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The Psychology of Minimising One's Usage of Plastic

Plastics are an excellent material for a wide range of uses and have become an indispensable component of contemporary life. However, the same characteristics that make them so valuable and pervasive also make them one of our most dangerous pollutants. We have evolved a "disposable" lifestyle in which about half of all plastic is used once and then discarded. Greenpeace estimates that up to 12 million tonnes of plastic wind up in our seas each year, the equivalent of one garbage truck every minute. Once in the water, it can harm wildlife by suffocating or blocking the intestines of animals. Consequently, the reuse, recovery and the recycling of plastics are extremely important.


How can psychology be used to help?


Actions to enhance motivation, opportunity, and capacity are required to achieve successful behaviour change.

Having the motivation to change is important, but it must be supported by the opportunity and the capability to change. I might want to refuse plastic – but if all the items in the shop are packaged in plastic, my options are limited. What could be done to help individuals make better choices?


1)The physical environment can then be tailored to make it simpler to pick an environmentally friendly solution. Some of this will be contingent on suppliers and merchants reconsidering their product offerings. Packaging that is easy to recycle or biodegradable, as well as clear labelling on how and where to recycle, all help. Legislation and technological advancements can have a unique impact.


2) There are other steps that may be made at the point of purchase of our beverage to alter the default selection to one that is more environmentally friendly. Firstly, the advertised price would be for the reuse option, and an extra charge would be made to include a throwaway container. The worker could be trained to ask, ‘Do you have your own cup?’ as an initial question. To make bringing your own container more desirable, they can be made to look more attractive. Indeed, this is already being done by some outlets.


3) These actions take advantage of some important psychological concepts: ‘social norming’; and ‘loss aversion’. A social norm is ‘what people like you’ do. As Griskevicius and fellow researchers found,2 social acceptability and what ‘normal’ people do was effective in encouraging behaviour change. Meanwhile, psychological research has also demonstrated that people are especially keen to avoid experiencing a loss. Hence an extra charge for choosing the less environmental option is more likely to drive social change.


Policies that encourage people to modify their habits can be quite effective in combating the problem of plastic waste. To be effective, they must be utilised with a mixture of different types of tactics up and down.


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