UK: Most People Say Supermarkets Should Stop Selling Drinks in Plastic Bottles

77.2% of people surveyed in the UK agree that ‘supermarkets should stop selling drinks in plastic bottles’.  32.8% agreed ‘strongly’ when given six options (strongly/ moderately/ slightly, agree or disagree) in a survey of 1001 people fielded for CDSM (Cultural Dynamics Strategy and Marketing) in February.  (The same survey also asked about a phase-out of plastic except for essential uses: 84% agreed, 39% ‘strongly’ so).

‘Supermarkets should stop selling drinks in plastic bottles’


The survey also segmented results by Motivational Values

At a Maslow Group level (Settlers, Prospectors, Pioneers), the Pioneers were significantly (16% index) more likely than the population average to ‘strongly agree’, which is a skew typical of a ‘breaking issue’ and one where campaigns are already being run (against ‘Single Use Plastic’ of which plastic bottles are one of the most obvious uses).  However there is an across-the-board preference among all three main values groups to support a ban.   Pioneers are the group with highest self-agency and most likely to first adopt new behaviours such as giving up single-use plastic bottles in favour of other options such as refillables.

At the more detailed Values Modes (VM) level, the only two VM’s over-indexing on a ‘strongly’ option are the (TX) Transcender Pioneers, the ‘leading edge’ VM in terms of initiating change on ‘strongly agree’, and the (GD) Golden Dreamers on strongly disagree’.  But even most GDs ‘agree’ and there are vastly more strongly agees overall (32.8%) than strongly disagrees (5%).

Males and Females

As with the phase-out question there was a significant skew to females being more supportive of a ban, although overall both sexes are in favour of supermarkets stopping selling drinks in plastic bottles.


There is some class difference with ABs most keen on a ban and Ds least enthusiastic but overall all social classes support supermarkets ending sales of drinks in plastic bottles.


The most marked differences are between age groups:

Older people dominate the ‘strongly’ agree option.  52% of the over 65s strongly agree whereas only 16% of the 21-24 year olds do so.  I haven’t seen age related data for purchase of drinks in plastic bottles but it seems likely that this difference reflects consumer behaviour.

Above: age profile of the Strongly Agree option

On the other hand it would be wrong to think that most young people oppose ending supermarket sales of such drinks bottles: a majority of all age classes err to agreeing:

A ban on supermarket sales of drinks in plastic bottles, voluntary or otherwise, looks as if it would have wide and deep public support.


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In UK, 84% Say ‘Phase-Out Plastic: Essential Uses Only’

An overwhelming majority of the UK public wants to see plastic phased out except for essential uses, according to a survey of over 1000 people reported here.  83.9% agreed that ‘Because of the pollution/harm it causes, plastic should be phased out except for essential uses’ in a nationally representative survey fielded for CDSM (Cultural Dynamics Strategy and Marketing) in February.  39% agreed ‘strongly’.

Public appetite to see the back of plastic follows huge concern at the impacts of plastic pollution revealed in David Attenborough’s top-ranking BBC series Blue Planet 2, and revelations about the penetration of of microplastic fragments into food, water, wildlife and the environment.  As argued in a previous blog, a policy of phase-out while allowing only essential uses (such as medical and safety-critical applications if there is no alternative),  would match the emergency scale and scope of the problem in a similar way to the successful Montreal Protocol model, used to curb ozone-destroying CFCs.

Experts have also pointed out that unlike for some other substances, currently feasible plastic recycling cannot be truly closed-loop so it only delays, and does not stop pollution of the environment.  Consequently it only makes environmental sense in the context of a production phase-out.

The survey shows that the public is way ahead of the UK Government which has so far only proposed ‘working to a target of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by end of 2042‘.

Unlike on numerous other environmental issues in Britain, values groups are pretty much united in backing a phase out of plastic:

Coloured indexes show significant values differences (warm colours indicate over indexes  on a response taking into account the size of the values group in the population).  Although Pioneers over index by 12% compared to the population average on ‘strongly agree’ and ‘moderately agree’, these are slight effects given the overwhelming ‘vote’ to agree that plastic should go, with essential use exceptions.

In campaign or policy terms this means that the subject is already ‘normed’, and public backing is likely to be strong and ‘across the board’.

The most marked difference concerns age, and here it is mainly just in strength of concern.  There is no sign of significant opposition:

The only significant trend is in older people most opting to ‘strongly agree’. 21-34 year olds over index amongst the ‘moderately disagrees’ but large majorities of all age groups ‘agree’.

Despite age differences, a majority in all age classes ‘agree’ with a phase out with essential uses.    On a purely demographic basis, the skew to older voters agreeing more strongly may concern Britain’s Conservative Government as that matches the age-profile of its voters.

There is no class effect.  Wanting to phase out plastic is not a ‘class issue’ which perhaps explains why the Labour Party does not seem very interested in it?

As to sex, women are more strongly in favour of a phase out then men, while men are more represented in the small numbers opposed but overall both sexes are overwhelmingly in favour.  It’s not a gender-divisive issue.

At a detailed level (Values Modes) the values groups most likely to lead most campaigns on environmental issues, the Transcender and Concerned Ethical Pioneers, both over index on ‘strongly agree’ but overall the values differences are small.

