3. Results and Discussion
Nineteen individuals completed the online Q-sort survey and exit interview. As demonstrated in Table 1
, respondents were mostly between the ages of 30–50 years (n = 14, 74%). Over half had obtained advanced degrees (n = 12, 63%), and participants were predominantly female (n = 11, 58%). Respondents had a high-level of formal education, with the majority having completed postgraduate degrees (n = 12, 63%). To ensure a high degree of anonymity, respondents could choose to opt out of disclosing their employment affiliation (n = 3); this information was recorded for those who did agree to disclose it (n = 16). In order to collect standardized demographic affiliation across the sample, an additional question was added that asked respondents to identify their primary sector of work, i.e., industry, community leaders, research, or policy/regulation. Industry (n = 8, 42%) was most well represented in the surveys, followed by Community Leaders (n = 4, 21%) and Policy/Regulation (n = 4, 21%), then Research (n = 3, 16%).
Using PCA, we identified three significant factor loadings. The final 3-factor solution was selected based on the standard criteria established by [61
], which states that interpretable factors must have an Eigenvalue greater than 1 and at least two Q-sorts that load significantly (p
< 0.05) upon it alone [39
]. Cumulatively, this solution explained 55% of the variance in the Q-sort data, and resulted in Eigenvalues of 5.2, 3.1, and 2.1, respectively (Table 2
). All respondents loaded significantly onto a single factor; eleven respondents loaded onto factor 1, four loaded onto factor 2, and four onto factor 3. This 3-factor solution represents stakeholders’ dominant perspectives concerning the transition of Ireland’s EPS/XPS market to a CE. A comprehensive interpretation of respondents’ exit interviews allowed us to elaborate on and summarize each of the three perspectives, which we labelled:
These labels broadly characterize the dominant themes represented by the priorities of each factor group. Interpretations were based on highly ranked and distinguishing statements, as well as demographic information. Furthermore, the inductively constructed categories of statements helped identify which topical areas factor groups tended to prioritize. Table 3
presents the idealized Q-sorts for each factor, while Figure 2
is a visual representation of this same data in a quasi-normal distribution, color-coded by topic.
3.1. Factor 1—“System Overhaul”
Perspective 1 is shared among eleven individuals representing all four identified sectors—individuals from NGOs, the Irish seafood sector, fisheries policy experts, local government, and EPS/XPS packaging companies. Individuals in this factor expressed the need for large-scale changes to the current socio-economic system and the EPS/XPS supply chain. Thus, perspective 1 was labelled “System Overhaul” to capture the fundamental desire to promote a large-scale, societal transition away from the current market structure. The quotes collected during the exit interview further demonstrate this perspective’s concern towards instilling a collective responsibility to reducing waste.
System Overhaul highly prioritizes the role and responsibility of industry to reduce waste (statement #6, #24). From this perspective, a lack of endorsement from industry presents a significant barrier to society’s transition to more sustainable economic practices. Respondent 7 remarked that “convincing industry that the initial costs of transitioning to a circular economy will be overcome” will be a significant challenge, and that it is important to show that the CE “in the long-term [is] better for the environment.” Moreover, System Overhaul respondents believe that systemic, long-term social changes that extend across the value chain are necessary for the circular economy to be an effective tool for reducing waste and realizing a more sustainable economy. This is highlighted by the overall prioritization of Social/Cultural topical statements (#31, #32, #33). Perspective 1 expresses the need to reduce consumption by acknowledging “that our planet’s resources are not infinite” (Respondent 9), establish an overall culture of green business instead of “leaving the semblance of the responsibility for change with the consumer” (Respondent 8), and improve the public’s understanding of the impact of EPS/XPS on the environment.
Lastly, the System Overhaul perspective showed a negative perception of market-based solutions (e.g., statements #4, #12); every statement under the “Economic” topic was ranked ≤ −1. Respondents that loaded on this perspective were of the opinion that society must “reuse what we produce” and expressed the need to “simply produce less” (Respondent #9). Most notably, this perspective strongly argues against the prioritization of economic growth (statement #17), reiterating a desire to transition away from the profit-based neoclassic economic systems that underpin the dominant model of linear production.
3.2. Factor 2—“Incremental Upgrade”
In contrast to perspective 1, perspective 2 is far more concerned with utilizing the solutions and institutions already in place, specifically recycling technologies. Three of the individuals that loaded onto this factor were from industry, e.g., chemical manufacturing companies and waste management companies, while the other was from a sustainable research consultancy. Overall, the Q-sorts and quotes representing this perspective are concerned with the feasibility of a societal transition towards a CE and argue the need for a more pragmatic approach. As a result, perspective 2 was labelled “Incremental Upgrade.”
