Since 1950, annual global plastic production has increased from 1.7million tonnes to over 350million tonnes (Plastics Europe 2011; 2018). Such growth can be explained by the diversity of applications we see in the modern way of life, including to deliver lighter automobiles, planes and trucks, to provide safe and disease-free medical treatments, to pipe water, and to construct buildings. But plastic is also used extensively to deliver food and beverage products to our store shelves safely, inexpensively (relatively), transported over large distances generating fewer greenhouse gas emissions than alternatives such as glass (Coles 2011; Plastics Europe 2018; TruCost 2016). Plastic also helps to extend the shelf life of products (AFPA 2019; Inns 2012).

For small island developing states (SIDS), as defined by the UN, there is a growing dependence on particularly plastic packaged foods, and beverages. Several authors have researched the increasing presence of packaged foods and beverages in some Pacific nations (Cassels 2006; Petrou & Connell 2017; Snowdon & Thow 2013; Thow et al. 2011). In the Caribbean, Gereffi and Christian (2010) suggest that for some countries, the dependency is as high as 100%.

Though plastic packaged goods can support food availability in SIDS, there is limited capacity to manage plastic which is often manufactured and exported from more developed economies.  And with small land mass and population, but extensive oceans (Phillips & Thorne 2013; UN 2014) SIDS have limited economies of scale and the circumstance of distance to markets – both source markets for products and secondary materials markets.

To date the empirical evidence documenting the global flows of plastic food and beverage packaging material (‘plastics’) to and through SIDS is missing. This study focuses on plastics resulting from consumption in four case study SIDS across three geographical regions – Pacific, Caribbean, and Indian Ocean. Using empirically sourced mixed methods data (n= 134 semi structured interviews, n=120 structured interviews, n=92 online survey; n=3 packaging audits, informal discussions and observation), the research maps what is called ‘The Plastics System’.

Using an adaptation of a value chain and integrated sustainable waste management frameworks, the study will map the System centred around a ‘Plastics Chain’, documenting the activities (and the actors) which facilitate plastic packaging material generation and management in SIDS. Factors (and stakeholders) which influence the activities including political, economic, social, technology, and geography factors, will be examined, as well as what existing support is available to actors operating in the Chain. The study will then identify innovation which is locally appropriate which could enhance and improve the current SIDS Plastic System. By examining innovation opportunities, the question of where the responsibility for change sits is explore, while acknowledging the complexity of the System.

The study uses multiple disciplines including environmental management, geography, business strategy, psychology and sociology to holistically analyse the what, who, how, why, where and when of this complex, and location specific, SIDS Plastics System. The study seeks to answer the following research question:

How could documenting the flow of plastic food and beverage packaging material (‘plastics’) to and through Small Island Developing States (SIDS) help identify locally appropriate innovation to effect change?

Funding:  Australian Research Training Program
Advisors: Dr Karen McNamaraAssociate Professor Kelly Fielding

Project members


PhD candidate - Conferred December 2020