I had a really interesting conversation with someone yesterday. The conversation focused on how can we encourage behaviour change across the population in regards to single-use plastics. They questioned whether, like for example with alcohol, it was difficult to give up as plastics are all around us (as is alcohol).

It was an interesting question and whilst I can see some parallels, alcohol is an emotional and physical addiction, whereas plastic usage is not. But alcoholics don’t want a glass bottle or a aluminium can, they want what is inside it! We also don’t want the plastic bag covering the bread, we want the bread inside it. So in that way, there are some similarities.

But as plastic usage is not an emotional or physical addiction, surely it should be easy to change behaviour and get us to reduce our plastic usage? If it is not the plastic we want, but the products inside the packaging, then we just need to change the packaging right? And you would think this would be easy as it was only in the 1960s that we started to use plastic in the way we do now (it wasn’t until 1953 that anyone figured out how to make high-density polyethylene— generally used to make plastic supermarket bags). Therefore, wouldn’t we just need to go back to packaging food like we used to – meat wrapped in paper, bread in paper bags, etc.?

Sadly, I know that won’t work, even if we tried to force all the shops to do it.

Why? We have changed as consumers.

We do not spend time going to all the different shops, we simply go to one large shop (usually once a week) and buy all our food there. And as we go only once a week, we want our food to last – and we think that, if it is vacuumed packed, then it will last longer.

We’ve also become more aware of how products should be stored (you don’t want raw meat juices to drop onto your vegetables, etc). Basically, we don’t like the thought of germs or eating food with any dirt on it. So much so, that Starbucks in the US appears to now wrap their apples in cling film. This was a photo I took when flying back from DC last month.

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Unless we force supermarkets to stop selling products wrapped in plastic, then I fear supermarkets will not change the way they package foods. And let’s face it, if they do not see a demand from their customers for change, why would they?

That is why we need to tackle this issue by looking at both demand and supply. This is where we can learn a lot from the innovative behaviour change work in the conservation field, where organisations such as TRAFFIC have recognised the need for demand-reduction, as opposed to just trying to stem the supply of illegal wildlife products (http://www.traffic.org/demand-reduction/).

But what do you think? How can we reduce demand? Please post your ideas!

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