Respondents sharing the Incremental Upgrade perspective are largely concerned with promoting the overall role of recycling in improving sustainable practices, as well as the importance of consumer use and disposal habits. This viewpoint places a central role on consumers in ensuring that products are recycled at high rates (statement #27, #7), buttressed by an improved understanding of recycling labels (statement #26). Comments made by Respondent 1 capture this belief well: “Companies, regulators, governments and NGOs can only do so much. Society as a whole, and individuals need to understand that changes in their behaviors are needed if there is to be a successful transition to the circular economy.” Furthermore, Incremental Upgrade endorses not only the disposal and waste management benefits of recycling, but also the potential economic opportunities presented by a market for recycled EPS/XPS materials (statement #12).
While reducing the impact of littered EPS/XPS on the marine environment is a concern (statement #35), stakeholders associated with Incremental Upgrade do not see alternatives, i.e., biodegradable materials, as a viable solution (statement #9, #13). Instead, this perspective is more concerned with reusing materials already in the value chain (statement #1), and sees EPS/XPS as a valuable material (statement #31). Overall, this perspective demonstrates a desire to move towards more sustainable practices, e.g., widespread recycling, however there is skepticism as to the economic feasibility of a full transition to circular business models. For example, Respondent 6 commented:
“Beyond the question of achievability is the notion of desirability for business. In the current situation, trying to reach a 100% recyclability rate might prove counterproductive, if for instance, the price of recovery remains higher than the value of the materials recovered. Lack of incentives in the existing regulatory landscape does not necessarily make it desirable for all to pursue a circular economy objective”.
As a result, the Incremental Upgrade perspective views the circular economy as requiring significant capital investment that, without full buy in from all sectors across the value chain, is not a viable model of sustainable business.
3.3. Factor 3—“Market Innovation”
Perspective 3 is defined by four Q-sorts and includes individuals from a marine policy state organization, chemical manufacturing companies, and EPS/XPS retailers. The Q-sorts and exit interviews that make up perspective 3 prioritize technological innovation within a competitive market place and are augmented by an underlying uncertainty regarding top-down regulatory approaches. Therefore, perspective 3 was labelled “Market Innovation,” corresponding to the high value placed on alternatives to EPS/XPS materials and economic incentives to drive a transition to sustainable business without solely relying on regulatory forces.
Respondents aligning with the Market Innovation perspective express a need to reduce the amount of EPS/XPS in the market (statement #31) and replace it with products that present a lower environmental burden (statement #9). To realize the circular economy, a technical transition away from EPS/XPS materials needs to be coupled with a “huge culture change (Respondent 4)”, with consumers recognizing their role in preventing EPS/XPS litter (statement #33) alongside an overall increase in recycling (statement #27). Reducing the economy’s impact on the environment is a priority from this perspective (statement #6, #35); however, so is product quality (statement #4) and profitability. Respondent 4 described, “the key challenge is to convince the whole value chain that we can grow and remain profitable in a circular economy.” Building from these priorities, the Market Innovation perspective places value on providing economic incentives to spur advancements in material technologies, and to expand the scope of operations for key sectors throughout the product lifecycle (statement #14). Respondent 5 reiterated the need for economic incentives, stating, “businesses will require funding and technical supports to make the transition to the circular economy.”
Notably, respondents associated with the Market Innovation perspective have an overall negative perception of institutional/regulatory-based initiatives. While this perspective acknowledges a prominent gap in the current policy paradigm, it also highlights a strong aversion to increasing the sectors’ regulatory role over waste management, as well as increasing their role in the transition to a circular economy (e.g., statements #19, #20). In addition, Market Innovation does not prioritize the implementation of theoretically popular market mechanisms, including CE business certification schemes (statement #16) or return and deposit schemes (statement #25). However, Market Innovation respondents do acknowledge that, without “proper implementation” and a “clear regulatory and policy framework,” a CE transition presents an uncertain future for the commercial viability of business across sectors (Respondent 16). Respondent 16 noted that their biggest concern with regards to the CE is “that the proper framework won’t be put in place to create an actual circular economy,” and that it won’t be “correctly enforced across each industry; rather pin pointed at certain areas.” The latter could indicate a lack of trust in existing institutional/regulatory structures ability to implement CE in practice as it is intended in theory, reflected in perspective 3′s somewhat juxtaposing viewpoints. On the one hand, perspective 3 acknowledges that appropriate realization of CE requires adequate regulatory and policy frameworks, while on the other hand, they do not deem an increase of associated regulation is favorable.
