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Ecolinguistic Analysis of Plastics Discourses in the UK

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According to research from the University of Sheffield. British consumers are angry at the retail industry for producing plastic waste and frustrated with current reuse and recycling systems. The study finds that supermarkets and manufacturers use language that frames themselves as helping and supporting customers to make pro-environmental choices. Yet the research shows that this isn’t how consumers see the relationship.

Abstract: Ecosystems around the world are becoming engulfed in single-use plastics, the majority of which come from plastic packaging. Reusable plastic packaging systems have been proposed in response to this plastic waste crisis, but uptake of such systems in the UK is still very low. This article draws on a thematic corpus of 5.6 million words of UK English around plastics, packaging, reuse, and recycling to examine consumer attitudes towards plastic (re)use. Utilizing methods and insights from ecolinguistics, corpus linguistics, and cognitive linguistics, this article assesses to what degree consumer language differs from that of public-facing bodies such as supermarkets and government entities. A predefined ecosophy, prioritizing protection, rights, systems thinking, and fairness, is used to not only critically evaluate narratives in plastics discourse but also to recommend strategies for more effective and ecologically beneficial communications around plastics and reuse. This article recommends the adoption of ecosophy in multidisciplinary project teams, and argues that ecosophies are conducive to transparent and reproducible discourse analysis. The analysis also suggests that in order to make meaningful change in packaging reuse behaviors, it is highly likely that deeply ingrained cultural stories around power, rights, and responsibilities will need to be directly challenged.

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