A Bandwagon Made of Plastic

09 May 2018

Whilst flying to Copenhagen for meetings with the European Environment Agency, I happened to flick through the in-flight magazines. The articles included a media company boasting about removing single-use plastic from its supply chain and a start-up that was apparently “repurposing” plastic waste. There was also a piece on an initiative in Africa that pointed out (and I paraphrase) “it’s all very well you Europeans getting angsty about your coffee cups, but actually virtually all of the plastic in the sea comes from developing countries where we have virtually no waste management systems.”

The message of plastic pollution and its environmental impact has by no means been restricted to the somewhat niche market that is in-flight magazines. In fact, it reflects what could be described as a plastic pollution craze which has swept the UK over the recent months. Not stopping at traditional media coverage, plastic pollution has been addressed by politicians and celebrities reaching social media where videos of “seas of plastic” are shared by Facebook friends emerging as environmental campaigners.

This increased awareness of environmental matters is, of course, a marvellous thing – although it is rather tempting to roll my eyes and mutter something about why the English language needs the words zeitgeist and bandwagon. However, as an eternal optimist, I pushed aside any cynicism towards the marketing departments of large multinationals, and instead set my mind to understanding how it has come to be that the world has rather suddenly decided that plastic waste is worse than the devil himself. Surely it takes more than a single BBC wildlife programme to change us all into eco-warriors? Can we learn something from this event that can be harnessed to help tackle other environmental issues?

Plastic waste is of course something that environmentalists have been campaigning about for decades. Recently we have had an entree of plastic micro-beads, the starter of Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall and his coffee cups, and now the main course of the BBC’s Blue Planet II. Acclaimed as the most watched television show of 2017, Attenborough’s final words have clearly struck a chord with a wide audience and to be fair, who can blame them:

“It is now clear our actions are having a significant impact on the world’s oceans. [They] are under threat now as never before in human history. Many people believe the oceans have reached a crisis point.

“Surely we have a responsibility to care for our blue planet. The future of humanity, and indeed all life on Earth, now depends on us.”

So, what can we learn from recent events that might help us with furthering action on air pollution? This is a question perhaps best put to behaviour change experts. However, what we can say for certain is that whatever has just happened must be rather special as even the UK Government has responded with large sections of the 25 year environment plan focussed on tackling plastic waste. This has been followed by the recent UK Plastics Pact[1], a “trailblazing, collaborative initiative that will create a circular economy for plastics. It brings together businesses from across the entire plastics value chain with UK governments and NGOs to tackle the scourge of plastic waste.”

Let’s compare this to air pollution. There certainly has been an uptick in interest in air quality – stories in the mainstream media, concerned documentaries on TV – but there is nothing like the united push we’ve seen for plastic. Local authorities considering Clean Air Zones don’t add up to a UK Air Pollution Pledge. This is not a criticism of Government necessarily – we are a democracy and we the people create the mandate for action. But still you have to ask, why plastic, why now and why not air pollution which really does kill people?

It is often said that the challenge with air pollution is that it is difficult to present the issue with any tangible impact, largely because it is invisible and acts across long time periods. As one of my colleagues always reminds me, nobody ever has “air pollution” as the cause of death on their death certificate! Contrast this with an issue like road safety, where the consequences are all too obvious and equally shocking.

But surely this is something of a lazy excuse. Of course, we can’t easily compete with HD images of crystal blue waters and cute turtles wrapped up in detritus. But other abstract environmental issues have managed to gain traction. Climate change is a particularly good example. Somehow the message has got across that even small changes in behaviour can achieve great things if enough people join in.

With air pollution, there seems to be a reasonably good level of public awareness, but no sense of urgency in tackling the issues. In fact, there is substantial resistance to restricting the more polluting vehicles from some of our roads. The emphasis is always on the inconvenience, and not the benefits. How can we better communicate the message in a positive way?

A recent BBC TV programme on air pollution opened with the presenter in a chemical warfare outfit stood next to a busy road, the premise being that this was the only way to protect him from the harmful levels of pollution. That seems rather gimmicky. However, it was interesting to see where the locals were able to have the greatest impacts on poor air quality: at the primary school. It seems that we are prepared to take on board more significant inconveniences if it avoids harming our children.

So how do we create our own “Attenborough moment” for air quality? It’s difficult to know where that touch of magic comes from that elevates peoples’ best intentions into genuine action, or presses governments into a response. Can we make more progress by using positive messages, such as that without cars the city centre will transformed into a marvellous space that people will really want to visit? I would like to think so.

[1] http://www.wrap.org.uk/content/the-uk-plastics-pact

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