This is further demonstrated by the perspective’s polarized views towards industry and waste; participants recognize the need to reduce the amount of waste produced by industry (statement #6), yet do not believe industry should bear the responsibility for that waste (statement #24). This highlights that although the Market Innovation perspective does not support a system overhaul per se, as demonstrated in perspective 1, it points to certain aspects in the existing system that are perceived to require transformation, with particular emphasis on shared responsibilities concerning the cost of any such transformation. These views substantiate the earlier findings regarding the role and importance of consumers and product innovators in reducing waste, either through increased recycling rates or the use of alternative, environmentally benign materials. Factor 3 recognizes the need for industry to reduce their waste production—a reflexive position, considering this perspective is dominated by industry members. As such, the Market Innovation perspective sees the transition to a CE as a collective effort that requires stringent action from a range of stakeholders, from consumers, industry, to law-makers.
3.4. Consensus and Distinguishing All Statements
The CE is an emerging and complex policy issue which inevitably elicits an assortment of stakeholder opinions related to future concerns and opportunities. As such, a complete understanding of the subjective landscape surround CE requires a deep examination of the areas in which discourses interrelate, both positively and negatively. Earlier sections of this paper identified the principal narratives of the three perspectives based on dominant parts of the respective discourses. In the proceeding sections, we delve deeper into the CE policy space in Ireland’s EPS/XPS market by highlighting existing areas of consensus and conflict as related to the Q-sorts.
3.5. Points of Consensus
Consensus statements are identified by comparing the z-scores of factor groups and isolating statements where comparisons are not significant [68
]. Furthermore, the overall compatibility of the perspectives can be assessed by checking the degree of correlation between the three factors [36
], which is shown in Table 4
. Consensus statements are pivotal issues for building a common policy direction for transitioning Ireland’s EPS/XPS market to a CE because they represent discourses that all three perspectives find either mutually acceptable or unacceptable [57
]. These discourses can ultimately be used to drive the CE debate forward.
Five statements were identified that demonstrate existing areas of consensus within the CE policy space (see Table 5
). That said, perspectives maintain a relatively neutral view towards these consensus statements, suggesting these discourses are not as urgent of a priority as are others. For example, the three perspectives share a neutral view on the priority of expanding the awareness of EPS/XPS’s impact on the marine environment. Given the narratives of the three perspectives, it is clear that the neutral stance shown here is not apathy towards EPS/XPS marine litter. Indeed, Factors 2 and 3 highly prioritized reducing the amount of EPS/XPS marine litter, while Factor 1 highly prioritized the role of consumers in preventing EPS/XPS marine litter as well as reducing industry waste overall. Rather, this consensus shows an agreement between perspectives that collective effort must look beyond simply raising awareness and move towards solution-based initiatives.
It is interesting to note that 60% of the consensus statements relate to technical measures—suggesting a realization that innovation will be key to any short-term transition to CE, and should be prioritized over regulatory and financial interventions. It could be argued that this agreement around technical measures frames the transition to a CE as a potential opportunity for new skills, which in turn may spur innovations in product and process systems. Technical interventions may be more widely accepted by multiple stakeholders, as innovation could facilitate both the current use (and re-use) of XPS/EPS and the identification of alternative products. There is a view across the board that innovation rather than regulation offers the best route to CE. Interestingly, this conclusion compliments that of [22
], whose research found “technological barriers” to be the least pressing to stakeholders of all examined barriers to a CE transition.
The impact on the marine environment is also a point for consensus. This is perhaps influenced by the wider media coverage of marine litter and plastic pollution that has raised societal awareness to the point that citizens understand the implications for food, health, and environmental costs [69
3.6. Points of Conflict
Eleven statements represent points of conflict within the discourse space (see Table 5
). Points of conflict were identified by analyzing the variance across factor groups’ z-scores with respect to each statement [68
]. Such statements represent contentious topics within Ireland’s CE debate in the context of EPS/XPS and demonstrate where stakeholders hold conflicting and polarized viewpoints. Furthermore, conflict statements were distinguished by either a single perspective (e.g., #23, where one factor group has a significantly different priority), or by each perspective (e.g., #4, where all factor groups have significantly different priorities). This information is key to understanding where inter-stakeholder confrontation is likely to occur within the CE transition debate [70
], as well as which stakeholder groups may oppose particular aspects of transitioning Ireland’s EPS/XPS market to a CE.
