Golden opportunity for stricter plastic policies

Golden opportunity for stricter plastic policies

A new opinion poll shows that Swedes are supportive of stricter regulation for plastic use to address the problems connected to plastic. A golden opportunity for decision-makers to push for a more far-reaching plastic policy agenda, according to political scientists in STEPS.

– Our survey shows that Swedes think that current plastic handling entails major environmental problems, and that they like to see tougher measures from policy makers. The greatest responsibility for dealing with the problems lies with the industry, but individuals and EU institutions are also seen as important players, says Karl Holmberg, doctoral candidate at the Department of Political Science, Lund University.

In the survey – which was conducted by the Swedish survey institute SOM – 1069 people were asked to rate their opinion of 18 proposals on how plastics can be regulated. The results show that all proposals, no matter how far-reaching, were supported by the respondents. However – and perhaps not so surprisingly – softer proposals such as standardised recycling information on packaging, source separation of public waste bins, and government subsidies for more environmentally friendly material production received higher support. More far-reaching measures, such as a tax on disposable products, a ban on fossil-based plastics by 2030, and that shops which sell plastic products should also be forced to offer repairs, on the other hand, received less support.

Big differences between men and women and left and right voters
The survey shows large, significant differences between groups. Women are much more positive about far-reaching measures than men. Left-wing and right-wing voters also differ, with left-wing voters supporting tougher plastic policies to a greater degree than those to the right.

Deposit system stands out
However, some proposals stand out in the survey, such as an expanded deposit system. Despite the fact that the consumer pays more for the product in the store, this regulation receives a very high support from all groups. It is also the type of measure that is singled out as most effective in addressing the plastic problems by the public. Customs duties on imported fossil-based plastics also have strong support among Swedes.

– In Sweden, the deposit system is perceived as apolitical, perhaps because we are used to it. Expanding the system with more products can therefore be a good first step forward, both in terms of creating legitimacy for further measures and contributing to more recycling, says Karl Holmberg.

Learning from others and future stories – important parts of the transition
Karl Holmberg and his research colleagues see different ways forward to speed up the transition and avoid unnecessary polarisation of plastic policy on the basis of ideology and gender. On the one hand, “best practice” is important for learning from successful examples elsewhere. In Australia, a standardised system is used to mark how packaging and its components is to be recycled and thus facilitate recycling for consumers. In the German city of Freiburg, reusable cups is used in a local system that has almost replaced disposable cups. On the one hand, efforts should be made gradually – through regulations with very high support, as they can contribute in creating favourable conditions, and gradual acceptance, for more far-reaching policy measures.

Last but not least, utopian or dystopian stories about the future can play a crucial role in creating a vision of what we work for or at all costs want to avoid.

– It is not a law of nature that women and left-wing voters give higher priority to plastic problems. Stories about a more sustainable use of plastic, which appeals to different groups, including a male audience on the right, can here be important tools for measures to be perceived as effective and well-targeted, says Johannes Stripple, researcher at the Department of Political Science.

– In the long run, we must raise the level of ambition, and then more far-reaching changes based on resource-smart use where recycling, repair, and sharing will have a more given role in our consumption patterns will be required, he concludes.

Based on the results, the main takeaways for policymakers are:

– Do not be afraid to regulate plastics – there is generally broad support for addressing the challenges that arise with the use of this material.

– Practise incrementalism and learn from best practice examples – begin with soft policies with very high support, but do also communicate a vision of more sustainable plastic use in the near future.

– There is clear support for an expansion of the deposit-refund scheme. The deposit-refund principle is promising as it indirectly preserves the value of the packaging after its use – Hence an expansion of the scheme could be an effective step forward.

– Swedes support a tariff on imported fossil-based plastic – the inclusion of petrochemical products in the carbon boarder adjustment mechanism (CBAM) would likely have the public’s support in Sweden.

– Ultimately, plastic use is connected to a larger problem with unsustainable consumption practices – efforts to shift consumer habits toward reuse, borrowing and lending consumer items, sharing, and, in some instances, reducing consumption should with time be embraced. Narratives about the future sustainable material use could play an important part in this shift.

About the survey
The purpose of the survey, which included survey responses from 1069 people, and was conducted with the help of the SOM Institute, was to investigate how the Swedish people view various regulations of plastic. Among other things, the interviewees had to take a stand on a mixture of 18 proposals – which included everything from “soft” encouraging measures, and instruments based on financial incentives to more regulatory and far-reaching measures.

A report has been produced based on the survey: The future of plastics? Swedish public opinion on plastics policies. It is written by Karl Holmberg, Sara Persson and Johannes Stripple.