April 13, 2024

1 in 3 Americans say they have reduced the amount of plastic they use

In this latest survey, women, people in households earning more than $50,000 annually and college graduates were more likely to report a decrease in the frequency with which they use single-use plastics. Photo via Getty Images

As consumer concern about plastic pollution grows, a third of adults in the United States say they have reduced their use of plastic products in the past five years.

That’s according to the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, which found that nearly half of Americans (47%) said they have maintained use of these items — like water bottles, razors or straws. Another 1 in 5 adults increased their use during this period, which included years of a world-altering coronavirus pandemic.

Graphic by Jenna Cohen/PBS NewsHour

Discarded plastic, derived from fossil fuels, ends up in landfills or the environment, where it takes decades, if not centuries, to decompose. Plastics industry leaders have long emphasized the promise of recycling, but a small fraction of the hundreds of millions of metric tons of plastic produced globally every year is recycled. This waste is sometimes exported from richer countries and dumped in poorer ones.

TO ATTEND: The plastic problem

Whichever country it lands in, plastic poses a particular threat to marine ecosystems and wildlife. The material never truly biodegrades, instead it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces over time. Researchers are still examining how these microplastics could affect human health.

Here’s a look at who’s reducing their plastic use, according to the new research, and why it’s hard to do on an individual level.

Who is reducing plastic use?

In this latest survey, women, households earning more than $50,000 per year and college graduates were more likely to report a decrease in the frequency with which they use single-use plastics.

Graphic by Jenna Cohen/PBS NewsHour

The survey also revealed clear divisions along political lines. Democrats and independent voters reported a greater decrease in the use of single-use plastics over time compared to Republicans (40% and 34%, respectively, versus 19%). Women of all political affiliations reported a steeper decrease compared to men.

The Pew Research Center found in 2019 that most Americans were trying to use fewer single-use plastics to benefit the environment. However, Pew noted, “on a per-person basis, the amount of waste from single-use plastic consumer items has remained stable over the past two decades.”

Previous surveys have also revealed a gender gap in attitudes towards the threat posed by climate change. In another 2021 Pew survey conducted in 17 countries, women were more likely to fear that climate change would harm them personally.

SEE MORE INFORMATION: Most Americans would pay more to avoid using plastic, survey finds

Women who think more about environmental implications may actually be having a greater consumer effect than represented in this poll, suggested Kiersten Muenchinger, a professor of product design at the University of Oregon.

“Women make a lot more choices about what to buy for the home than men and are paying a lot more attention to it,” Muenchinger said.

“If women are decreasing their use by 38 percent, the decrease in purchases is probably proportionally greater,” he added.

For the 20% of U.S. adults who said their use of single-use plastics has increased over the past five years, the COVID-19 pandemic may have played a role.

A heron searches for food among the trash collected in the Los Angeles River after the floods. Plastic waste can harm wildlife such as birds, fish, turtles and whales. Image via Los Angeles County Department of Public Works/Bob Riha, Jr.

The use of these types of products increased during this period, especially in the early stages of the pandemic, in an effort to maximize public health precautions. People may have used more disposable masks or gloves in compliance with public health precautions or purchased more disposable items, in part due to initial concerns that reusable products could help spread the virus.

Across various age groups, there has also been a notable difference in how people have approached single-use plastics over the past five years. Although more than a third of adults aged 45 and over said their consumption decreased during that period, 27% of people under 45 said the same.

The future of plastic products

Despite the ecological burdens associated with the use and mass production of plastic, identifying viable solutions or alternatives is not an easy task. The question of which materials – such as glass, steel or plastic – are the most technically sustainable option for various products is often nuanced. In many cases, plastic products are actually more sustainable than some alternatives when considering the emissions associated with their production, Muenchinger said.

Its analyzes incorporate a wide range of factors, including the carbon footprint over the product’s life cycle, the electricity used in the factories where the products are manufactured or the fuel trucks used to transport them to stores for consumers.

But in a world that is phasing out — and running out of — oil, researchers are turning to plants as a raw material to make plastics, Muenchinger said, while also looking for more efficient ways to recycle them.

“The ability to make plastics from renewable resources will be needed at some point in the future,” she said.

SEE MORE INFORMATION: How This Chemical Engineer Is Hacking Plastic Production to Promote Sustainability

Efforts to transition to electric vehicles and generate more electricity using renewable sources could also increase the sustainability associated with the manufacture and distribution of plastic products.

For consumers who want to stop using so much plastic in their everyday lives, focusing on where they can reduce their consumption and reuse existing products is a good starting point, said Breagin Riley, a research assistant professor at the University of California. of Notre Dame. Of marketing.

“At the consumer level, it’s basically about figuring out where plastics are in your life and shifting them,” she said, adding that people are limited by the product options available, as well as their own financial resources.

But Riley emphasized that individual efforts have their limitations when it comes to solving important systemic problems. That’s why collective action is equally crucial to catalyzing large-scale changes that address these ecological challenges, including among companies that have the opportunity to proactively respond to consumer demands, she said.

PBS NewsHour, NPR and Marist Poll conducted a poll March 25-28 that polled 1,305 U.S. adults with a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points and 1,199 registered voters with a margin of error of 3.7 percentage points.

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