- In 2020, the plastic recycling rate in the United States fell by 5.7% from the previous year.
- New research shows that looking at pictures of sea creatures can help people use less plastic.
- It’s smart to protect the oceans because plastic waste enters the food web, an expert told Insider.
Your beach holiday in summer: Sun, surf, sand – and plastic.
As many of us head towards the water on Memorial Day, it’s more likely than ever that we’ll find our oceans aren’t just white with foam. They are also loaded with plastic flotsam that never biodegrades but keeps breaking into smaller pieces.
But perhaps what we should remember as we approach the unofficial start of summer isn’t how bad plastic pollution has gotten, but how much we have to lose. This is because new research shows that visualizing beloved sea creatures can persuade more of us to embark on a plastic diet.
It’s certainly one we need. We use more plastic and often recycle less of it. The amount of plastic in the world’s oceans is projected more than fish will predominate by 2050. And 2020 will see the already low rate of plastic recycling in the US dropped by 5.7% compared to the previous year.
There could be a way we can use nature to fight the plastic problem. Jiaying Zhao, a researcher at the University of British Columbia, and her colleagues found that posting pictures of marine life like sea turtles, whales and dolphins above the recycling bins in a Vancouver office tower reduced all plastic waste — either discarded or recycled 17 % compared to before the signs came up.
The photos of animals dealing with plastic waste in their aquatic home were more effective than simple recycle signs or those asking office visitors to pledge to reduce their plastic use.
The drop in plastic waste continued even after signs bearing animal images were removed, Zhao told Insider. She said proposed office workers had begun to change their habits, perhaps doing away with things like single-use water bottles and paraphernalia.
When Zhao returned to the building to interview the workers who unknowingly participated in the experiment, those interviewed by her team said they didn’t remember seeing the animals on the posters.
“It was very surprising because I thought it would be unforgettable,” Zhao said of the photos, which showed a turtle chewing on plastic or a dolphin with a plastic bag caught on its fin. “If it triggered some kind of emotional reaction in me and I felt bad about throwing away plastic now – and I’m making a conscious effort not to – I should remember that, right?”
Zhao said the animal images above the trash seemed to be an effective nudge to change people’s behavior without proving so distressing as to traumatize them like a virus has Video a few years ago by a turtle with a straw stuck in its nostril. Outrage over this video prompted some consumers and businesses to drop plastic straws.
Happy turtles could help change behavior
In some cases, less nasty images might prevail. Zhao said subsequent experiments she and her colleagues conducted using images of “happy” turtles and dolphins appeared to be even more effective at changing people’s actions than unsettling images.
There could be broader lessons for the environmental movement from all of this, Zhao said, with many awareness campaigns asking consumers to pledge to change their behavior in some way.
“A lot of the tactics are like a promise,” she said. “I promise not to do this or buy that. That didn’t work in our study.”
The researchers found that the effect was stronger when people made an emotional connection with the animals – even if they didn’t remember it.
Linda Escalante, the legislative director of Southern California’s Natural Resources Defense Council, said that to sustaining successful coexistence with marine life, it is essential to think about the impact of our actions, including our dependence on plastics. Plus, she said, when the plastic pollution breaks down into tiny pieces, it finds its way back to us.
“It’s entering the food web,” she said. “You can find this stuff all over the planet in places you would never imagine because it can be easily transported by water and air.”
Escalante, who is also a member of the California Coastal Commission, a powerful state agency, said she believes demand for beach days would increase because rising temperatures in many inland areas — and even wildfires in the parched western U.S. — stifle demand for access to water and water would increase cooler coastal areas. That’s why it’s so important to protect water bodies, she said.
She also pointed to people’s need to experience natural beauty, something to be seen at the height of the pandemic.
“We’ve become more used to going outside, going outside, finding that connection,” Escalante said. She said she didn’t expect this to slow down, adding: “Our beaches, our coasts will be in high demand.”