The Human Factor: An Often Overlooked but Essential Ingredient in Circular Society for Plastics

Blog post by ESRs 4, 10, and 11

Cottbus, a German town near Berlin, hosted the 5th network training event (NTE) which was held for 3 days starting from 18th of May till 20th. This NTE officially started by professor Melanie Jaeger-Erben’s opening speech at Brandenburg University of Technology. In this training event, we viewed the circular economy for plastics through the lens of consumer practices and social behaviors.

The next speaker, Dr. Elisabeth Süßbauer, gave an interesting lecture on the importance of pre-cycling in achieving circular economy and from a sociological perspective how plastic packaging can be prevented. Lunch break was accompanied with a poster session on the sustainable future of the plastics’ industry from consumer practice’s view and packaging-free stores.

ESR 6, Mubarik Kassim, who was also in the team of NTE 5 organizers and without his efforts we could not have such a wonderful experience, gave a microteaching on consumer practices in a circular economy. He discussed the essential role of consumer practices in circular economy which is as important as the technological and legal aspects.

Following a small break, a workshop began in which we took a look at the data that each of us ESRs had collected several weeks before this event on our every daily plastic usage. It was very surprising to see how much our individual behaviors can affect our daily waste generation. During the workshop, we asked questions to each other to find the key elements in our daily life that are linked to plastic consumption. Absolutely challenging and eye-opening workshop.

The first day of NTE 5 ended with an inauguration lecture by professor Melanie Jaeger-Erben on the topic of plastic-related inventory and dealing with affluence in our limited world.

Day 2 of NTE 5 took off with two important keynotes about circular society and resource-conscious design by PhD candidate Martin Callisto-Friant from Utrecht University and Mark Hester from The Imagination Factory, where we were able to get an insight on the mainstream circular economy discourses and question some of their aspects, while seeing how strategic design and creative engineering can be used to improve the environmental impact of existing products and new concepts.

After a short break, ESR 7 Namrata Mhaddolkar from Montanuniversität Leoben delighted us with a great microteaching about her topic Development and evaluation of future collection and logistics system for eco-designed Plastics, were we were able to look at some of the main issues of the bioplastics waste management. A healthy lunch later, we had the second part of the workshop since the day before, where we analyzed the plastic consumption in our daily lives. We could identify the main activities that generate the most plastic waste and also the behaviors that can be adjusted towards a more sustainable society.

A visit to an open pit lignite mine was a great opportunity to stretch our legs and get our hands dirty after a morning packed with theory! Heavy machinery and extensive plains!

And what a better way to end a day than good food and great conversations!

The third and last day of the NTE started with the interesting talk of Barbara Lersch from the Hans Sauer Foundation, or should I say a tour, through an exhibition on circular futures in the Design Lab 8 of the Kunstgewerbemuseum of Berlin. Following that, we attended to another important keynote from Prof. Dr. Ellen Matthies, Chair of Environmental Psychology from the University of Magdeburg: Do simple heuristics make us smart, sustainable consumers? Sometimes in fact we are lead to irrational conclusions through mobility scripts, range heuristics, and dominance of curtailment.

Next, we were able to visit one of the many FabLab workshop spaces around the world, here in Cottbus. We got the chance to hear from one of its members what they do and what we can do there! And play with some lasers!

And finally, to conclude the event, a workshop was organized by professor Erik Paredis from the University of Ghent on the topic of Designing Interventions, a parliament-themed workshop, demonstrating the application of social practice theory in policy. We officially concluded this NTE after a closing talk from professor Melanie Jaeger-Erben.

In this NTE, we got training about the consumer behaviors as one of the main drives towards the circular economy of plastics. This is clear that without the active contribution of the society, achieving the EU targets for a Circular Economy is very difficult or even in many cases impossible. Many of the designed activities like Reduce, Repair, Reuse, Resell, and Refurbish to reach the Circular Economy goals have the human factor as the main ingredient. Recycling also has consumers as one of the most important players to be successful. Therefore, the innovation trends and solution developments should be designed in a way that the societies are not overlooked and considered as one of the main parties.

The first step to guide the consumers towards more sustainable behaviors is to examine the current situation of the society’s preferences. Gathering information about these preferences is not always an easy job. Choice of proper statistical society, including its scale and the members’ spectrum of interests are key to be able to draw reliable conclusions. On top of that demographic and time-dependent variables also influence the collected information. After these information being generated, a road map to improve the behaviors and practices need to be designed. This road map should be seen as a dynamic transition which needs to be monitored over time and to be modified by necessary adjustments at certain stages. In parallel with changing the consumer behaviors, the legal and technological infrastructure also need to be introduced to seal the transition. In fact, consumer behavior, legal framework, and technology innovations go hand in hand and all should be modified in order to make the society more circular.

Initially, the behaviors which are not aligned with a circular approach and hinder the sustainability should be identified and then a systematic protocol needs to introduced to adjust those behavior. These protocols cannot simply be strict by intervening into the social practices and need to be rational. Here, creativity is the key to guide a certain part of the society at a certain stage to review their behavior and consciously take up a sustainable attitude. Personal benefits and attraction of interests can adjust the individual's behaviors and make our economies and societies more sustainable and resilient for the future.

The profitability for the society reminds us that the business and economic models also need to be revised and to be made more sustainable which is the topic for the next (6th) NTE of C-PlaNeT. NTE 5 was the second NTE that ESRs had the chance to meet in person and discuss topics related to the circularity of plastics, but this time from another perspective. We look forward to another gathering, soon in Eindhoven to review topics related to the circular business models. Whitin these NTEs, the ESRs are expanding their knowledge to a wide variety of topics which can be helpful in their future careers to have a more comprehensive view on the circularity. We use this occasion to thank the organization team of NTE 5 at Cottbus, speakers and organizers of the workshops. We are looking forward to meeting you soon in Eindhoven.