The first step to recovery is recognizing you have a problem, so the saying goes. It’s time we face our collective problem: addiction to single-use plastic.
Plastic is so central to modern society that it’s nearly impossible to imagine life without it. Single-use plastics make daily tasks more efficient, easier, and just plain convenient. They’re also cheap. That’s why plastics are now so ubiquitous that they’re nearly invisible, their use as much a part of our everyday routines as the air we breathe.
Yet our addiction is on full display. As we’ve demanded more and more of our chosen drug, corporations have delivered. Think about your local supermarket, for instance. The Guardian surveyed five typical grocery stores and came away with this horrifying conclusion: In supermarkets, “plastic feels more plentiful than the food itself.” In every aisle, across nearly all brands, individual items can be found wrapped in plastic then placed in plastic containers, layers upon layers of disposable plastic packaging.
So what happens when we want to quit?
It turns out that merely opening our eyes to our daily habit may be the key to rehabilitation, a new survey from my company, Shelton Group, finds.
When asked what environmental issues they currently hear about the most, from news, social media, family, and friends, Americans reported that talk of plastic waste in the oceans is now on par with discussions of climate change. In fact, 80% confirm hearing about bans on single-use plastics. This new familiarity is correlated with a revelation. Americans now see plastic waste in our oceans as a bigger concern than climate change, the study found: 65% of people report feeling concerned about plastics, compared to 58% concerned about climate change. The more familiar respondents were with single-use plastics bans and the movement to offer plastic alternatives (actually seeing retailers, grocers, and restaurants make an effort to reduce plastics), the more likely they were to be concerned about plastics in the ocean.
Broadly speaking, the surge of concern over single-use plastic waste is a testament to the persuasive power of tangible, visible facts.
Over the last several years, technological advancements like camera-mounted drones have made it possible to view never-before-seen areas of the Earth and the discarded plastics that litter them—from pictures of miles of floating plastic in the most remote parts of the Pacific Ocean to near-daily images of marine life washing ashore with bellies full of plastic trash. These visuals are not only gut-wrenching, they’re personally damning: tangible proof, featuring disposables identical to the sandwich bag you threw away just this morning. On a much larger scale, it’s akin to the 1970s when Americans were confronted for the first time with images of seabirds and ducks trapped by plastic 6-pack rings, inspiring a campaign for consumers to snip the rings before tossing them in the trash.
Today, thanks in large part to these eye-opening images, Americans are looking for plastic alternatives. We found that a whopping 80% of people say if they had the option to buy products and goods in something other than single-use plastic packaging, they would. All too often, however, we don’t have that option. Corporations and brands are still largely force-feeding consumers single-use plastics. Think back to the grocery store: It would be nearly impossible to completely stop purchasing single-use plastics without saying goodbye to many food items and goods we’ve come to depend on.
That’s why it’s time to call our relationship with single-use plastic what it is: an addiction. The data show that the more we confront the realities of our addiction and hear about opportunities for rehab through plastic alternatives, the more committed we grow to quitting. Good progress has already been made by companies and restaurateurs banning the use of plastic straws, and more brands are slowly making these decisions to replace single-use plastics and packaging in their products. That’s the path to recovery—and it’s one Americans increasingly want.
Suzanne Shelton is president and CEO of Shelton Group, the nation’s leading marketing communications agency focused exclusively on energy and the environment.