The Plastics Problem Part 2

Plastic consumption, for the most part, is a decision that the vast majority of people make in the span of about two seconds. The consumption of some SUPs, like plastic bags and straws, isn’t even really based pollution-1603644_1920on an actual decision. You’re just sort of given them, and retailers pretty much correctly assume that you don’t care strongly enough to refuse. They’re like pieces of swag from a professional conference, except shitty, awful for our planet, and just overall unlike pieces of swag. Now, it’s safe to assume that in order to make any long-term reductions in the amount of plastic we encounter, we’ll have to work from the consumer’s side of things. The plastics industry will be sure to address any sort of demand for plastic, but by eliminating that demand we can drastically reduce the amount of plastic in the supply chain. The question is: how do we eliminate that demand?


shopping-874974_1920Some folks, including the plastic industry itself, think the solution to the plastic pollution problem is more recycling. They argue that these items are 100% recyclable, and that by increasing the number of recycling locations and better educating the public we can negate any environmental impacts originating from large amounts of consumption. But saying that things like plastic bags are “100% recyclable” is a little misleading. According to, the cost of recycling one ton of plastic bags is about $4,000 while the product made from this recycled material brings in about a whopping $32. And this is a trend we see with other “recyclable” items as well, like your Starbucks cup. Calling plastic bags “100% recyclable” is like saying a koala is 100% capable of hammering out a dissenting opinion on United States v. Stevens. Sure it’s technically possible, but the chances of that ever happening are unfortunately negligible.


A few places across the globe have turned to the “angry parent” strategy, and placed plastic bags on top of the metaphorical refrigerator where consumers just can’t get to them. In many of these instances, though, city or state governments tend to see a rise in paper bag consumption coincide with plastic bag bans. We’ve seen this in Austin in 2013 and in Rwanda just five years prior. It may seem obvious in retrospect that restricting the availability of plastic bags will just force consumers to use more paper bags, but remember that the whole spirit of these laws is to encourage more responsible consumption regardless of bag material. And here’s where we get at the real heart of the issue, because as environmentally-damaging as plastics bags are, paper bags, under the right circumstances, aren’t much better. They require more energy to produce, after all, so trading 100 billion plastic bags for 100 billion paper ones actually increases rather than decreases our carbon footprint. In order to actually become more socially and environmentally-conscious consumers, we have to find more effective ways to reduce the number of bags we throw away. One strategy that appears to have worked so far is charging a fee at retail locations for bag usage. This shouldn’t come as a surprise when you realize that humans are what economists call “loss averse,” meaning we seek to prevent perceived losses more than we seek to acquire perceived gains. In practical terms, this is why a $0.05 bonus for re-using plastic bags in Washington D.C. had virtually no impact on consumer behavior while a $0.05 tax on plastic bags reduced demand for these items by over 50%. Plastic bag fees have reduced consumption by 78% in the U.K., 66% in China, and 94% in Ireland. And this drop isn’t necessarily related to significant financial losses. After all, we’re talking about a five – twenty-five cent fee in most cases. What the bag fees do, though, is disrupt the automatic behavior most shoppers experience when bagging their items.


Grabbing plastic bags at the grocery store is, after all, basically a habit for most people. Few of us carefully consider the pros and cons of using plastic bags vs. reusable bags, we just end up bag-less at the checkout line and grab the items that are freely available to us. And that’s an important distinction to make, because our brains handle habit reinforcement differently than it handles calculated, complex decision-making. Now, I’m not a behavioral psychologist or a neurologist. I am, however, a concerned stakeholder seeing as how I have a brain and I occasionally use it to make decisions. I subsequently decided to use my brain to examine how brains make decisions in order to empower you to train your brain and decide which decisions your brain will actually decide upon. Our minds are extremely complex, so it’s difficult to pinpoint a specific region of the brain that is solely responsible for a given behavior. Often times, you have multiple lobes or cortexes all providing input on a single action. However, research into habits and addictions indicate that the basal ganglia plays a greater role in these types of “automatic” behaviors than it does in more calculated, thought-out decisions. In instances requiring careful thought, the prefrontal cortex takes center stage as it carefully weighs the costs and benefits. But habitual decisions? Your wrinkly gray matter delegates that shit to the deep-brain basal ganglia, a region that spends most of its time influencing voluntary motor skills, motivation, and emotions. On the surface it makes sense, transferring habitual decisions to a different part of your brain frees up the prefrontal cortex to do other tasks while you’re going about your routine. This organizational structure is the reason I can confidently rap my way through the entire Hamilton soundtrack while driving to work, a behavior that I am very grateful for. It does become a problem, though, when you’re trying to break bad habits or snap out of routine behaviors (like grabbing plastic bags at the checkout line). You can’t always rationalize or think your way out of them, because the region of your brain responsible for executive functioning no longer governs these actions.


