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Moving to a Plastic Packaging Free Society – Feasibility, Consumer Psychology and Environmental Impact

PhD project title

Moving to a Plastic Packaging Free Society – Feasibility, Consumer Psychology and Environmental Impact

Outline description, including interdisciplinary, intersectoral and international dimensions (300 words max)


Plastics are an integral part of the global economy with plastic packaging playing a pivotal role in the UK’s food distribution system aiding the prevention of food waste by protecting and extending shelf life throughout the supply chain. However, the continued use of plastic packaging has several negative implications including:

  • Reliance on CO2 producing finite fossil feedstocks; over 90% of plastics produced are derived from virgin fossil feedstocks, representing about 6% of global oil consumption.
  • 95% of plastic packaging material value, £61– 92 billion annually, is lost to the economy after single use via landfill, incineration or into the environment.
  • Significant environmental and human health impacts; each year at least 8 million tonnes of plastics leak into the ocean threatening marine wildlife, this is expected to quadruple by 2050.

Consequently, there is a growing push for alternative packaging solutions whether bio-based (from agricultural crops or organic waste), biodegradable or even a return to glass, cardboard and paper. While a societal drive for alternative materials exists the technological feasibility, long term consumer psychology and real-world implications are not fully known. Moreover, the ethics of utilising agricultural resources for alternative material feedstocks, instead of food, is highly questionable.

This project brings together diverse academic expertise in polymer packaging and future alternatives (Dr Eoin Cunningham), consumer psychology (Prof Moira Dean and Dr Emma Berry) and manufacturing optimisation (energy pathways and carbon footprint analysis, Dr Beatrice Smyth). The academic support will be strongly complimented with industrial experience provided by Waitrose who have been at the forefront of packaging innovations for the last few decades. The successful candidate will gain insights into frontline perception on packaging innovations, structure, materials and sustainability.

With fundamental knowledge of current packaging supply chains (cradle to grave economic and environmental impacts) the project will seek to quantify current consumer understanding of polymer packaging, recycling, re-use and environmental impacts with respect to growing drivers for alternative materials. Ultimately the project will provide recommendations for both plastic consumers and industry, steering the packaging arena toward a more ethical and sustainable position. For info recent projects have included:


European Institute of Technology (EIT) funded “Consumer and Manufacturing Driven Alternative Packaging Solutions from Agri-Food Waste Streams

EPSRC Funded “Advancing Creative Circular Economies for Plastics via Technological-Social Transitions” (ACCEPT Transitions EP/S025545/1)


Key words/descriptors

Plastic free society, packaging innovation, carbon footprint, energy, consumer psychology

Fit to CITI-GENS theme(s)

In recent years, as countries have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions, plastic has taken over as the “poster boy” of environmental issues. Efforts are being made to quantify the scale of the problem, but recent estimates put the amount of plastic waste at over 6 billion metric tons per annum. At the current rate of production, this is unsustainable, and the negative environmental effects of releasing plastic into the environment are well-documented. This proposed research supports the core ideal of the CITIGENS programme driving ethical innovation in packaging production. It falls within:


  • Advanced Manufacturing & Creative Industries.
  • Moy Park Limited will contribute £12,000 over the 3 year project
  • Moy Park Limited will also offer support in terms of staff time from its technical, engineering consumer insight teams., including participation in quarterly review meetings and annual reviews of research progress.
  • Moy Park Limited will provide access to primary and secondary company facilities, and student training in the use of company technology if required.
  • Moy Park Limited will facilitate a placement with the PhD student.

Supervisor Information



First Supervisor: Dr Eoin Cunningham                                                                School: Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Second Supervisor: Prof Moira Dean                                                                  School: Biological Sciences

Third Supervisor:   Matt Harris (Head of Packaging Innovation)                    Company: Moy Park Ltd.

What costs are associated with the project and how will they be funded?


NB: The COFUND research grant supports the financing of student fees and the salary of the ‘Fellows.’ Additional overheads (e.g. specialist training, equipment) are not provided for

The project will involve engaging with several stakeholders from packaging production to consumers to recycling centres

Costs associated with the project will therefore include travel, workshop and focus group costs (venues and catering). These can however be kept to a minimum using internal rooms only. As the team engage with stakeholders on a regular basis for a number of ongoing projects travel fees will be minimal. Costs however, will be covered via combined resources within the PI’s start up grant and the industrial support (detailed below).

Name of non-HEI partner(s)

Moy Park Ltd (Armagh, UK)

Contribution of non-HEI partner(s) to the project:



For the proposal, Moy Park is committed to working with Queen’s University to ensure the success of this project, subject to terms and conditions of contract which are to be agreed in due course, in particular offer support in relation to the undernoted;


Please describe the profile of the non-HEI partner and the nature of the relationship.    


Moy Park Ltd is Northern Ireland’s largest private sector company. It is one of the top ten global poultry producers employing 12,000 people across 14 European Sites. The provision of poultry products across Europe brings with it the creation of significant amounts of waste in the form of chicken litter, bone, feather and eggshells. Moreover, with a strong ethos of extended producer responsibility Moy Park is also interested in its packaging and potential impacts on the environment. The relationship with Moy Park started in Sept 2013; Dr Cunningham met with the Management team in an effort to develop innovative solutions to Moy Park’s waste challenges. The company views this project as a great opportunity to continue our strategic alliance with QUB, IGFS and Dr Cunningham.

Research centre


Polymer Processing Research Centre

School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

Subject area

Psychology of Alternative Packaging