Changing the role of plastic in our daily lives

Most people living in today’s society find it hard to go without the use of plastic, or even to reduce their use of plastic. Various media have recently shed a spotlight on how our usage of plastic has resulted in ocean pollution – in the UK most notably through the popular documentary Blue Planet II. Although many of us are genuinely motivated to be more proactive in dealing with our plastic usage and disposal, the actual recycling rate of plastic packaging is still not very high – in the UK currently only 45%. STBY was commissioned to carry out a research that aimed to explore the gap between people’s aspiration and what they actually do in their daily lives, with the aim to identify opportunities for improvement. This project was a collaboration with SAP and Design Thinkers Academy UK.

Auto-ethnography to capture daily experiences with plastic

Although plastic is all around us, our recognition of how we consume and dispose of it happens in small, intermittent moments. Some of us simply dump a plastic yogurt bottle in a general bin on the train, while others rigorously sort out their recycling waste for council collection. To understand the motivations, routines and emotions that drive these behaviours, we set out to study these ‘moments of truth’ in the actual context of people’s busy lives – at home, on the go, in work spaces.

As part of the research methodology we carried out an auto-ethnography study of 12 days, following 24 participants through various moments of their lives. We used the Experience Fellow app, installed on the participants’ mobile phones, to digitally ‘follow’ them during the research period. They were invited to report their encounters with plastic, describe their thoughts and feelings, take pictures to illustrate their experiences, and to score their satisfaction. The app also enabled the research team to prompt participants, based on the incoming reports, which helps to get better insight into each individual’s experiences. The participants were encouraged to use the tool to capture anything they thought to be relevant. Many reported plastic packaging as a major problem they face, and some illustrated how they create their own solutions to avoid using plastic (i.e. use a cotton pouch for dry-cleaning, or re-use plastic boxes for various purposes). A total of 558 experiences were captured across the 24 participants, and were turned into individual data points for analysis.

Workshops and home visits to reflect and delve deeper

The auto-ethnography study spanned a two-week period between the joint ‘Plastic Labs’ at the start and finish of the research. These labs were co-creative workshops with all participants. The first lab helped them to get familiar with the research topic and scope, so they knew what to focus on during the auto-ethnography. The second lab gave the participants a chance to reflect on the wide range of stories that were collected across the whole group. Many people recognised the frustrations that were raised. These became joint focus points for deeper conversations in the workshop.

Following up on the auto-ethnography and the workshops we agreed with 4 participants to visit them at home and delve even a bit deeper in their individual experiences and context. These home visits produced not only a better understanding, but also a rich collection of video material to be edited into visual stories communicating key recurring issues with the use of plastic in people’s everyday lives.

Inspiring professional stakeholders to come up with new solutions

From the analysis of over 800 data points collected through the Plastic Labs, the auto-ethnography and the home visits, a few recurring patterns emerged, which were then consolidated into five key themes. We used these themes as a filter to group the participants on their motivations and actions. Each group became a ‘persona’ type: an expression of a particular pattern of attitudes and behaviours. There are shared traits between the personas, and each individual persona has a nuanced behaviour that may change over time.

The five personas were used as an introduction to kick off a design sprint with a mixed group of professional stakeholders who all work in sectors related to the plastic value chain. The aim of the workshop was to trigger ideas for solutions to the problems identified during the design research. STBY co-facilitated this workshop with Design Thinkers Academy UK. We introduced each persona by telling typical stories captured during the research. These stories inspired ideas and suggestions for collaborative solutions. Although familiar with some of the issues around the use of plastic, most of the professional stakeholders participating in the workshop had not reflected on these problems from the everyday perspective of consumers. The personas effectively illustrated the struggles and triumphs of dealing with plastic in our daily lives and inspired ideas on how the industry can provide better solutions to achieve the common aim of reducing plastic waste in our environment.

At the London Design Festival, SAP and Design Thinkers Academy London presented three concepts to combat single use plastics, each for one particular persona. Also, SAP announced a new collaboration with almost a hundred of its customers to share information about single use plastics and reduce their application as well as raise their recycling rate, called Plastics Cloud.

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