Unapologetically Plastic

Researchers from the School of English are working on a new multi-disciplinary project which aims to reduce the need for single-use plastic.

Plastic bottles

The Grantham Centre at the University of Sheffield has brought together a team of specialists, including chemists, engineers, geographers, psychologists and linguists, to better understand – and explore new ways of implementing – reusable plastic packaging systems. The Many Happy Returns project has received £1 million of funding from UKRI and builds on the work already completed by the research team in 2020 as part of Plastics: Redefining Single Use. Their aim is to help make reuse mainstream, and to try and move the focus away from recycling as a solution to our plastic waste crisis. This is because recycling ultimately enables high levels of consumption without challenging our toxic throwaway culture.

Why language?

Getting language under the microscope is central to achieving the aims of Many Happy Returns. Our Language team, comprising Prof Joanna GavinsDr Seth Mehl and Dr Emma Franklin, is currently in the process of gathering linguistic data that will help inform our understanding of consumers’ attitudes towards plastic and reuse, as well as ideas on how best to present reuse systems to the public. Prof Gavins’ previous work on the Redefining Single Use project has already helped to inform the development of a new on-pack reuse label by OPRL, the organisation that sets national standards for on-pack recycling labels.

The work we do is not standalone but connects directly with the other research being carried out on the project. For instance, our psychologist colleagues in the Willingness team are investigating, amongst other questions, the effects of using different names for reusable packaging – does it convey more value if we call it a “container”? What about a “case” or a “carrier”? The Language team will use empirical linguistics to contribute to these discussions. Not only will we be able to demonstrate how certain terms tend to be used by different segments of the public, but we also hope to be able to explain why that might be the case, drawing on data and linguistic theory. This will give us a solid basis on which to create recommendations for the public-facing bodies seeking to engage consumers in reuse and return schemes. It might be that we have to find new terms, or repurpose old ones, to get these messages across.

The data

Language is sometimes best observed ‘in the wild’. Just as with other kinds of self-reporting, the words we use when interviewed don’t always line up with the words we use the rest of the time.  For this reason, as well as holding focus group discussions with consumers to hear their views on reusable plastic packaging, we’re also observing the language people use in public online spaces. This involves scraping social media for text, notably Twitter, as well as gathering language from UK-orientated discussions on forums such as Reddit and Mumsnet. We now have more than four million words of online consumer discourse around the themes of plastic, packaging and reuse, and we will continue to add to this throughout the project. All of the data will be analysed using corpus software, the output of which will provide an empirical basis for critical discussion. By studying the patterns in these large-scale language datasets, we’ll gain a broader and more nuanced insight into how people relate to reuse, and how this compares with concepts like recycling or repurposing.

On the other side of the coin, we also want to understand how plastic producers and plastic-concerned bodies – manufacturers, government, retailers, packaging designers – communicate around these issues to the public. We’re conducting an industry-focused survey on the language of packaging labels with participants ranging from packaging suppliers and retail representatives to waste-conscious NGOs. Later, we’ll triangulate these findings with texts gathered from public-facing sources: retailer websites, campaign literature, on-pack labels, and more. By building up a dataset of the language used by public-facing organisations, and comparing it with the language of consumers, we can identify any potential gaps and opportunities for optimising public messaging. The aim is to produce best-practice communications guidance, based in reliable linguistic evidence, so that effective promotion of reuse systems becomes more possible for everyone.

Developing great technology won’t be enough, on its own, to make reuse mainstream: we also have to frame it in a way that makes sense to consumers. Maybe we will need to use words like ‘borrowing’ or ‘renting’. Maybe ‘reuse’ will be found to have connotations of being ‘refurbished’ or ‘second-hand’, and instead we will want to foreground concepts like ‘resilience’, ‘tradition’ and ‘sustainability’. These are questions that warrant rigorous quantitative and qualitative investigation from the point of view of linguistics.

An image of several empty plastic bottles washed up on a beach.

Plastic: a dirty word?

This isn’t an in-depth analysis, but a point of interest: what does the word ‘plastic’ mean to you? If you search for the term ‘plastic’ on Netflix – as we folks do, in the Many Happy Returns documentary club – you’ll be met with a slew of undesirable titles: “A Plastic Ocean”; “Plastic Planet”; “Addicted to Plastic”; “Plastic Disasters”; or even “Plastic Paradise: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. Search on Twitter and it’s much of the same: “plastic pollution”, “plastic ban”, “plastic problem”, and other suggestions that life would simply be better without plastic. Constructions like “non-plastic” and “plastic-free” simultaneously portray plastic as a norm (the ‘non-’ or ‘without’ forms are marked) and also as a kind of foreign body; a contaminant or toxin. There’s no doubt that some plastics are toxic, and that we are in a global waste crisis. But is ‘plastic’ now becoming synonymous with a violent, insidious, invisible agent, like capitalism? Like addiction?

Contrary to our intuition, perhaps, plastic often wins out when submitted to life-cycle analyses. A life-cycle analysis (LCA) evaluates the environmental impact of a product through its entire existence, from the extraction of the raw materials all the way through to the product’s disposal, taking into account all sorts of factors, including weight, water use, and other drivers of emissions. While LCAs aren’t necessarily watertight or straightforward – different approaches yield different results – the suggestion that plastic is in fact not the most environmentally damaging material may jar with our linguistically-transmitted beliefs.

Taking a brief look at some corpus data – not our own, as it’s still being built, but the enTenTen 2015 English Web corpus – we find that the adjective plastic has mixed semantic value. It most commonly modifies the words bottle and bag, and these are typically presented not as useful individual artefacts but as massive amounts of toxic debris. After that, in terms of frequency, is plastic as a modifier for surgery and surgeon; again, these are not generally presented as neutral concepts but as products of unsavoury fashion trends. Plastic originates from the Greek plastikos, meaning ‘shapeable’ or ‘mouldable’, but over time, the plastic in plastic surgery has absorbed plastic’s sister-sense of being ‘cheap’ and ‘fake’. The ‘flexible, changeable’ sense of plastic is present elsewhere, however, and is positive when it comes to the brain (as in brain plasticity), but negative when it comes to football fans.

Other frequent noun collocates of the adjective plastic are fairly predictable: containerwrapcupsheetingwastedeformationpackaging and pollution. Interestingly, looking at the adverbs that most frequently modify the adjective plastic, we find the biological construction, phenotypically plastic (meaning, of a species, ‘able to adapt in response to its environment’), followed by beautifully, unapologetically plastic, a slogan employed by Apple to sell its iPhone 5c. Why? Because all of the previous iPhones had been encased in aluminium, earning a reputation of being solid and expensive. Perhaps Apple conceded that this also made their phones heavy and inflexible, unlike those of its competitors. Or maybe Apple just wanted to create a plastic product without compromising their consistent brand image. Either way, it did the trick: it pointed out plastic’s flaws and then neatly circumvented them.

The need for new stories

Our main work on Many Happy Returns, as we see it, is to locate those deeply entrenched stories around plastic and reuse and work on creating new ones, so that reuse systems can eventually become mainstream in the UK. A more thorough analysis, using a wide range of data, will no doubt demonstrate the more nuanced challenges in this. But it will also present us with opportunities for developing the effective, data-driven counter-narratives we need.

Written by Dr Emma Franklin, Post-Doctoral Research Associate, on 18 May 2021.

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