The £2.6bn UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Challenge fund addresses some of the biggest societal and environmental challenges facing UK businesses today. It is made up of 23 challenges covering the four themes of the UK government’s industrial strategy. The Smart Sustainable Plastics Packaging (SSPP) Challenge sits under the ‘Clean Growth’ theme, which supports the development, manufacture and use of low-carbon technologies, systems and services.
Described as the largest and most ambitious UK government investment, to date, in sustainable plastics research and innovation, the SSPP Challenge is funding more than 80 projects that aim to deliver a reduction in unnecessary and single-use plastic packaging, increase the uptake of reuse and refill systems and support new and improved recycling technologies. This includes a £50m investment in large-scale demonstrator projects (including cutting edge recycling plants) and £8m in 10 collaborative research projects, where universities and private sector partners are finding innovative solutions to existing issues with plastic packaging.
UKRI commissioned Winning Moves to complete the second phase of an independent evaluation of the SSPP Challenge. Building on Evaluation Framework and baselining reports delivered in Phase 1, the main outcomes of this work were:
- A process evaluation to assess the effectiveness of key processes implemented to design, deliver and monitor the SSPP Challenge
- An interim evaluation assessing the Challenge’s ‘direction of travel’ towards delivering the expected benefits and reviewing and adjusting the evaluation approach in preparation for the final impact evaluation.
To collect the evidence needed to answer the four process evaluation questions, and to assess the progress of challenge delivery, Winning Moves completed the following work elements:
- A review of project applications to familiarise ourselves with the different workstreams and the innovative and highly technical projects that universities, the private sector and partners are delivering
- A programme of semi-structured interviews with project applicants, where we spoke with 52 project leads and partners representing 67 projects to explore their experiences of different aspects of the challenge, including the application process and their engagement with UKRI and delivery partners
- Delivery and analysis of an online survey with successful and unsuccessful project applicants, to capture progress against performance indicators (e.g. value of project-level investment, tonnes of ‘problematic and unnecessary’ single-use plastic packaging removed from market)
- Interviews with a range of Challenge staff from UKRI, UK Knowledge Transfer Network (UKKTN) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to discuss the goals, aims and objectives of SSPP, together with their views on key processes used to design, deliver, manage and monitor Challenge activities and impacts.
- Delivery of two surveys with Circular Plastics Network (CPN) and Plastics Pact members, to explore their awareness and understanding of the SSPP Challenge, and how its activities help to address wider issues relating to Plastics Packaging and the Plastics sector.
Using this mixed-method and multi-faceted research approach, Winning Moves engaged with more than 100 individuals directly involved in the delivery of the SSPP Challenge, and many more wider stakeholder organisations.
Our interim progress evaluation provided UKRI with evidence that the Challenge is on target to realise its intended impacts and that several projects are likely to deliver impact within the lifetime of the Plastics Pact targets. The final report also made several recommendations to support delivery of the Phase 3 Evaluation, including the use of theory-based evaluation principles and Contribution Analysis to assess impact.
Our project team also produced a Process Evaluation report, which we hope UKRI will use to make improvements to the management and delivery of SSPP up to 2025 and to inform the design and implementation of similar activities in the future.
Reflecting the success of this Phase 2 evaluation, UKRI have commissioned Winning Moves to conduct the next phase of the SSPP Evaluation, which will assess the impacts and value for money of the Challenge, over the five years of its delivery.