By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
The research…found that 62% of the 2,000 people surveyed were concerned with the need to reduce plastic packaging and use materials which were recyclable, while 57% said price would be a main driver for their purchases in the next 10 years.
After scouring the internet and checking ThoughtWorks website, I wasn’t able to find the original study. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t post based on a secondary report alone. But the Guardian report accords with other research I’ve seen, and the details of ThoughtWorks findings are not what I want to discuss here, but rather, their implications, so off I go!
First, however, let me summarize some other recent evidence suggesting consumer attitudes towards plastic packaging and waste are changing. My focus today is on the UK, where I believe episode 7 of naturalist Sir David Attenborough’s BBC series Blue Planet II highlighted the problems plastics and microplastics pose for the world’s oceans and has been credited with raising public awareness.
So, even an article in a plastics industry publication, Glass or plastic? Study profiles changing consumer attitudes concedes that:
Public perception of plastics for packaging continues to erode with each news story detailing plastic bits found in fish and shellfish, and various species of birds and turtles found with plastic in their guts. Looking at recent surveys by the market research group Mintel, IHS Markit found that “79% of consumers in the UK think that plastic recycling should be incentivized, suggesting that a vast majority of consumers are concerned about plastic waste.”
Other surveys evaluated by IHS Markit, such as the one done by [the European Container Glass Federation], “found that 85% of respondents preferred glass as a packaging material and that 73% thought it was a safer material for drink packaging.”
The shift in public perception has sparked some responses. Activist campaigns have inspired some UK consumers to leave plastic packaging at supermarkets, to protest against excessive swaddling of groceries. See this BBC report from March, ‘Plastic attack’ packaging protesters hit Tesco near Bath, as well as a more recent Country Living account from earlier this month, I left all my plastic at the till in Waitrose, Lidl and Sainsbury’s, and this is what happened….
Even the tabloids are on the case; see the Sun’s take from April, HAVING A BUBBLE 14 times shoppers were stunned by ridiculous and wasteful packaging, followed by this last month in the Daily Mirror, Plastic waste: Supermarkets branded “bonkers” by shoppers as deliveries arrive in “unnecessary” packaging
Back to today’s Guardian report on the ThoughtWorks study:
Kevin Flynn, director of retail strategy at ThoughtWorks, said the research showed the seeds of a consumer change which retailers and supermarkets would have to adapt to.
He said if retailers did not listen to their consumers on issues such as reducing plastic packaging waste, the shoppers would simply go elsewhere.
“What is emphatic, and a little surprising, from our research is how well people can see what’s coming next,” he said. “The days of pushing a trolley around a big warehouse, buying over-packaged goods and chasing value offers are numbered.
“Consumers have more and more choice about how to shop and there will be new entrants coming into the market in the next 10 years. The whole retail industry is acutely aware that it needs to be nimble and move quickly to respond to this changing environment.”
Consumer Attitudes Fairy Won’t Ride to the Rescue
I’m afraid I’m skeptical that changing consumer attitudes alone will shift corporate practices, absent comprehensive regulation. It’s naive to expect the consumer attitudes fairy to step in and solve the plastic crisis. I’ve criticized a similar ridiculously upbeat assessment of the waste problem in the fashion industry– the second most polluting industry on the planet, only topped by oil, in Fast Fashion: Magical Shift in Consumption Patterns Will Save the Planet?
Much as I applaud private efforts to address plastic waste problems– see this post from last week on the launch of the first Ocean Cleanup Array– Plastic Watch: First Ocean Cleanup Array to Launch Tomorrow— the modest clean-up efforts launched by this and one might hope other private actors won’t be sufficient to solve this problem (even if the array works– and as this is an entirely new, untested system, that’s a big if).
Clean-up is only part of the solution. Regulation will be necessary to reduce if not complete bans on most use of plastics, and these efforts must cross national borders.
Currently, more than half of the plastic waste that ends up in oceans emanates from five Asian countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, according to a 2015 McKinsey report, Saving the ocean from plastic waste Any serious effort to address plastic waste as a global concern must confront that reality.
Now, one shouldn’t dismiss the many well-meaning efforts to get people to reduce their consumption of plastic– see this Forbes account, Five Asian Countries Dump More Plastic Into Oceans Than Anyone Else Combined: How You Can Help. I confess I’ve even written similar accounts myself. And these suggestions are certainly better than nothing.
But the small measures individuals can and should take are nowhere near adequate to address the magnitude of the problem. I’m glad to see reports that consumer attitudes towards plastics packaging are shifting. But I ask: so what? Those attitudes alone won’t change much, unless governments start taking this threat seriously.
I may seem to be obsessed with plastic recently. Guilty as charged. I’ve just been on a diving holiday, and have seen all too much plastic waste fouling the coral reefs and surrounding ocean I’ve been lucky enough to explore. I realize data is not the plural of anecdote, but once one starts paying attention to the ubiquity of unnecessary use of plastic– and the inadequate disposal measures employed in all too many places– it’s hard not to become depressed.