Is legislation to curb plastic packaging just a drop in the ocean?

Plastic waste and marine pollution has become the millennial generation’s ‘ozone layer issue’. Governments in the developed and even less developed parts of the world have begun to step up to the challenge but just how effective can their influence be? Behaviour Change Communications Expert Stephen Bates looks at the importance and role of consumers in supporting institutional ambitions and accelerating the pace of improvement.
In March 2017, as part of a EU funded waste awareness project I’m involved with in the northern part of Cyprus, I helped organise a beach clean-up programme in Famagusta. Teams of teenagers were sent off with gloves, bags and litter pickers to collect as much waste from the beaches as they could. Arriving on the first morning, our first thought was that the exercise might be fruitless. Litter was, it seemed, notable by its absence. The beach appeared well kept, clean and tidy. We were thus shocked when students returned after just 40 minutes with bags full to bursting with detritus collected from a stretch of sand little more than the size of a football pitch.
Above: Social Mobilisation programmes such as beach clean up initiatives like those undertaken in northern Cyprus are a way to demonstrate the scale of the problem in the most obvious way possible.
Beyond the physical cleaning of the beach, the primary purpose of the initiative was to educate students on the subject of marine litter through physical demonstration of the problem. This was most certainly achieved (many of them since have gone on to volunteer for similar initiatives off their own backs). But I couldn’t help think that we’d missed a trick by doing this out of season on largely deserted beaches. How much more impact would have been achieved had we sent the students out amongst lounging holidaymakers? Such activity is known as ‘disruptive marketing’ a deliberate act to temporarily disrupt the status quo to deliver a message. It’s seldom popular amongst those targeted but that’s the idea; disrupting the silence so a message can be more clearly seen and heard.

Thinking how we might capitalise on this theory, as the year progressed, we found that the silence was broken for us on a truly global scale as news agendas became increasingly populated with a plethora of stories about marine litter and specifically plastic. Plastic waste (marine or otherwise) has now firmly become the new environmental cause célèbre, following in the footsteps of leaded petrol, the ozone layer and climate change with the narrative being that governments should step up and do more to address the problem. But it’s not as if they’ve been ambivalent to the subject.

In the UK, the government’s ban on micro-beads recently came into effect and the 5p carrier bag levy introduced in 2015 has resulted in an 85% drop in the use of single-use plastic bags; a policy that will shortly be extended to include smaller retailers. Such commitments aren’t exclusive to the UK. In 2017, Kenya completely banned the manufacture and use of plastic bags and went even further by introducing a $40,000 fine or four years in jail for anyone ignoring the ruling. Kenya and the UK are two of 40 other countries that have banned, partially banned or taxed single use plastic bags. More will follow. What’s notable and encouraging is that in all these places, there was no public backlash, no revolt. Even the more right-leaning press typically critical of such initiatives took a more supportive editorial stance. People accepted the reasoning and have adapted proving that if the reasoning is based upon robust evidence, the population will be supportive. This is an important point when considering how to address what remains a very serious and growing problem, despite the positive steps taken so far. There clearly exists the need to make existing legislation more robust and scope for greater government intervention but we also need to recognise that government influence has limitations.

Governments tend not to like imposing controls that might be seen as restrictive to the notion of free market economics. Businesses already face a number of legal obligations that require the allocation of resource and money so anything that adds to this burden will often be met with opposition, no matter how urgent or worthy the objective may be. In any case, it’s arguable as to just how effective such legislation may be in stemming the tide of plastic finding its way into the waste stream, at least to a level to make any significant difference. Businesses can be highly adept at thinking creatively to levels that allow them to adhere to legislation whilst at the same time, not actually do anything differently if doing so is likely to negatively impact on the bottom line.

Legislation can also have unintended consequences elsewhere; consequences that can negatively affect livelihoods and communities in some of the world’s poorest regions amongst those involved in the manufacture of plastics to the armies of informal recyclers around the world whose meagre existence is dependant upon a steady stream of incoming plastic materials. Solve a problem here – create a bigger one elsewhere. Of course, governments must not shirk their responsibly, which may well require tighter legislation and controls on plastic consumption and disposal but for any long term, substantial change to occur also requires a sea-change in public behaviour.

Despite suggestions to the contrary across the popular media, most people in the UK exercise great diligence in the disposal of their waste. We’re recycling more domestic waste than ever and the vast majority of people would seek a litter bin (and increasingly, a recycling bin) when out and about rather than drop litter. This positive approach to disposal is the result of years of campaigning and awareness raising that now needs to be replicated further upstream, moving from the point of disposal to the point of purchase.

If the market begins to make buying decisions based upon the environmental credentials of the packaging, then businesses will respond and to far greater levels and with greater speed than would be achieved through legislation alone. And we know that this can be achieved. Twenty years ago, we were eating way too many bad things. Excessive salt, too much fat, carbs, sugar and other substances detrimental to a healthy life. Free choice is all very well and good but when it impacts on the health service and economy, free choice has to be balanced with informed choice. Today, almost all food packaging carries nutritional advice and supermarkets have entire aisles dedicated to ‘free from’ and ‘added goodness’ produce. Food manufacturers have changed recipes to cater for more health-conscious consumers from soft drinks to breakfast cereals. This is not driven by well-meaning corporate policy to promote healthy living (despite what might be said by marketing departments) but simply to cater for growing demand; demand that was created through governments raising awareness of the issue constantly and consistently, resulting in more people wanting lead more healthy lifestyles.

Can the same approach be used to address the plastic problem? To a certain extent, it has already started. Given the intensity of press coverage, few people could deny knowledge of the problem. News about China’s recent restrictions placed on plastic imports will undoubtedly find its way in to mainstream media and raise further awareness. It could even impact on kerbside recycling collections affecting every householder in the UK. If people find themselves with restrictions on what they can recycle compared to previously, they will be more supportive of the actions needed to ease those restrictions or avoid them in the first place.

Above: Campaigns such as this from north Cyprus promoting the dangers of litter to marine life,
are vital components to not just raise awareness of the problem but to stimulate a change in behaviour as well.
Some may wave the technology flag for solutions and there’s no shortage of potential options. Cornstarch plastic and other oxo-biodegradable plastics, for example. These offer what appears to be some significant advantages over traditional petro-chemical plastics although hotly debated counter arguments prevail; the need to convert farms to provide the produce for these materials at the expense of food being just one. The investment needed to develop special recycling treatment plants being another. What is clear is that the solution to the problem is not binary and nor is it limited to a single entity. Packaging manufacturers, government, retailers, universities and more all have a part to play; a moral obligation to today’s society and future generations. But the driving, influential force that will positively impact upon all these institutions and the decisions they take are people and the demands they place upon suppliers to provide goods devoid of excessive, dangerous and unsustainable packaging. Change the thinking and behaviour of the people and you change the behaviour of the producers.
About the author: Stephen Bates is the co-founder and Director of leading Behaviour Change Communications firm; EnviroComms. He is an internationally accredited expert in the field of behaviour change communications having worked for over 140 local authorities in the UK and has been a spearheading figure in the nation’s move to resource recovery. Internationally, Stephen’s worked in more than 20 countries on waste education, sanitation and economic development programmes supporting environmental reform across post-conflict, low income and emerging economic regions. He is a member of the Collaborative Working Group on Solid Waste management, a think tank of leading experts that are driving progressive thinking in the global SWM and sustainability sectors.