund system that encompasses additional products could be a first step forward to create legitimacy for other measures and increase recycling.

Men and right-wing voters more critical

The survey also reveals differences between social groups. Women are more positive than men about proposals for tougher regulation. And more left-wing voters than right-wing voters support stricter plastics policies. A narrow majority of the population are in favour of the plastic bag tax that was introduced in spring 2020, but those most critical of this measure are also men and right-wing voters.

The researchers state that it is important to take attitudes linked to ideology and gender into consideration as they may be signs of future conflicts in the regulation of plastics. There are different opinions on how to tackle the problem. Some claim that the passing of time will contribute to some regulation proposals no longer being deemed controversial. Conversely, Holmberg explains that there is a risk of polarisation and obstacles to more sustainable use of plastics.

“If you push forward without the consensus of all groups in society, it can become a polarising issue in society, as we are seeing in the Unites States and Australia. If you are in favour of plastics, you are a Republican, and if you favour stricter regulation of plastics, you are a Democrat. It is dangerous if it turns into a stalemate situation and an issue that becomes incorporated under party identities.”

Karl Holmberg emphasises the importance of creating attractive narratives around sustainability for men and right-wing voters, who stand out in several environment-related issues besides plastics regulation.

The report, which was also highlighted in an opinion piece in the newspaper Aftonbladet and other media, has generated a number of reactions; most have been positive, but there are also more concerned voices, not least from industry. Karl Holmberg recently presented the results to Waste Refinery, a network of operators in the field of sustainable waste management in Sweden. He will share his conclusions with the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency in January and has been in contact with a representative of the Parliamentary Committee on Environment and Agriculture. His researcher colleagues will shortly distribute the printed report to relevant players in Sweden, and the plan is to write a scientific article based on the results of the report.

The report The future of plastics? – Swedish public opinion on plastics policies was written by Karl Holmberg, Sara Persson and Johannes Stripple, researchers in Mistra Steps.