Plastic Pollution and Climate Change

Title of thesis/research question: Is plastic pollution a distraction from climate change?: A study of pro-environmental behavior spillover from action against plastic pollution to support for climate change policy

Type of thesis: Undergraduate

University affiliation: Leiden University College The Hague

Research Duration: January-May 2021


In recent years, a debate has emerged around the potential of plastic pollution to direct attention away from arguably more urgent environmental issues such as climate change. Little research has examined pro-environmental behavior (PEB) spillover from engaging in action against plastic pollution (plastic PEB) to supporting climate change policy. In this study, 81 undergraduate students at a university in the Netherlands completed a plastic cleanup activity as part of a sustainability-focused course. Subsequently, these students, as well as 80 students in a control condition, completed an online survey assessing frequency of engagement in plastic PEB, climate change concern, environmental self-identity, and support for a campus climate change fund. The results showed no spillover from plastic PEB to climate change policy support. However, this study also investigated the potential of climate change concern to explain the expected connection between plastic PEB and climate change policy support. This revealed that the frequency of engagement in plastic PEB had a significant positive effect on climate change concern, but the latter had no effect on climate change policy support. These findings suggest that encouraging individuals to engage in plastic PEB can increase awareness about climate change, yet there is a disconnect between climate change concern and support for climate change policy. The results of this study have implications for those interested in PEB spillover between different environmental issues, specifically using widespread initiatives, such as plastic cleanup activities and recycling, to increase awareness about and policy support for other sustainability efforts.

  1. What were the most important or surprising findings of your work?

A key finding of this thesis is that study participants who engaged in pro-environmental behavior concerning plastic pollution (e.g., recycling, avoiding single-use plastic) also reported higher levels of concern about climate change. However, this in turn did not translate into greater support for climate change policy. These findings provide evidence to support the attitude-behavior gap, a phenomenon where people’s pro-environmental attitudes often do not lead to corresponding behaviors.

  1. What did you struggle with during the research and/or writing process, and how did you overcome these issues?

My initial plan for my research involved organizing a plastic clean-up activity; however, the number of people who signed up for the activity was insufficient for me to have an adequate sample size. Therefore, I had to adjust my research design to match the resources that were accessible to me. My supervisor and I brainstormed together to come up with a good alternative. Moreover, as I started my research early, I had time to make this adjustment without compromising on the quality of my research.

Another challenge I faced during my research was using statistical methods that were unfamiliar to me, such as mediation analysis. To overcome this, I allocated sufficient time to familiarize myself with these methods and learn to apply them correctly.

  1. What are you doing now, and what are your plans for the coming year?

I am currently in the first year of the master’s program Sustainable Development at Utrecht University, where I am specializing in energy and materials. This year, I am planning to continue with the master’s program and start preparing for my master’s thesis, which I will write in 2023. 

  1. Per the above, did your research impact those plans in any way?

My research motivated me to continue studying in the field of sustainability, particularly climate change. Moreover, while my undergraduate thesis was social scientific (within the field of environmental psychology), I am planning to write my master’s thesis on a more technical topic in order to have experience in a greater diversity of types of research.

  1. Do you have any advice for people who are undertaking this type of research?

Something I found extremely helpful when writing my thesis was starting early (while I was officially supposed to start writing my thesis in January 2021, I already started doing preliminary research in the summer of 2020). This allowed me to explore various directions and topics before settling on one. Moreover, it gave me space to adjust my research design when my initial plan didn’t work out (as I describe above). Due to my starting early, I found the process of writing my thesis to be exciting and enjoyable, rather than stressful, and I produced a better quality result than I would have if I had been pressured for time.

For those conducting social-science research in particular, my advice is to be ready for things not to go entirely to plan, since you are relying on the cooperation of other people. It is important to be flexible and adjust your research design as necessary. Additionally, when using a survey to collect data, it is important to make the survey as concise as possible; people are usually less motivated to complete long surveys. Offering an incentive for people to complete your survey (such as a prize) can also be helpful. Finally, it is important to distribute your survey as early as possible, preferably before other students working on their theses distribute theirs. This way, people will be more motivated to complete your survey, as they will not yet be burned out from filling out several other surveys.

Read Anya’s research in full here!

Author Bio: Anya Al-Salem is a Master’s of Science student of Sustainable Development at Utrecht University, specializing in energy and materials. She is a magna cum laude graduate of Liberal Arts & Sciences: Global Challenges (BSc) from Leiden University College The Hague. Her academic fields of interest include degrowth, circular economy, and deep decarbonization.

Categories Student Work

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