Sociological perspectives on plastic pollution

By Lesley Henderson, Brunel University London

Plastic pollution is now a “hot” topic and seems to be part of everyday public discourse. This has been driven by an increasing media focus on the issue with high-profile television series emphasising the blight of plastic waste- the so-called ‘Blue Planet effect’ [1]. Governments across the EU and beyond are implementing various regulatory policies but there is also an increasing focus on human behaviour. After all, if this is a relatively recent, ‘human made’ problem perhaps the solution lies in simply changing our consumption or disposal practices? As a sociologist with a specific interest in how media defines scientific and public health issues and shapes audiences’ understandings, plastic pollution draws together several important strands of work within the broad discipline of sociology. Indeed, while we might assume the issue is firmly in the domain of natural sciences, I would argue that there is much that sociology can contribute in terms of mapping the problem and shaping the solutions.

My initial involvement with this research topic was in 2015 as scientific advisor on the popular documentary film ‘A Plastic Ocean’ (Netflix, 2017). The film was developed by former Blue Planet producer, Jo Ruxton who wanted to highlight the problem of single-use plastics with the ambitious mission of bringing about social change within a generation [2]. This film tracked the global problem of plastic pollution through environmental campaigner and journalist, Craig Leeson and champion free diver Tanya Streeter. Audiences witnessed the blight of plastic waste through scientific missions involving powerful images for instance children in Manila playing amongst a sea of plastic waste. As the only sociologist in a team of marine biologists, environmental scientists and eco- toxicologists this collaboration provided me with the rare opportunity to bring what we already know about media audiences, public understandings of science and risk messaging to the project.  Now familiar images of dead birds with stomachs bulging with plastics were powerful but fear and disgust can bring short term affective responses, not necessarily sustained change. Public health research into media campaigns also reminds us that that there are important ethical dimensions to using certain images to promote prosocial behaviour.

The impact of these visual scenes on audiences became obvious when funding from the Plastic Ocean Foundation and Brunel University London allowed me to explore media representations and public understandings of plastic pollution. This involved situating the film messages in the wider context of plastic pollution reporting in the UK media. I was also interested in how different groups of socially situated people made sense of the idea that plastic waste could be hazardous. As you might expect, people were shocked by the scale of the problem and the images of large charismatic animals entangled in plastic waste. The scenes involving dead birds drew gasps of horror but at the same time many people also felt that plastic was safe, risk free and durable. Few saw themselves as being personally responsible or that their everyday actions as a community could bring about change (with some exceptions).

The theme of ‘making a difference’ was taken up by environmental education network, Wastebuster with whom I worked as Scientific Advisor on a short film aimed at children “Litter Things Matter” (Wastebuster, 2018) [3]. This was translated into 8 languages and released globally for the UN World Environment Day. The reach was incredible with 1.3 million people in 16 countries and the message was carefully tailored to focus on young people, it used puppet characters who promoted specific messages emerging directly from my research (e.g. avoiding using party balloons to celebrate, emphasising that small everyday actions do matter).

Although popular media has emerged as an important vehicle for social change, traditional news media still have a role to play [4] Plastic pollution is being reported in a media landscape that is undergoing considerable change with specialist science writing and environmental journalism in decline and audiences are also receiving messages in a culture where fake or false news is a significant concern and trust in the political class is at a low. In summer 2018, I was invited to join the SAPEA (Science Advice for Policy by European Academies) working group on microplastics to provide independent scientific advice to shape European Commission policy and planning. As the only sociologist on the working group it was a unique opportunity to witness the complexity of the science that lies behind the public concern about microplastics. Natural scientists highlighted important factors such as the differences in size, shape, chemical additives, concentrations, measurements and fates whilst the social scientists emphasised that we did not yet know enough about human actions, media reporting or social practices concerning the topic. Our key findings were presented by working group chair, Professor Bart Koelmans [5]. He said that while there is no clear evidence that nano and microplastics pose widespread risks to humans or the environment that doesn’t mean we should assume there is no risk. He continued:

“As our social science colleagues have pointed out, it’s vital that we communicate clearly about uncertainties in the evidence, rather than just assuming that everything is fine just because we don’t know for sure”.

It seems obvious that there is a distinct space for social scientists, and indeed sociologists, to engage in plastic pollution and clearly sociology of media has a part to play. Plastic pollution might not (yet) fit into the public health agenda however it clearly represents a major health threat. Plastic pollution is also the result of human activities and so we must engage not only with policy-makers but publics if change is to happen. Sociologists are well placed to do this. The issue of plastic pollution in the seas is underpinned by global inequalities and the ‘top ocean polluting countries’ such as Indonesia and the Philippines have significant health inequalities. Currently I am working with colleagues in Sri Lanka and Nigeria who have been supported by the Commonwealth Blue Charter fellowship scheme. Promoting responsible consumption and disposal of plastic waste requires more than simple awareness campaigns or regulation. To understand the complex processes that surround plastic pollution, local participatory research is needed to examine and unpack social practices.  The powerful discourse of waste ‘mismanagement’ which pervades much of the plastic pollution reporting also needs to be challenged and as others have pointed out, the plastic pollution crisis is tied to power dynamics and industrial-consumer relations [5]

Most of the research to date has involved large-scale surveys where we find that those who witness macro-pollution on a more regular basis (maybe because they live near the coast), are more concerned about the issue. There are some examples of positive conservation behaviour with societal impact such as “Beat the Bead". Indeed, collective action where people avoided the purchase of specific personal care products, such as exfoliating scrubs or toothpastes, drove the industry to voluntarily phase out some products by retailers and manufacturers. It also promoted regulatory action in the US, Canada, Taiwan and the UK.

However, perhaps this was an easy transition as alternative products were readily available on the market. Other emerging issues such as plastic microfibers from synthetic clothing or car tyre abrasions are likely to prove much more problematic. The point here, is that without a clear and detailed understanding of behaviour at the level of individual, community or society, we are unlikely to solve the issue. Sociologists can explore how cultural ideas about being “a good citizen” or “responsible parent” might interplay with other ideas that undermine environmentally friendly behaviour. As noted earlier, communicating risk is complex. This is especially true where there is scientific uncertainty regarding the risks to human health. For now, people can have a strong affective response to images of sea birds caught in plastic or a dead whale, but can quite easily dismiss the issue as the latest fad. Yet, plastic pollution raises crucial questions of sustainability and how we live, and this requires a sustained systemic and interdisciplinary approach to the issue.

 [1] Ipsos Mori (2019) New Research Reveals the Power of Blue Planet II and How it’s changed attitudes and behaviour, London: Ipsos Mori/Keep Britain Tidy (last accessed 05 March 2019).

[2] Henderson, L. (2016) A Plastic Ocean: Can a movie help us see this invisible crisis?, The Conversation, 06 June.   (last accessed 05 March 2019).

[3] Jarvis, H. (2018) Captain Buster enlists sociologist in plastics crusade, 19 June.  (last accessed 05 March 2019).

[4] European Science-Media Hub (2019) We live in a kind of post-truth age where science facts are doubted, 06 February.  (last accessed 05 March 2019)

[5] SAPEA. (2019). A Scientific Perspective on Microplastics in Nature and Society. Berlin: SAPEA 

[6] Liboiron, M. (2013). “Plasticizers: A Twenty-first Century Miasma,” Accumulation: The Material Politics of Plastics, Eds. Jennifer Gabrys, Gay Hawkins, Mike Michael. Routledge: 22-44