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Waste Not
US Consumers More Concerned About Ocean Plastic Than Climate Change

New study finds bans of single-use plastic and awareness of circular alternatives are breaking through to consumers. The impacts of climate change remain much more intangible.

US consumers are more concerned about the impact of plastic waste in our oceans than they are about the impacts of climate change, according to a new survey by Shelton Group — which examined whether the recent media and corporate spotlights on single-use plastic has broken through in the lives of the public across the country.

When shown a list of 10 different environmental issues, 65 percent of US consumers surveyed expressed feeling very concerned or extremely concerned about plastics in the ocean, compared to 58 percent who felt very or extremely concerned about climate change. Asked about the environmental issues they hear about the most — from television, newspapers, friends and social media — respondents reported that discussions about plastic waste polluting our oceans (57 percent) is now on par with mentions of climate change (59 percent). 63 percent say they’ve heard some to a lot about single-use plastic bans.

Notably, 80 percent of consumers in the US said if given the option to buy goods that don’t use single-use plastic packaging, they will — which bodes well for the success of alternatives such as the recently launched Loop e-commerce platform, through which dozens of household-name brands are trading in single-use packaging for durable, refillable options.

Awareness of plastic bans and efforts retailers, brands and restaurants are making to reduce single-use plastics are both strongly correlated with heightened concern and individual action to reduce plastic use — a strong signal that consumers will increasingly demand plastic alternatives as awareness of waste grows. This tracks with other recent Shelton Group research, which found that roughly 40 percent of women have either switched or are considering switching from traditional, disposable pads and tampons to non-disposable, reusable feminine hygiene products, citing environmental and health concerns about traditional, disposable period products — “plastic waste in landfills” ranked as the top environmental concern about disposable feminine hygiene products among all respondents, regardless of if they’ve switched to reusables.

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This new data suggests that the US public is more spurred to concern and action over environmental issues that are immediately visible and thus more emotionally affecting, such as plastic waste corrupting ocean water and marine life. The impacts of climate change — such as coral reef collapse, and rising CO2 levels and global temperatures — are much more intangible.

“This is a moment of tremendous market opportunity — or significant challenge — for a variety of organizations in the consumer packaged goods, packaging, retailing and food service industries,” said Suzanne Shelton, CEO of Shelton Group. “It will be increasingly hard for Americans to believe a company cares about sustainability, which is now a driver of brand preference and purchase decisions, when a company continues a ‘business as usual’ approach to single-use plastics. It’s time for everyone in these value chains to get creative and figure out circular, reusable models, as well as material alternatives.”

Shelton Group surveyed a total of 1,013 U.S. respondents in March 2019. Stratified sampling mirrors the U.S. population, using quotas for geography, age, gender, education, and race; data were weighted slightly to match U.S. population distributions. Margin of error is +/- 3.1 percent.