Image: Marine Litter from Bo Eide's Flickr Photostream

Concerns about the issue of plastic pollution and the health and environmental dangers of microplastics are now firmly in the spotlight. So far, the emphasis has largely been on introducing greater regulation at an international and national level but what about changing the behaviours that lead people to dispose of plastics inappropriately?  How can we promote changes in behaviour that avoid falling into paternalistic or ethically problematic traps?

Most people find it hard to see the link between their own behaviour and remote damage to the oceans. Plastic is so ubiquitous that few would accept the idea that plastic could or should be reclassified as hazardous. It remains a far-flung problem.  And to make matters worse there is still much that we don’t know about the link between plastics pollution and harm to human health. While natural scientists focus on identifying the causes of microplastic pollution, there is an obvious space for social scientists to engage in the debates around the use and disposal of plastics in terms of the direct impact on human health, because although plastic pollution does not neatly fit into the public health agenda it clearly represents a major health threat. The recent UN environmental summit in Nairobi focused on developing a treaty banning plastic waste from entering the sea and Erik Solheim, the U.N. Environment Executive Director and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, described how:

We’re facing an ocean Armageddon…At the current rate, we’ll end up with more plastic in the oceans than fish by the middle of the century, and ultimately that comes back to our own food chain. We need to understand that if we kill our oceans, we also kill ourselves.

The truly shocking quantity of plastics entering the ocean is estimated at between 4 and 12 million metric tons each year. Recently, David Attenborough’s Blue Planet directed attention towards some hard-hitting issues including plastic pollution, overfishing and climate change. The documentary helped to bring the topic to the surface in new ways and may well have reached new audiences. Certainly, we know that there are several popular films on the oceans that have managed to successfully shift attitudes and even shaped legislation. Concerned viewers included British environment secretary, Michael Gove who was widely reported as being “haunted” by some scenes in Blue Planet. Mention was made of the scene where a pilot whale was carrying her deceased calf, (where the calf is believed to have died because of plastic contamination which poisoned the mother’s milk). The scene led to emotional declarations by members of the public vowing never to use plastic again. Gove and his department are looking at various measures including introducing bottle deposit return schemes, public water fountains and financial incentives to encourage reusable coffee cups. But can we move beyond strong affective and possibly short-term responses to images on screen?

Plastic pollution is the result of human activities and so we must engage not only with policy-makers but publics if change is to happen. Social scientists are well placed to do this. The issue of plastic pollution in the seas is an issue of global inequalities, with the top ocean polluters also having significant health inequalities.  Promoting responsible consumption and disposal of plastic waste will likely require more than simple awareness campaigns or regulation. To understand the complex processes that surround plastic pollution needs local participatory research to examine and unpack social practices.

Furthermore, while it is a simple point that plastic pollution is caused exclusively by humans, it is vital that social scientists work to explore the many social dimensions surrounding the ubiquitous use of plastics. We know very little about how different social groups use plastics in everyday life. It is not even clear how many people might be willing to change their behaviour over even simple issues such as the disposal of plastics straws or coffee cups. So what measures can help to drive change?

If the solution is mooted as behaviour change, then we might look to so-called ‘nudge’ policies. One  suggestion is the public could potentially become more motivated to engage in ‘ocean friendly’ behaviour if powerful images were carried on everyday products, similar to that already being used on cigarette packaging. Yet the authors also caution (rightly) that ‘fear’ is not enough. Indeed, the use of fear and ‘disgust’ in public health presents considerable ethical, moral and political problems. Another issue is that nudge theory assumes that we accept that different aspects of human behaviour can be separated out from each other and indeed from the social context in which they occur. It also risks using a controversial technique which claims to know ‘how ‘people really think’ and can influence them to behave better through ‘choice architecture’. What happens when people become inured to the images, where then with the nudges?

Most of the research to date has involved large-scale surveys where we find that those who witness macro-pollution on a more regular basis (maybe because they live near the coast), are more concerned about the issue. There are some examples of positive conservation behaviour with societal impact such as “Beat the Microbead“. Indeed, collective action where people avoided the purchase of particular personal care products, such as exfoliating scrubs or toothpaste, drove the industry to voluntarily phase out some products by retailers and manufacturers. It also promoted regulatory action in the US, Canada, Taiwan and the UK.

However, perhaps this was an easy transition as alternative products were readily available on the market. Other emerging issues such as the number of plastic microfibers from synthetic clothing might prove much more problematic. The point here is that without a clear and detailed understanding of behaviour at the level of individual, community or society we are unlikely to solve the issue. Education and awareness is only part of the solution.

Still, we also know from decades of public health research that much more is needed to explore how cultural ideas about being “a good citizen” or “responsible parent” might interplay with other ideas that undermine environmentally friendly behaviour. We also know that communicating risk is complex. This is especially true where there is scientific uncertainty regarding the risks to human health. For now, people can have a strong affective response to images of sea birds caught in plastic or a dead whale, but the challenge is for a sustained systemic approach to the issue. After decades of research around issues like sexual health behaviour, it should be obvious that ignoring the social dimensions of a public health risk, stores up problems for the future.

Lesley Henderson will be discussing her work on public perceptions of plastic pollution in the Brunel Public Lectures. Plastic Pollution and the Planet – Stemming the Rising Tide is on Wednesday, 7 February 2018 at 6.30pm