Of the identified conflict statements, four of the 11 pertained to economic and financial priorities, demonstrating that the most contentious topics within the Ireland’s EPS/XPS-CE debate are economic and market-based. This mirrors conclusions drawn by previous studies that argue economic- and market-based issues hamper society’s transition towards a CE, specifically with regard to the economic viability of CE initiatives [22
]. For example, there is a clear divide between perspectives as to where economic incentives should be directed, e.g., towards reducing the cost of alternatives versus promoting a market for recycled materials.
In addition to contentious economic discourses, there is also disagreement across the perspectives with regard to the future use of EPS/XPS materials, and its viability as a sustainable, environmentally benign product. Factor’s 1 and 3 generally agree that reducing the use of EPS/XPS products is a major priority (Statement #31), while Factor 2 strongly disagrees with this statement and rather prioritizes the development of a market for recycled EPS/XPS. This shows a clear divide between stakeholders’ viewpoints between the need to pursue alternative materials and the need to work within the current material production and supply chain. This area of conflict is unsurprising yet nontrivial; stakeholders’ relationship with and dependence on EPS/XPS products varies significantly and must therefore be respected in future policy decisions and regulatory interventions.
3.7. The Perspectives in Context
In order to comply with the EU Strategy for Plastics in the Circular Economy, Ireland will have to develop and implement relevant national regulations, policies, and strategies aimed at reducing the amount and impact of EPS/XPS in the marine environment. All three perspectives discussed above support EPS/XPS mitigation efforts. As discussed previously, facilitating a just transition towards a CE in Ireland will require the participation of relevant stakeholders through the entirety of the development process to ensure that regulations, policies, and strategies are successfully implemented. Below we provide further context.
The System Overhaul perspective’s focus on social dimensions and minimization of economic impacts on the environment was shared by the largest proportion of participants. This proportion of participants also represented the widest range of sectors compared to the other two perspectives. This suggests that the System Overhaul viewpoint has less to do with a respondent’s economic occupation within a sector, and more to do with a general understanding that effective implementation of CE in Ireland requires a cultural and social regime shift. We find that this viewpoint sees the limited transitional capacity of industry as a significant challenge to a societal regime shift towards a CE, especially if the neo-classical system of incessant capital production and unjust distribution of wealth are maintained. To address these challenges, decision-makers should increase and promote communication and dialogue between industry and other sectors in order to develop compelling arguments for a CE transition. Such arguments should leverage the breadth of empirical evidence that supports the positive long-term environmental and societal wellbeing impacts of a transition to a low-waste, low carbon economy in an effort to juxtapose concerns about short-term economic challenges.
Perspective 1′s perceptions on challenges are somewhat substantiated by the Incremental Upgrade perspective (perspective 2)—a perspective largely comprised of participants who represent another Industry viewpoint. This industry-based viewpoint is primarily concerned with the feasibility and viability of any large-scale societal transition. Furthermore, perspective 2′s focus on viability for sustainable business models and capital investment highlights the economic prioritization inherent their viewpoint. This indicates a preference for improving the existing system to increase reuse and recycling of EPS/XPS materials. The Incremental Upgrade perspective relies heavily on the consumer as a central agent in facilitating such an upgrade; a point reiterated by the viewpoint’s prioritization of increasing accessibility to existing solutions and an overall awareness of the problem. This suggests that perspective 2 participants are in a wider context content within the existing system but want to “fix” the aspects that are perceived as not working and impacting negatively on the environment.
Similar to perspective 2, the Market Innovation perspective (perspective 3) is centered around promoting a healthy economy. However, this perspective’s concerns stem not from feasibility, but rather from a desire to dictate the transition to a CE by supporting the development of new technologies and materials which reduces environmental and societal harm. The Market Innovation perspective shares one critical piece with perspective 1—both associate the technical and innovation advances with a required cultural change. However, perspective 3 also highlights the importance of increased consumer awareness, which corresponds to perspective 2. Together, these findings indicate that the Market Innovation perspective may fall somewhere between the contrasting viewpoints of perspectives 1 and 2. Perspective 3′s greatest concern highlights their somewhat skeptical view with regard to the ability of the institutional/regulatory structures to support a successful transition to CE. In the absence of dedicated national strategy for CE implementation in Ireland, such viewpoints can be actively taken on board and may improve as strategies are being developed and implemented with stakeholders in Ireland. This is particularly relevant considering the early stages of discourse about CE in Ireland.
