Five minutes with... Dr Chantelle Wood

Ella Rhodes spoke to the psychologist and University of Sheffield academic and lecturer about the 'Plastics: Redefining Single Use' project.

The University of Sheffield’s ‘Plastics: Redefining Single Use’ project brings together chemists, psychologists, ecologists, biologists, engineers, physicists and researchers from the arts and humanities, to develop solutions to plastic waste. 

Tell me about your interests.
I’m interested in interventions that help translate people’s intentions into actions. I also focus on testing why particular behaviour change interventions work. For example, one of the behaviour change techniques that I’m most interested in is the Question-Behaviour Effect, also known as the mere-measurement effect, which refers to the finding that simply asking people questions about their behaviour can increase the likelihood that they will engage in that behaviour. I’m conducting research that examines the role that cognitive dissonance plays in this effect, looking at whether changes in behaviour occur in order to reduce the discomfort people may feel when their predictions about their future behaviour are inconsistent with their past behaviour (for example ‘I predict that I will donate blood in the future...but I haven’t in the past’).

How did you get involved with the plastics project?
I was invited to be a co-investigator due to my expertise in behaviour change. Plastic pollution is fast becoming a pandemic, and single-use plastics are also particularly salient in the public consciousness following David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II which highlighted the impact of single-use plastics on sea-life, along with the BBC’s War on Plastic. I jumped at the chance to be involved: being able to apply my knowledge of behaviour change to a key environmental issue is invaluable from a professional viewpoint, but also from a personal one – I want the world that my daughter grows up in to be a safe and healthy one.

What has the project involved so far from a psychology perspective?
The project takes the perspective that plastics aren’t the enemy – they have many positive properties that have led to their ubiquity. For example, they’re cheap to produce, and lightweight and hardy to transport. The problem is the lack of value that human beings place on plastics – treating them as something discardable rather than a precious commodity. We’re not fighting a war against plastic but a war against plastic waste. Taking a psychological perspective is therefore critical in order to understand how people think, feel and behave with respect to plastic across a wide range of domains. For example, we are currently looking at the barriers and facilitators of reducing, reusing or recycling agricultural plastics on dairy farms, the public’s concern with respect to sustainable practices in dentistry, and the acceptability of reuse in the general public. Which plastic products are people willing to reuse and what impact does their appearance and ownership history (i.e. your bottle or someone else’s) have on willingness to reuse?

Have you done much multidisciplinary work in the past?
This is my first time working on a multidisciplinary project, and indeed an interdisciplinary one at that, where different disciplines are actively working together to advance knowledge. It’s been a fascinating experience. While psychologists have the expertise to identify and tackle the barriers to individuals reducing, reusing or recycling single-use plastics, this is only part of the puzzle. We need the expertise of polymer chemists, engineers and physicists regarding what properties of plastics might facilitate effective reuse or recycling. We need the expertise of ecologists, environmental biologists and experts in life-cycle analyses on the differential environmental impact of reusing or recycling single-use plastics, and importantly the environmental impact of their alternatives. Finally, we also need the expertise of those working or conducting research in fields where single-use plastics are particularly prevalent or important, in order to appreciate the drivers of single use and preserve this functionality.

What are the next steps from a psychology point of view?
As we develop our understanding of how people think, feel and behave with respect to plastics, and what we need to change in order to minimise the environmental impact of single-use plastics in particular, we’ve begun to think about how we can encourage the sustainable use of plastics. There are a number of studies underway or in planning that evaluate interventions to encourage plastic reuse, recycling and other behaviours related to sustainability. For example, the psychology team are currently collecting data for a study that evaluates a behaviour change intervention to promote the use of reusable coffee cups – an item that many of us possess, but don’t always use.  

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