Risk Governance in the transition towards sustainability
: An assessment of applied Risk Governance practices in the life cycle of bio-based plastic food packaging materials in The Netherlands.

  • J.G. (Hans) van der A

Student thesis: Master's Thesis


In the transition to a sustainable society, many initiatives are taken whereby new technologies and materials are developed. Inevitably, new technologies and materials often have disadvantages that manifest themselves as risks of a completely different nature than the risks that these innovations claim to reduce. There are examples of innovations with a sustainability claim that entailed risks to public health. Throughout the lifecycle of a new product or technology, decision makers can choose to take risks for achieving sustainability goals. But there are concerns about the lack of governance mechanisms (risk governance) to tackle these risks efficiently. 100% guarantee does not exist, though the internationally accepted IRGC model for risk governance offers guidelines for early identification and treatment of risks.
In this study, the risk governance of the life cycle of bio-based plastic food (contact) packaging materials (FCM) was assessed using the IRGC model. Three of these packaging materials were assessed on their risk governance applications in all phases of their life cycle to prevent or control public health risks. In addition to the assessment of the available documents, interviews were conducted for each case with representatives of all stages in the life cycle. Based on this information the used strategies are described and an overview of the motivations and barriers has been drawn up. In a next step of the research, experts were asked to share their views on the findings and identified strategies. The strategies were then assessed for completeness, effectiveness and practical applicability. The strategies per case were also compared with the IRGC model. To get insight in the presence of potentially hazardous substances, eighteen randomly sampled bio-based FCM were analysed .
It has been established that there is no structural application of risk governance in the three bio-based FCM studied. Strategies are applied to manage public health risks, but these are usually implemented too limited to effectively manage the identified risks. It has also been established that none of the partners in the chain apply risk governance to the entire life cycle. The strategies are mainly applied to comply with the relevant legislation. Guaranteeing the stability of the product properties and the continuity of the production process complete the most important motivations for risk management. Insufficient information exchange between the stakeholders in the lifecycle due to trade secrets, lack of financial resources and lack of sense of necessity seem to be the main reasons for the limited implementation. The findings of the chemical analysis provide indications of potential health risks in most of the analysed samples. Various unauthorized substances were found.
The most important lessons and recommendations that can be drawn from this study to improve the life cycle risk management of bio-based plastic FCM are: 1) Implement risk governance principles as a structural part of business operations, 2) Use different perspectives and expertise to identify potential new risks or identify potential factors that can create or influence risks, 3) Take responsibility, involve all chain partners in advance and discuss the feasibility of the expected benefits of the product and the management of potential risks in the life cycle, and 4) Be transparent, because complete openness and sharing of honest information is essential to assess and manage risks.
The IRGC model appears to be comprehensive and labour-intensive. That is why a relatively easy-to-apply risk governance step-by-step plan, incorporating parts of the IRGC model and the principles of the PDCA management method, has been proposed for small and medium-sized companies.
This study has not investigated the safety of bio-based FCM. The focus of the research was on the applied strategies for risk governance. The conclusion that the strategies applied are too limited and the findings of potentially hazardous substances in the materials examined, does not mean immediate action must be taken or the materials examined are unsafe. Nor has a comparison been made with life cycles of other sustainable or traditional products. Therefore, no statement can be made as to whether the situation is better or worse than with other life cycles. Further research into the above aspects is recommended.
Date of Award7 Apr 2020
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorLily Fredrix (Examinator), Raymond Niesink (Co-assessor) & Ad Ragas (Co-assessor)

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