Analysis: we know plastic is causing untold damage to the environment, yet it is so difficult to change people's behaviour around it

Ireland once paved the way for change when we cut our use of plastic bags drastically with the introduction of a plastic bag levy. But nearly two decades later, we are the top producer of plastic waste in Europe, generating an average of 61kg per person a year. It's not the sort of top 10 list you want to find yourself on, yet here we are, plastic bag-free, or not. 

For the most part, Ireland has dealt with its own plastic waste by sending it away, but a recent ban on the import of EU plastic waste in China means we now have to face up to our "chronic reliance on plastics". Plastic hasn’t been in widespread use that long, but since 1950 we have produced 8 billion tons of it worldwide. The UN estimates 8 million tons of plastic ends up in our oceans every year and plastic bottles are the biggest source of plastic pollution in rivers, followed by food wrappers. Still, sales of bottled water continue to rise, including in Ireland

From RTÉ Radio 1 Drivetime, Philip Boucher-Hayes reports on how climate activist Greta Thunberg has helped to build a potent political force in Europe.

With everything we know about the damage plastic pollution is doing to the planet, why is it so difficult to change people's behaviour? After all, our daily decisions do make a difference. Well, giving someone the information and telling them what to do won’t necessarily result in behaviour change, says Dr Patricia McHugh, an expert in behavioural change with the Whitaker Institute for Innovation and Societal Change and Lecturer in Marketing at NUI Galway.

The plastics industry is a "wicked problem" because there are so many factors and actors involved, making it a very difficult problem to address as consumers, McHugh explains. In other words, what's needed is an entire systems change. 

From RTÉ Radio 1 Morning Ireland, a report on the Climate Action Plan to curb the use of single-use plastics by the end of 2021

The "Attenborough effect" is in full swing and we’re all more aware than ever of the the damage that single-use plastic does to our environment. It has created a shift, but that in and of itself is not enough, McHugh says. "First, you need to start off with looking at the environment (around the issue) - the legislation, the politics - everything that’s involved" including industry and policy. That's where the idea of Environmental Behaviour Change comes in.

"When we go out to train people (in organisations), we give them a toolkit - what they actually need to do to create a shift in behaviour. You can’t just target everyone with the same campaign, you need to break it down in segments. Where are people in relation to change? We have to understand whose behaviour we want to change and how."

From BBC Blue Planet II, a mother whale grieves over her dead calf 

This includes understanding people’s everyday behaviours. "We can’t forget people have choices," McHugh says. "When we talk about plastic bottles, it’s a very routinised, habitual, low-involvement good, it’s something that people don’t even think about. If we’re going to ask them not to buy single-use bottles, what alternatives have we got there?" The crucial thing is that our new, habitual, routine behaviour becomes opting for reusable and sustainable goods and not single-use plastic. 

There are eco-friendly and sustainable alternatives to plastic bottles out there; the reusable water bottle industry is now worth billions and expected to rise. But McHugh explains that we also need to understand the barriers and the benefits of actually not using plastic from the perspective of the individual. "When we talk to a lot of environmental NGOs and when we train people in environmental behaviour change we say to them, you can never have that expert, top-down view where you assume you know best and you assume that this is the alternative. You have to talk to people and understand it from their perspective, their context and lifestyle and then design a behavioural intervention, or a campaign or an initiative around that perspective."

From RTÉ Archives, a RTÉ News report on the success of the plastic bag levy in 2002

"It’s not a quick fix, there is no one size fits all" when it comes to behavioural change, McHugh says. "It is a process where it does require commitment, it does require assistance and prompts for people so that they don’t relapse. When we talk about changing an individual’s behaviour, it’s not just the individual, it’s the systems around them. That’s why we talk about systems change." 

McHugh believes industries are taking the need for change seriously and they do respond to change, just look at the sugar tax. The new head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, made climate change a key issue in her bid for votes and the clock is ticking. Under the recent EU single use plastic directive Ireland is expected to reach a 90% collection rate for plastic drinks bottles by 2029 and in 2021 a ban on 10 different single-use plastic items will kick in.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Mooney Goes Wild, could you live without plastic for a week?

Ireland is also expected to meet its binding EU targets on energy and emissions by 2030. "Between a bottom up approach and the top down approach, industry has to respond," McHugh says. But to achieve our targets we have to reduce our over-reliance on plastics, both from an individual and an industry perspective, which includes research into alternatives to plastics, she says.

"This is about creating a positive message, that as a group, as a society we are empowered to change. It’s not about making people frightened or creating fear or shame or guilt. It’s that positive message, that we want to reduce plastics because of the impact it has on our own health and also the health of the environment around us and in terms of the waters, oceans and other species."


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