So, what can you do then? Well, a good first step is simply understanding the mechanics behind this decision-making process. Once you understand that habitual behaviors like plastic bagging are just a cue-action-reward process that your brain automates so you can think about the best way to keep your beer from crushing your fruit, it becomes a lot easier to alter that behavior. After all, though your brain lets the basal ganglia handle most of these automatic decisions, it doesn’t take the prefrontal cortex completely out of the loop. But let’s admit that, for some folks out there, just understanding this process won’t result in a new behavior. Maybe they want to move away from single-use plastic bags, but not today. After all, Game of Thrones comes on soon and if you miss the first five minutes you’ve probably missed the introduction of 73 new characters that will become vital to the story. To these people, I say get the hell out of here. Literally. Go on a vacation. Or start shopping at a different grocery store. Studies have shown that changing up your physical environment makes it much easier to change up your habits as well. Cues or triggers for these habits can be something as simple as the layout of your regular grocer’s checkout line, or the nervous clicking sound the cashier’s nails make as they try and find the product code for your hakurei turnips. By physically changing your environment, you can disrupt or eliminate these triggers and develop different habits. Notice how I didn’t say “break bad habits;” research has also suggested that the best way to remove negative habitual behaviors is to substitute one habit for another. So, instead of simply trying to cut out plastic bags from your trip to the grocery store, how about you try and double check before you leave the house that you have a couple reusable bags in your trunk. Or, every time you get to the checkout counter, say out loud “I’ve got my own bags for these.” These practices can, in turn, become new habits to replace your old one. You could also develop what behavioral psychologists call “implementation intentions.” These specific, “if-then” statements can help change habits by verbalizing a straightforward method for changing certain behaviors. To make these even more effective, tell your friends and family about exactly how you plan on reducing your plastic consumption so they can help keep you honest. I’ve listed some ideas below for some great implementation intentions that your loved ones can help out with:

  • Every time you bring new plastic bags home, your Mom gets to ask you how your ex is doing
  • Each plastic bag you bring home means another $5 from your checking account goes to Donald Trump’s Campaign Fund
  • Each time you forget your reusable bags at home, your friend posts another one of your high school photos on social media
  • If you send us a photo of you using your reusable bags at the store, we’ll put you on our leaderboard for our monthly SUFB swag giveaway


Now, as helpful as friends and family can be at helping you work towards a goal, they are no substitute for individual diligence.  Research on behavioral change through implementation intentions have shown that, when all is said and done, the individual is responsible for their own long-term behavioral changes.  So yes, it is hard work to alter these habits and significantly cut down on your plastic consumption. That being said, addressing the consumer side of things is the only guaranteed way to ensure that less plastic ends up making its way into our oceans. Now, there’s really no reason this needs to be a one-sided campaign; a society that can spend $814 million making the Fast and the Furious franchise can also afford to finance consumer-savvy recycling public awareness campaigns, better waste management systems, innovative market-based solutions to incentivize greater recycling capabilities in both low-income and developed nations, and socially-responsible product design. But those things probably won’t happen until we as consumers change our behaviors and use less plastic. And by reducing our plastic consumption, advocating for more responsible product designs, and financing responsible market systems, we can begin to develop a global consumer culture capable of restoring and protecting the 75% of our planet that we so often neglect. Addressing plastic pollution is not the end goal, it’s just one piece of a larger mission. Cutting out single-use plastics from our societies will do nothing to expand habitat protection in the high seas, combat overfishing, or inject politicians and world leaders with a healthy dose of scientific literacy. Even our current solutions to the plastic pollution problem are imperfect; they largely speak from the perspective of a developed western economy, and suggest remedies that may not be applicable for low-income or developing nations across the globe. What this is, then, is the beginning of a longer journey towards a healthier planet. Drastically reducing our reliance on plastics is just the start, but it is a good start. After all, there are few things humans use more of than plastics.



  • As many policies as can be developed, it’s going to come down to individual consumer behavior
    • Certainly can use better product design, better communication and awareness campaigns, better market incentives to recycle and capture all forms of plastic as well for both consumers and manufacturers
  • As marine scientists, all we can do is work on ways to better encourage this behavior, clean up what is currently in our oceans using new technologies, advocate for prevention, and do more research to better equip us with knowledge to combat it
  • It’s as much a behavioral psychology issue and corporate social responsibility as it is a political, economic, or scientific issue.


Most of our single-use plastic (SUP) consumption doesn’t stem from carefully budgeted and thought-out purchasing decisions. After all, when was the last time you took some a few minutes to decide that a three dollar bottle of liquid, which is free at practically every legitimate establishment, was a smart way to spend your money? No, they’re usually the result of a split-second “sure why not” decision. This is especially true for SUPs that are typically just given to consumers, like plastic straws and plastic shopping bags. Acquiring these items doesn’t even necessitate a decision on your part; you literally just have to stand/sit there and accept what the nice person gives you.

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