Solving the Wicked Problem of Single-Use Plastic

Examining the wicked problem of single use plastic and how we might put an end to the environmental destruction it is causing.


We rely on plastic for virtually everything. It is used within every market sector, but plastic packaging is the king with a whopping 43 percent of total plastic waste.

In Canada, only 9% of all plastic waste is recycled, and 86% ends up in landfill sites. And this is despite a national commitment to recycling programs. Our oceans are quickly filling up with plastic, and we risk losing the most precious ecosystem on the planet.

Design Problem Statement

Our lifestyle in North America is heavilly reliant on single-use plastic packaging, which is unsustainable and destroying our natural environment.


For the full solution, take a look at the complete PDF here. What you'll find below is a rundown of the UX process that I followed in order to build my solution.


My Process

I followed a process called the Systematic Approach to Design, a process that is based off of Design Thinking principals. This process is beneficial when the problem or final product is not clearly defined.

Wicked problems are systematic problems that cannot be solved by one solution. By nature, wicked problems are:

  1. Reactive
  2. Never-ending
  3. Multi-threaded
1: Definition
  • Design the problem statement
  • Define my How Might We question
  • Explanation of problem’s significance

In the Definition stage, I wanted to clearly understand the wicked problem from a global perspective. I began with a high level design problem statement that would give me some early direction in my research. This early research quickly showed that the amount of packaging waste, particularly food packaging, is rapidly getting out of control around the world. I saw photos of garbage piles in South East Asia made up of plastic bags and other waste that clearly originated in English-speaking countries. I started to understand the lifecycle of a bread bag, and how it could end up in a landfill site in China.

I also came to understand that no matter how many habits I change within my own life, none of that would matter. The only way to have real, impactful change is to involve the largest producers of single-use plastic: the corporations that are producing it. For many of these corporations, the only way to get them to change their ways is to have governments impose standards and policies that force real change to occur.

Based on these ideas, I formed my How Might We question as my North Star. It is directional but at the same time, loose: it targets specific key players and defines the action required, but is not offering a solution or attempting to solve the problem:

How might we create mutual responsibility between corporations and government to reduce single-use plastic waste?

2: Discovery
  • Quantitative & Qualitative Data
  • User Research
  • Design values
  • Empathy maps
  • Personas

The quantitative data I found at the start was from a global perspective, but I realized that I wanted to focus on finding a solution that would facilitate change in my own backyard. After all, I had seen that garbage from Canada was being shipped around the world and was therefore a part of the global problem. I chose to target Canadian sources so that I could understand where change was needed.

But the numbers were only the “what”, they didn’t provide any insight into the “why”. In order to find meaning in those numbers, I wanted to understand why only 9% of Canadian recycling actually gets recycled; what is wrong with the systems in place that allow for this to happen. Through quantitative research, I looked at individuals in the field of waste management and was able to get to the “why”. Plastics are far more complex than glass or aluminum. Where glass has just one recipe, plastic has many. The wide variety of plastics makes it extremely difficult to sort properly so that new plastics with the required integrity can be manufactured.

Empathy map for government, corporation, and consumer

3: Divergence
  • Looking at other industries for inspiration
  • Transformation Design

In order to pinpoint the concepts at the heart of my How Might We question, I broke it down to the most fundamental ideas that I would explore in my Divergence:

  1. How have others created relationships?
  2. How have others changed behaviours?
  3. How have others implemented massive change?

From here, I brainstormed the areas where I have seen these concepts in practice. This wasn’t always comfortable - throughout this process I often felt like the models I was looking at were too abstract or removed from the problem of single-use plastic to be useful or meaningful.

Creating Relationships

Fair Trade Co-Op, The Co-Operative

Fair Trade is a world-wide co-operative that provides independent farmers a community and a framework with financial and business opportunities that they wouldn’t normally have access to. The Co-Operative is a British consumer co-operative with grocery stores, pharmacies, and insurance brokers and more than four million active members. These two organizations gave me a sense of how individuals can come together to effect positive change. Membership to these co-ops combined their voices and used democratic processes to represent them and their needs.

Changing Behaviours

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

CBT is based on the belief that unhelpful ways of thinking can lead to problems, and that we can learn new and better ways of thinking and behaving. As we learn to handle any associated negative thoughts and feelings, we are able to problem-solve and challenge assumptions.

Implementing Massive Change

Change Management Planning

When a large company undergoes major changes, like an organizational restructure or takeover, a Change Management Plan is used to get employees on board and participating willingly in these changes. This plan takes into account how the employee feels about the change, and aims to ensure they are informed, heard, and fully included.

4: Convergence
  • Bringing transformations together
  • Rolling out the product in a full-scale environment

Convergence is the final step in the Systematic Approach to Design process. It is here where I was able to pull insights, knowledge, and processes from my research and divergence to create a wholly new solution to my wicked problem.

Through the use of Integrative Thinking, I was able to use the tension from the opposing ideas during the Divergence phase and form a completely new idea that pulls together elements of everything I considered.

Pieces I took from the divergence stage:

Negative thoughts and feelings, such as feelings of hopelessness when a problem feels too great to solve, can be challenged. New tools for managing those thoughts and feelings can be learned, which makes way for the creative process of problem-solving. This idea can be applied to the consumer who will have to make lifestyle changes, but also to the corporation who will have to find innovative ways to package their goods in a more sustainable way.

