An IPSOS poll of more than 20,000 people across 28 countries has found that 75 percent of people worldwide want to ban single-use plastics. The survey comes just as United Nations member states are meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, to discuss a potential global treaty to address plastic pollution.
Given the poll’s encouraging data, it will be important for a treaty to prioritize growing consumer anxiety around the environmental harms of plastic over opposition from oil and gas companies and large global plastics producers.
Any deal to come out of the United Nations talks has the potential to build upon the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, which was adopted by 196 parties to the U.N. The vast majority (88 percent) of global adult respondents to the IPSOS survey believe it is essential, very important or fairly important to have an international treaty to combat plastic pollution.
Currently, more than 50 countries — including all 27 members of the European Union — want the potential pact to include preventative measures targeting plastic production itself, rather than reactive measures like waste collection and recycling, which won’t target the source of our growing waste footprint.
Representatives of multinational companies like ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Dow have publicly expressed support for the treaty, which can take at least two years to finalize. However, the powerful American Chemistry Council (ACC), a group of U.S.-based oil and chemical firms, is being accused of leading a behind-the-scenes effort to shift the conversation away from plastics reduction.
In this vein, the IPSOS poll also revealed the high percentage of worldwide respondents who want manufacturers and retailers to be responsible for reducing, reusing and recycling plastic packaging (85 percent in 2022, compared to 80 percent in 2019). Though companies are starting to integrate more recycled content in their packaging, multinationals like PepsiCo, Nestlé, Unilever and Coca-Cola are still fueling high demand for virgin plastic production.
Developing nations tend to bear the highest burden when it comes to waste management, a situation Greenpeace has called "waste colonialism." Out of the 28 countries surveyed, the poll showed the highest support for a single-use plastics ban in Colombia, Mexico and India.
So, what about the argument that consumers aren’t ready to part with the convenience of plastic?
Though consumer support for plastic reduction has grown worldwide since the last IPSOS survey, these numbers remain lower in the U.S. compared to the global average. Averaging out responses from the other 27 countries in the survey, 75 percent of people said they want to ban single-use plastics, and 85 percent favor products with less plastic packaging. Only 55 percent and 71 percent of Americans, respectively, said the same. (Only Japanese respondents reported lower numbers, with 37 percent wanting a ban and 56 percent preferring less packaging.)
Though we need powerful stakeholders like governments and companies to lead the way, consumers have an important role to play, too. The fact that some Americans get angry when their preferred plastic bags are not available at the store is a result of a convenience culture that has only expanded since the 1950s post-war consumerism boom. It’s clear that public opinion is shifting for good, but where it lags, it may be possible to leverage consumers’ reliance on convenience to encourage more sustainable choices — and support business.
GreenPrint’s 2021 Business of Sustainability Index found that 75 percent of millennials, 63 percent of Gen Z, 64 percent of Gen X and 57 percent of baby boomers are willing to pay more for a product they know is more environmentally sustainable. Though more transparent educational initiatives are necessary to help them identify these products, more consumers are choosing plant-based meat and milk alternatives, as well as products in bio-based plastic, as they become available. The restaurant industry has begun reducing its carbon footprint while meeting consumers where they’re at with bamboo and other bio-based products.
Single-use plastics run the gamut: plastic bags and bottles, straws, clamshell containers, cutlery and various forms of consumer packaging. While their proposed elimination is a great first step, we must also raise awareness about the problems less visible forms of plastic cause for our ecosystem: for example, plastic micro-particles from clothing and other fabric that wash into our oceans, composite packaging (that combines paper and plastic, for example), and the world's most-littered item, cigarette butts.
Individuals can do their part, starting with sending a message to the Biden administration to support a global treaty to reduce plastic pollution through Greenpeace. Beyond the United Nations talks, advocating for plastic reduction in the larger supply chain can help us gradually work toward a more sustainable, circular economy that suits everyone worldwide.
Image credit: Mali Maeder via Pexels
Chloé is a content marketer and storyteller in the sustainability, SaaS, and education fields. From NYC and based in Odense, Denmark, she is a foodie and frequent traveler most likely to be found in a café. She writes about coffee, food waste, sustainability innovation, and environmental conservation.