Changing behaviours to reduce plastic waste

Global leaders have officially agreed to combat the planet’s waste crisis, signing a treaty at the UN Environment Assembly to overhaul plastic production and consumption. The treaty is a significant and necessary step in ensuring environmental sustainability, as 7 billion tonnes of plastic waste currently litter the earth. Plastic consumption and production is a worldwide issue and our nation has one of the lowest recycling rates of all developed countries, only responsibly disposing 13% of the plastics we use. Some measures have already been implemented to minimise Australia’s national waste footprint and are gradually increasing on a state-by-state basis. In September 2021, Queensland banned single-use plastic bags, alongside other single-use plastic items like straws, stirrers, cutlery, polystyrene takeaway containers, plates, and bowls. Bans are moving producer and consumer behaviour in the right direction, but there is still much work to do to fulfil UN ambitions of a planet unpolluted by plastic. As our society continues to focus on sustainability and look for sustainable plastic alternatives, behaviour change will be needed across three key areas:

1. Individual behaviour change

Change is powerful when individuals decide to adopt more environmentally conscious behaviours to improve collective trends across the country. Refilling soap containers and buying unwrapped or sustainably packaged fresh produce are examples of easy changes consumers can embrace. Studies from the Journal of Business Research suggest that individuals are likely to change their habits when issues are made highly visible and normalised in the mainstream. Information, campaigns and engagement on responsible consumer behaviour help people feel informed and empowered to change their habits. Importantly, we need to identify the barriers to change through insightful research and then develop the strategies to overcome the barriers.

2. Community capacity building

Communities will have to band together to build group momentum from individual behaviour. Supporting communities to build their capacity to achieve meaningful change is a significant part of a multi-faceted change strategy. Small businesses can ‘change the default’ and transform norms around packaging and service by offering, rather than automatically providing, disposable provisions. Research from the Journal of Resources, Conservation and Recycling found that 40% more people refused plastic bags when cashiers simply asked if they needed one. As communities grow increasingly eco-conscious, they will seek out small businesses that actively promote sustainable and creative waste solutions. Social enterprise initiatives like Containers for Change will be important in facilitating this community shift to improve recycling behaviours.

3. Stakeholder engagement

Change must be implemented at the highest level – industry – if it is going to be effective and long-lasting, and it is going to require significant levels of stakeholder engagement to implement business practice change. Beyond increased legal mandates, industry will face increasing pressure to proactively pursue environmentally conscious initiatives to reflect the social climate. A PWC consumer research survey indicates that corporations who adopted genuine ESG initiatives, such as Qantas’ world-first zero-waste flight and Coles’ REDcycle soft plastic scheme, have been publicly praised and seen increases in business productivity. While ‘green-washing’ should be avoided at all costs, industries must implement real and meaningful ESG practices to engage stakeholders as the movement for plastic waste solutions becomes much larger.

Should you require support?

Should you require support with your community engagement strategy, please contact Group Executive Director Helen Hutchings.