Research interview: Ellen Palm.

“Due to the connection between plastics and climate change, we do not want to go on producing more plastic just because we can recycle it”

2020-03-06. Ellen Palm is a PhD candidate at Environmental and Energy Systems Studies at Lund University, and active in work package three. It aims to assess potential transition pathways to develop research-based advice on policy and industrial strategies for sustainability in the longer term. Ellen Palm’s research focuses on issues of sustainability pathways connected to plastics.

– As I go further in my research, I’m becoming more and more interested in different perspectives on the plastic problem. What issues are seen as barriers or hinders to accelerate change? What issues are getting the most attention?

In her latest forthcoming research article, she and her colleagues have done an interview study of perceptions of the plastic problem among stakeholders and lobbyists on the European Union level. The results show that there are four major narratives emerging in the current European plastics governance: resource inefficiency; fossil feedstock dependency, plastic pollution, and toxicity. Out of these four, resource inefficiency was the most dominant narrative, with its connection to recycling and a circular economy.

– These results are interesting since it shows that some issues get more attention than others. The dominant view becomes powerful, dictating what is considered most important to tackle with the plastic problem. 

Ellen Palm sees a danger in this focus on one specific issues relating to plastic production and consumption. As one of the lead authors of STEPS’s discussion brief about pathways to achieve a more sustainable plastic system, she is acutely aware that we as a society will need to work on many different levels to transition to a low-carbon society. For example use less plastics, recycle more, develop biobased alternatives, and explore biodegradable alternatives.

– There is no silver bullet. Currently, there is an expectation that a circular economy can solve all our problems but that is not likely to be the case. Due to the connection between plastics and climate change, we do not want to go on producing more plastics just because we can recycle it.

Ellen Palm’s first research studies were on carbon dioxide as a feedstock since she wanted to broaden the view of what a plastic feedstock can be. But producing plastics from carbon dioxide is an energy intense and costly process with many uncertainties to be solved.

– I think the issue of how much plastics we should produce is becoming more and more important. Even using biobased materials, as we do in STEPS, could be a problem long-term. In what quantities should we produce new plastics, and where should we grow the biomass?

Going forward, she wants to continue to track and study emerging issues relating to plastic, and how they play out on the political and societal arena. 

– We need to highlight how the dominant views become more powerful, and try to counter these narratives with broader views on plastics. Especially since we need to make sustainable changes fast.

– As academics, we can bring the wider discussion to the table, both to the industries in STEPS, and to key actors in society, she concludes.