In this article, we assess individuals’ perceptions of single-use plastic items. In this context, we conducted a study in partnership with Invisible Nature, a consulting firm whose mission is to offer businesses, authorities and NGOs impactful solutions that lead to system-level changes for a sustainable future.

The research consisted of an online survey conducted on our platform between 16th and 17th of October on www.questia.ro with 1000 respondents, aged 18-64 years old. In terms of topics approached, we focused on the reasons people use or avoid using disposable plastic articles; what types of practices they would endorse, and who should be the main responsible for reducing plastic waste.

Overview

Earlier in October, the European Parliament has voted for a ban on single-use plastic, on items for which alternatives already exist, in a bid to mitigate ocean pollution – a move that has been largely praised by architects, designers and brands. Single-use plastic items include cotton buds, cutlery, plates, straws, drink stirrers and balloon sticks banned in all EU countries by 2021. According to the European Commission, more than 80 per cent of marine litter is made up of plastics, with the products included in these restrictions constituting over 70 per cent of this figure.

According to Statista, the global plastic production was of 335 million metric tons (Europe accounts for 18%) and seems to be on an ascending trend, unfortunately. One of the largest producers of plastic in the world is China, with a production of one quarter out of the total world production.

In the U.K, major supermarkets and stores have have signed up to WRAP’s (Waste and Resources Action Programme) UK Plastics Pact – an industry initiative which aims to transform the way businesses use plastic and prevent plastics polluting the environment. For instance, Iceland supermarket became the first one to announce plans to go plastic-free on all own brand products such as frozen delights like vegetables, burgers and hash brown fries – and is hoping to complete the move by the end of 2023. It’s also trialling reverse vending machines, which reward you with 10p to spend in store for each plastic bottle (purchased from the store) that’s recycled. Morrisons wants to replace black plastic trays, used for fresh meat and fish, which will be phased out by the end of 2019. The supermarket also announced that it will reward customers with 100 loyalty points (worth 10p) if they bring their own plastic containers in for deli meat and fish. Sainsbury says 83% of their own brand packaging is already widely recyclable – they’ve also reduced their own brand packaging by 35% since 2005 and 40% of their packaging already uses recycled content. Read more on how other supermarkets have tackled the issue here.

Other positive examples have been embraced by Starbucks, the first UK coffee chain to introduce a national “latte levy” - a 5 penny charge on single-use paper coffee cups - in a bid to reduce the overuse and waste of 2.5bn disposable cups every year. The initiative means its customers will have to pay an extra 5 penny on the cost of any drink in a single-use paper cup in a bid to encourage them to switch to reusable mugs or tumblers.

In Romania, several supermarkets and hypermarkets have adopted different plans for reducing single-use plastic items, while in Bucharest, the City Hall wants to create a metropolitan network of 50 public docks, with an investment of over 1 million dollars, in over 50 locations (hospitals, churches, public squares etc.).

Alternatives to single-use plastic items include and are not limited to:

  • Having special water filters at home, instead of buying water plastic bottles and ordering tap water in bars/restaurants, instead of buying water plastic bottles. We pay 2,000 more on bottled water than tap water and the impact on the environment is very significant.
  • Reusable coffee cups, because the to-go coffee cups are provided with a plastic edge to ensure sealing when fixing the lid, which makes them very hard or impossible to recycle.
  • Refusal of plastic straws, plates, cutlery or bags whenever we get the chance. The plastic bag can be easily replaced with an ecological bag (cotton/jute), or a paper bag. Each time we go to the store, we can easily reuse the same bag for the products we buy. Here, we can also try to buy bulk products and reduce the number of products that are packaged in plastic. See more on how to have a plastic-free behavior here and here.

Next, we turn to the main findings of the study regarding individuals’ perceptions of single-use plastic items.

Findings

We asked respondents from what types of stores do they purchase food and non-food items and generally, hypermarkets are the top preferred stores, followed by markets and discount stores. We see that respondents prefer to shop from various stores, with hypermarkets scoring the highest percentages - also because they are the most widespread stores in larger cities.

% of stores in which respondents shop 

Over 80 percent of respondents say that single-use plastic items represent an important worldwide ecological issue, while almost 20% say there are other more important ecological issues. Those between 25 and 44 y.o. are generally more skeptical over disposable plastic items.

Perceptions on single-use plastic items

Declaratively, more than half of the respondents say they try avoiding single-use plastic items, while one third say they use them due to various reasons. However, numerous studies have shown that when it comes to ethical attitudes towards the environment, responses fall under the social desirability bias, i.e. the tendency of some respondents to report an answer in a way they deem to be more socially acceptable than their "true" answer would be. The outcome of the strategy is over-reporting of socially desirable behaviors or attitudes and under-reporting of socially undesirable behaviors or attitudes.

Attitudes towards single-use plastic items

Out of those who declared they avoid using single-use plastic items, in most cases, respondents say they use fabric bags, paper bags and reusable cups for coffee or tea. The least popular are reusable bags for fruits/vegetables or food in general, most probably because few or no stores provide such items for consumers.

Alternatives to single-use plastic items (% of respondents who avoid using such items)

The main reasons why respondents do not avoid using single-use plastic items refer to the fact that they are not encouraged by shops and public authorities. Also, their own behavior is what keeps respondents buy plastic items. Like in our previous study, we show that choosing the ethical route is much easier when costs are reduced – weather costs are associated with time, money or emotional stress. Information is also key, however, as shown, information does not necessarily trigger action. But the key factor is represented by retailers' policies and the ease with which customers can make positive choices.

Reasons for using single-use plastic items (% of respondents who use such items due to many reasons)

Next, we asked respondents to evaluate the practices used by other countries and retailers when it comes to single-use plastic items. Most practices are positively evaluated, especially the ones related to separate waste collection (something that is missing in Romania), recycling plastic bottles in stores and some minimal incentives for plastics and aluminum materials. The least favorite aspect relates to charging an additional fee for those who prefer using single-use plastic items.

Attitudes towards practices in other countries for single-use plastic items

Asked what would make respondents adopt a plastic-free behavior, the top three favored practices were related to recycling plastic bottles directly in stores, the possibility to buy reusable bags for fruits and other items, as well as a legal background in replacing such items from stores.

Practices towards reducing single-plastic use items

The main responsible for reducing single-use plastic items is attributed to producers, in the first place, followed by consumers, shops and the government. As shown above, respondents consider they need to be 'nudged' in the right direction in order to have a positive impact on the environment.

Main responsibles for dealing with single-use plastic items

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