By providing a roadmap to change for government, corporations, and consumers, we can ensure that there is buy-in from all levels of the consumer chain and incorporate a feedback loop so that the process is constantly improving. This roadmap includes providing transparent information, instilling confidence in the new direction, and ensuring that support and guidance is easilly accessible along the way.

My Solution

After collecting data and exploring this wicked problem through a variety of lenses, I established three key points that are essential to a viable solution to reducing or eliminating single-use plastic:

1. Better quality plastics 2. Better sorting in the recycling process 3. Engage the public
Redesigning the Supermarket Model

With a huge percentage of single-use plastic being used for packaging, I identified the supermarket as the most immediate source to tackle. Canadians are buying most of what they need for the week all at once from a few large supermarkets. This provides a unique opportunity to redesign the supermarket model so that single-use plastic packaging is reduced or completely eliminated, but with minor changes to the consumer’s shopping experience.

In order for a significant reduction in single-use plastics to occur, the redesigned supermarket that this plan will outline must be a nation-wide endeavour. For this reason, this pilot project is focused on large-scale supermarkets that can be found across Canada, where the largest percentage of packaging is purchased. Because of the significant cost that this company will incur, the government will fund the majority of the cost of designing the new supermarket and implementing the proposed model. A Request for Proposal (RFP) process will determine which supermarket company will be moving forward as part of the pilot project.

The use of standardized, high-grade plastic for food, beverages, and other packaging that can be re-used and refilled for an extended period of time. Legislate standards for plastic food and beverage packaging production to ensure that plastics can be easilly sorted and recycled, and have the integrity to be used multiple times without degrading.
Implement a deposit/return system resembling the Beer Store. Beverage companies acquire their plastic from these returns, and must use a percentage of recycled materials in their packaging. This could also be pushed out to packaging such as laundry detergent and spray bottles, where durable high-quality plastic is used. Legislate the amount of plastic that must be included in all packaging.
Refilling stations:
  1. Staffed by supermarket employees to ensure that products are always stocked and stations are properly used;
  2. Companies pay a fee to be offered in the refill stations;
  3. Option for consumers to drop off their containers with staff and pick them up filled before heading to the register to pay;
  4. Bathroom refillable products would include toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo/conditioner, soaps;
  5. Cleaning supplies, milk and water station, etc.
Wherever possible, replace plastic manufacturing with biodegradeable alternatives:
  1. Produce bags and carry bags
  2. Disposeable cutlery
  3. Q-tips
  4. Toothbrushes
Subsidies are offered to manufacturers who will switch to cardboard or compostable materials. This would help cover the cost of switching, transitioning into new production facilities and methods, and any trials that might have to be undergone to maintain the integrity of the product.
Cloth diaper drop-off service: Parents can drop off their dirty cloth diapers and pick up a clean supply for the week. This would serve those individuals that would prefer to move their dirty diapers out of their house more quickly than the usual weekly pickup that diaper services normally provide. Current diaper delivery services would have the opportunity to have a much wider presence, as currently this tends to only be an option in urban centres. Subsidies are offered to families to cover the cost of a diaper service to encourage more families to move away from plastic diapers.
Communicating the New Supermarket Model

Implementation of the new supermarket design will require a robust marketing campaign to ensure success and buy-in from consumers on a grand scale. Based on my findings during the Divergence phase, the campaign will bring in aspects of both Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and the Change Management Strategy for maximum participation.

The basic structure of the campaign is broken down into four steps that reinforce the overall message that the most important piece of this project is the consumer. The supermarket has made big changes, but we acknowledge and appreciate that the consumer will also be required to adapt and adjust parts of their life as well. Furthermore, if certain aspects of the new model need to be adjusted to ensure success, we need the consumer to provide critical feedback for the best possible outcome.

Step One looks to CBT theory to redirect feelings of hopelessness and abandonment of the cause, and instill postive ways of thinking about the issue. It is easy to feel that there is no way that we will be able to fix such a massive problem, so this way of thinking must be acknowledged and dealt with.

Step Two is using the idea of the Sponsor Roadmap from Change Management planning to communicate to the public that leadership is actively involved and invested in the success of the project.

Step Three is focused on providing a Training Plan so that consumers understand the thinking behind the design and how to incorporate these new ways of doing things into their lives.

Step Four is all about the Resistance Management Plan. By providing and communicating a feedback loop, consumers can feel they are a part of the process, which ultimately encourages buy-in and participation.

Diagram of the 4 steps of the Communications plan

Future Considerations

“The brutal truth is that if the supermarkets are not ready to lead the charge to reduce the spill of plastics into the world, it’s hard to imagine large-scale change happening at all.”

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

This plan is radical, and relies heavily on government organization, policy, and intervention. But it also relies on the consumer. Right now in communities across Canada, the discussion about what to do with our plastic waste is happening more and more. At the moment, our desire for a convenient way to preserve our food comes at the expense of our oceans. But we don’t neccessarilly have to sacrifice this convenience.

The starting point is laid out here, but how individuals adapt and incorporate these changes will provide a huge amount of innovation and iteration in the process. We will need to keep an open mind and be allowed to express our thoughts on how to improve this new system.