UK Consumers Sour on Plastic Packaging

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 Guardian today discusses a recent study by ThoughtWorks that found “The number one issue for British shoppers in the next decade will be to reduce packaging and use more recyclable materials.”

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.


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  1. FluffytheObeseCat

    Over-packaged consumer goods aren’t swaddled in plastic in order to benefit the customer. Consumer items are over-packaged to deter theft, to make shipping safer for the distributor, and to advertise the item when it hangs in a store.

    The consumer gets to carve her purchase out of its clear plastic clamshell+cardboard ad+plastic zip ties+plastic film sleeves when she get it home. And she has to dispose of all the packaging…… after she put a bandaid on her plastic-sliced fingers. It’s no screaming benefit for anyone except the manufacturers on the other side of the globe and the stateside distributors, branders, and big box shops.

    We kind of notice this.

    1. wilroncanada

      +++The only other thing I would add is that the ‘to deter theft’ part is because the business does not want to hire store staff to actually help customers, thereby making the store easy pickings for theft, including by employees pi$$ed off at owners/managers, especially neo-titan owners.

  2. oaf

    As Earth-friendly options become more available, practical,and affordable, more of us will use them… more often. Manufactures and retailers will eventually cave. It is in the interest of not alienating one’s consumer base! Most of us really do wish for our Earth to continue; and heal, and thrive!

  3. Louis Fyne

    plastics are a symptom, not the cause.
    The cause is the intercontinental supply chain. You cant have Moroccan citrus in London or Mexican avocados in Boston or Mauritius jeans in Seattle without plastic.

    Plastic regulation can only go so far. Consuming less is the only answer. But most people dont like channeling their inner henry david Thoreau, if they even know who he was.

  4. John Zelnicker

    Jerri-Lynn – Please stay obsessed with plastic and its hazards to life on this planet. These are important articles.

    Consumer desire and enthusiasm may not be sufficient to solve the plastics problem, but I think it is a necessary condition for wide-spread acceptance of the elimination of most plastics that is necessary.

    You have brought a new focus to NC with your obsession with plastics that, IMHO, is a valuable addition to the discussions. It fits right in with the neo-liberal destruction of the economy and its natural resources. And, it’s a problem that we can all do something to alleviate even if only eschewing the use of as much plastic as we can.

  5. lyman alpha blob

    Good to know someone is conducting surveys at least.

    My efforts to buy condiments in a glass container these days are largely fruitless, supposedly because the food companies are just giving us all what the consumer demands, and yet I don’t remember anyone asking me what I preferred before they took the glass away.

    1. marieann

      This was something that really bothered me, the demise of the glass containers. Slowly I have been winning that battle by making my own(dressing) or buying local (honey) or no longer using it (ketchup) or buying in bulk with my own containers(molasses)

      I also don’t remember being asked and I specifically wrote to companies and told them to stop.

      I will be glad to see every last one of corporate henchmen in hell

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      For a long time, men and women have used ‘packaging’ to sell themselves.

      The packaging here could be single-use cosmetics, for example.

  6. Code Name D

    The problem isn’t just the indistry – but economic academia as well. Appart from NC, no one is talking about post-cunsomption materials. Even the matiral chains economey used by the hetrdox waste and disposal systems. Adn given how much of our economey that must be geared twords waste, how can existing modles exclude this?

  7. Anarcissie

    I expect that eventually plastic-eating microorganisms will appear. One of the many disadvantages of plastic (with few exceptions) is that it is chemically active; it reacts to a number of substances that may come in contact with it; it’s not inert like glass. It also contains usable energy. Microbes have learned to break down a number of difficult compounds; no reason some of them can’t get after plastic.

    Of course, only God knows what they’ll turn it into. I envision bacterial froth monsters coming ashore at Malibu….

    1. J7915

      IICR and I can think of links, there have been hints of plastic eating, devouring?, bacteria. I am acquainted with a prof at Tulsa U, Tulsa, OK, who is studying that area.

  8. Ignacio

    I’m afraid I’m skeptical that changing consumer attitudes alone will shift corporate practices, absent comprehensive regulation.

    100% agreed. Life cycle assesment of product packages should be done in order to produce a comprehensive regulation. Packaging should be done according, among other things, to recycling/waste treatment procedures. Marketing should not longer be prioritised over other considerations. Tipically packaging complexity should be reduced. This reminds me that also logistics should also be comprehensively regulated. Integrating all companies in a single public logistics net could increase transport efficiency and reduce carbon footprint of transport.

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