Shoppers Have Become Less Concerned About Single-Use Plastics

A Canadian study found that COVID-19 has shifted people's attitudes.

woman using plastic produce bag
Woman uses a single-use plastic produce bag at the supermarket.

@zelmabrezinska via Twenty20 

Less than a year ago, one of the hottest topics in the environmental news sphere was single-use plastics. The question of how to phase them out as quickly and thoroughly as possible dominated websites like Treehugger. Then COVID-19 hit, and eliminating plastics fell to the bottom of the priority list; there were much bigger things to worry about.

At the same time, however, the perception of single-use plastics drastically changed. They went from being vilified to being seen as protection against contamination by the virus. Stores like Starbucks and Bulk Barn (in Canada) shifted from encouraging reusable cups and containers to banning them outright, telling people it was safer to use disposables. Grocery stores followed suit, forbidding reusable bags, and even alternative, eco-minded food purveyors such as CSA (community-supported agriculture) shares and farmers' markets began swaddling their previously-bare produce in single-use plastic bags.

Watching this happen gave me a sick feeling in my gut. I'm well aware of how environmental issues are often fleeting trends for the general public, falling from favor as the next big topic comes to light, but plastic reduction has always been a personal passion of mine. Was no one else as concerned as I was about the surge in waste that was happening, due to the pandemic? Of course the pandemic needed (and still needs) to be reined in, aided by stricter hygiene measures, but to allow one (public health) catastrophe to fuel an (environmental) catastrophe struck me as foolishly short-sighted.

So, I was interested to see the results of a new report, recently released by the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. A team of researchers conducted two surveys of roughly 1,000 people each time, one in 2019 and one during the 2020 pandemic, on Canadian shoppers' attitudes toward single-use plastics. While the researchers could not have foreseen the pandemic when they administered the initial survey last year, it made for a particularly fascinating comparison.

The team found that the number of Canadians actively shopping for non-plastic-packaged goods remained essentially the same – 58% in 2019 and 60% in 2020. There was, however, a "small but measurable" decline in the level of environmental concern about these plastics, dropping from 91% to 87%, and in shoppers' motivation to avoid plastics (from 89% to 85%). The decline was much sharper in men than in women.

Perhaps not surprisingly, COVID-19 made people feel less guilty about buying items wrapped in plastic. Twenty-nine percent of respondents said they were buying more plastic packaging now than in pre-pandemic times, with the biggest consumers being women (possibly because they do more household shopping) and young people between the ages of 18 and 25. From a Dalhousie University press release:

"That may be because younger consumers ordered more pre-prepared foods from restaurants and meal kit providers than other consumers. Also, knowing environmental packaging could cost more, 50% of respondents are more price-conscious since COVID – particularly those with lower incomes and those receiving CERB [Canada Emergency Response Benefit]."

Food safety concerns are higher than ever, with 55% of respondents now viewing food packaging as valuable in protecting them from contamination. Forty percent of respondents consider new COVID-era safety rules to be "very or extremely important." These are mostly women, older, lower-income, and have fewer children.

This shift in attitude has had the unfortunate effect of eroding public support for single-use plastic bans that, pre-pandemic, was fairly strong across Canada. In 2019 there was 90% agreement for stronger plastic regulation, and 70% supported a ban on single-use plastics. In 2020, support for stronger regulation had declined to 79% and support for a ban was down to 58%. Again, there's a quantifiable gender divide: "Male and female attitudes have diverged, with women continuing to support bans and regulations while support among men is down sharply."

One positive is that, despite increasing financial concerns and the fact that 1 in 7 Canadian households experienced food insecurity during the pandemic lockdown, there has been a "sharp increase" in willingness to purchase biodegradable packaging – from 40% in 2019 to 55% in 2020. This is unexpected because people tend to avoid higher-priced items, such as organic, fair-trade, and, in this case, biodegradable packaging, whenever they're tight for money. I like to think it speaks to a lingering awareness of the problems associated with plastic pollution (despite the fact that studies have shown biodegradable plastics aren't that much better than petroleum-based ones).

Lead study author Robert Kitz put it best when he said, "The issue of plastic pollution is the same whether or not there’s a pandemic. Ocean plastics don’t care about our pandemic. The problem hasn’t gone anywhere, and we still need to find solutions." He'd like to see a redesigned food supply network, one that radically reimagines the way food moves from farmers to processors to retailers. "If you want to tackle the question of food packaging in its totality, you have to be thinking about and dealing with those larger supply chains. Otherwise you don’t get past plastic grocery bags."

But for those of us at home, who shop for our families and are not involved in the food distribution business, all we really can do is focus on those plastic grocery bags. Consumer efforts are the start of something bigger, a signal to others along the supply chain that we want a different way of doing things. So please don't give up. Keep looking for better packaging and keep working toward plastic-free and zero-waste living, despite the strange times. It'll be worth it in the end.