The three perspectives seem to indicate different points along the transition from the current neo-classical system to a fully circular society, which not only reflects respondents’ understanding of the meaning of CE, but also highlights their concerns. In summary:
Perspective 1 indicates a desire for an overall societal transformation, but highlights Industry perspectives as the main challenge to move forward.
Perspective 2 aims to upgrade current structures, but is concerned with economic feasibilities.
Perspective 3 acknowledges the need for a cultural change relating to and driven by innovation and technology advances, but lacks trust in regulatory structures and processes.
Previous studies have identified broad perspectives regarding a CE transition [22
]; however, there remains a lack of information concerning CE implementation for specific sectors and business models [75
]. There are few real-world examples of a fully integrated CE, thus sowing seeds of uncertainty and speculation across the conceptual and political debate. In order to promote synergies across the conceptual paradigm of transition management, CE, and sustainable development, scholars, decision-makers, and business owners need to promote solution-based initiatives that drive the policy debate forward. CE is rooted in sustainable development; it is widely recognized that current production and consumption practices, such as with plastics, present persistent problems that negatively affect the human-environment. Environmental policy has traditionally been characterized by top-down command and control efforts driven by governments rather than a multi-scale, multi-sector approach that includes the range of perspectives, concerns, and priorities needed to deliver sustainability [76
It is here the authors wish to draw attention to the use of transition management frameworks in future research concerning the processes and mechanisms of a large-scale transition to a CE. The results of this study demonstrate the complex interconnectivity of discourses that mediate agents operating within a specific economic sector in Ireland. Furthermore, in relation to transition management, the dynamics of a system presuppose the number of directions a regime shift can take; therefore, “insight into how the system works is an essential precondition for effective management [29
] (p. 167).” The results of this study provide exploratory insight into how the discourses within Ireland’s EPS/XPS market maintain the dimensions of the current societal regime of an unsustainable plastics economy, as well as presuppose the identify of future regimes. Consequently, this understanding of stakeholders’ dominant narratives surrounding CE and sustainable development policy measures provide decision-makers with a more nuanced understanding of how new policies will be socially received, and therefore their legislative plausibility [59
]. Lastly, identifying the dominant discourses of a population provide valuable insight into the ways in which societal actors exert and direct social change—this presents valuable opportunities to leverage influential stakeholders to bolster and steer the transition to a CE from within the system itself.
To explore this gap in the literature and provide grounds for future stakeholder-based policy development, we present the first in depth analysis of the priorities of stakeholder groups with regard to the contentious transition of Ireland’s EPS/XPS market to a CE. In this study, Q-methodology identified three distinct perspectives that accounted for 55% of the total variation in viewpoints. These three perspectives represent real stakeholder viewpoints towards current and future policy priorities, as well as a relative hierarchal ranking of personal values, concerns, and needs. The contrasting priorities held by the three perspectives demonstrates that the CE policy debate within the EPS/XPS market is highly contested. While there is consensus on a few priorities, e.g., #5, #20, and #33, stakeholders held largely neutral positions towards these agreed-upon statements. Regardless, consensus points present areas of common ground that can be powerful pivot points for driving forward the CE debate, as well as possible opportunities to build synergies between stakeholders that spur co-development, problem and solution identification, and social learning [29
]. From a policy perspective, identifying areas of consensus can provide advantageous starting points towards engaging diverse stakeholders to build upon mutual interest and collectively develop governance measures that are effective and implementable. Conversely, we found stakeholders’ perspectives towards eleven statements to be heavily polarized, such as statements #12, #24, and #31. These topics demonstrate areas of conflict within the policy realm that present significant challenges to a CE transition. We suggest future efforts target these areas of conflict in order to reduce conceptual and operational uncertainty, foster cross-sector cooperation, reduce conflict between stakeholders, and ultimately ensure stakeholders’ priorities are reflected in the development of Ireland’s future policies for a circular EPS/XPS market.
Our methodological limitations relate to the study’s relatively small sample size (n = 19) and by extension the number of sectors represented in the P-set. Empirically speaking, the theoretical threshold that requires viable factors reach an Eigenvalue greater than 1.0 ultimately restricts the final number of possible factor groups. Therefore, a larger sample size may have resulted in a larger number of distinct factors, especially if respondents represented stakeholder groups that were not engaged in this study. Thus, the authors note that this research is an exploratory study meant to provide nuance to the complexity of discourses within Ireland’s EPS/XPS market transition to a CE, and we suggest that future research build upon our study’s initial factor groupings, as well as the ways in which the discourses relate to other elements of transition management, including power and network dynamics, social learning, and system innovation and experimentation.