Understanding Change: Plastics

“What do we mean by social change? How can it be achieved?

Writing an essay on this nebulous subject when studying for a PG Cert in Media, Campaigning & Social Change last year was one of the most frustrating yet satisfying, parts of my course. 

The last couple of months has seen seemingly rapid change on the issue of single use plastics. The BBC’s Blue Planet – one of the most watched programmes of 2018 – drew public attention to the amount of plastic in our oceans and its impact on bird and sea life. Since then a number of high profile policy and market announcements have been made.

The Social Change Project sees change coming “from a multitude of spaces, spurred on by different actors”.  Social change comes through a shift in norms, policies, institutions and markets. It is a process that is important at all levels and spaces in society, with lines drawn between macro shifts and micro interactions. What we have seen recently reflects this:

  • Norms and behaviour The public are starting to rally behind plastic waste campaigns. People are choosing not to use a plastic straw in drinks bars and restaurants. The ground was laid with the plastic bag charge and norms continue to shift as the dialogue on non-recyclable takeaway coffee cups continues.  Awareness raising programmes such as the Blue Planet and media campaigns in mainstream newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard are leading to questions about our throwaway culture.
  • Law and policy Early January saw the UK ban on micro-beads in cosmetic and personal care products coming into force. This was followed by Theresa May’s 25 year Environment Plan which set out a commitment to eliminating avoidable plastic waste by end of 2042. The EU has set a target of ensuring that every piece of packaging on the continent is reusable or recyclable by 2030.
  • Business and markets Food retailer Iceland led a flurry of corporate announcements with its commitment to remove single-use plastics from its own brand products by 2023. Other corporates have followed Some companies in the UK are also challenging the bottled water market getting behind the Drinking Water Refill Directive. A signal to the market that business models based on single use plastics are no longer viable.

However it is important not to forget that NGO and civil society activity has provided the foundation for much of this change. What we have seen at the start of the year feels like large-scale change, but it is small micro-interactions of NGOs across the years that has provided the context for change.

The reality is that the ocean plastics is one of the issues that has for too long been ignored by both business and government. As Erik Solheim, executive director UNEP observes in the Financial Times “Both business & govt have been sleepwalking up to now. Just a couple of years ago there was very little action on plastic & packaging. Now there has been a sea change.” More on how issues escalate in my next blog.





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