A distribution like this means that there is no obvious potential for a phase out of plastic to become a divisive issue.  I’ve seen a lot of values surveys on high profile issues but it rare to see one with so much broad and deep agreement.  The fact that this may seem to have ’emerged from nowhere’ and does not have a legacy of contested campaigns behind it, may have something to do with that, along with sheer salience: plastic is ‘everywhere’.



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Experiences and Encounters with Humanity – In Memory of Jon Castle

In Memory of Jon Castle, 7 December 1950 – 12 January 2018 

Experiences and Encounters with Humanity

Jon Castle, captain of the rescue ship, briefing the crew for their next mission

By Judith Buethe

Can we achieve it? Will we be strong enough for our own project? Does it even make sense to put yet another rescue ship into action when politics will put all kinds of obstacles in our path? How long will it take until we have collected enough money in order to finance a ship and rescue people? The person opposite me – Jon Castle – does not give any direct answer to the questions posed, that deal with the foundation of our own organization shortly before.

“What is it all about?” he asks.

“Your ambition, your fear of failure? Or is it about the people you want to rescue from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea?“

I fall silent, thinking about his words.

Is it, after all, my own ego that it is about? I do not question the necessity of civil sea rescue. “You can doubt – you even ought to!” Jon says, and asks me to take a seat next to him.

We’ve made a good job! We’ve been there for the people who needed our help, we did our best. And we’ve experienced Europe’s disgrace out there. For us as a crew, the time has been very intensive. The missions I have taken part in were exhausting. Certainly one cannot judge the current political development. But should it keep you from going on or should it encourage you? That’s the crucial question you should be asking yourself!”

People rescued the day following an incident with the Libyan coastguard

During the first rescue in October 2016

Couple who had been separated for seven months in Libya, reunited after rescue

A day when eight boats of migrants were encountered

Three year old boy and mother rescued after nine months in Libya

I think about the mission we were on together last year. As a volunteer I was lucky to be part of a crew of sixteen wonderful people among them Jon Castle, our captain. Tens of thousands of people were rescued by civil NGOs since the beginning of the catastrophe in the Mediterranean Sea. Where others look away, they see what is going on and get active for those who try to reach Europe in overcrowded rubber dinghy’s, in hope of a better future. According to official statistics of the IOM (Organization for Migration), since 2014 more than 15.000 people drowned in an attempt to flee across the Mediterranean. The estimated number of unreported cases is much higher. People who are not recovered dead are reported missing and hence are not included in the statistics.

You Mustn’t Give Up

“You mustn’t give up before you even tried. How will you know whether you would have been successful?” he cuts off my thoughts, squeezes my hand firmly and nods confidently. The scene of our first reunion is different – we exchanged Malta for the South of England, open sea for firm ground – the conversations, however, continue exactly where they stopped roughly twelve months earlier.

The spontaneity and arbitrariness of the events that overwhelmed us as a crew, the intensive experiences with which we were confronted, the emotional opposites were part of last year’s rescue mission. As human beings, it made us move closer together. In October 2016, when we worked together, we saw the misery and, still, we can hardly understand how many lives we have saved within two weeks’ time, how many bodies we recovered dead – others drowned before our eyes. In the course of time we were able to rescue 2.400 people and had to record 50 deaths. A good ratio? It is difficult to express a feeling in figures. With us were a captain and a team leader, both of whom held the group together, both addressed our individual concerns and feelings with heart and mind.

“Due to the extreme situation we were in, we were able to really get to know each other and to connect intensely – now there is a close bond between us all”, Jon turns his gaze away from me and watches a bird that discovered the bird-table in front of the window. He smiles. “Having met so many great and different people in all my years, this has touched me differently once more. The spirit was special because we worked together for these people. And this brings us back to the conversation we had on our last night in Malta: we humans are made to look after each other and work together.”

I am surprised that, after all this time, he recollects one of the many conversations I myself also remember well.

Jon Castle cleaning life jackets used in rescues

We talk about the current situation off the Libyan coast. I am angry because of the failure of the EU and, besides the good moments, frustrated by the lack of interest that we experience during our work for the organization. Jon interrupts me and offsets my excess of emotions with his objectivity – as far as I am concerned his unique characteristic in situations like this. “The situation as I see it is pretty muddled. I can understand that Italy is fed up with carrying the burden of the EU that works like a neoliberal capitalistic machine. There are people in Brussels who decide without any touch of humaneness, who have long lost their hearts and minds. The European Union is a great promise, but it isn’t an answer to serious topics like the refugee movement or the mass grave Mediterranean Sea.” His voice gets softer as he adds: “That’s why there are people like us, who understand that we can only function collectively and that things need to be tackled in order to change them.”

When we met on the bridge during rescue missions, our interaction was usually taciturn yet to the point. The clear dialogues were impressive – and pleasantly honest – which cannot be taken for granted, bearing in mind that Jon Castle, as our captain, was surrounded by constantly changing crews for several months, all of whom certainly keen on talking things through, just like we were. You notice quite soon how he steadily reflects thoughts, how important it is for him to question and understand what is going on. I quickly learned that he really listened and paid attention to the individual members of the crew – truly not a matter of course.

On the bridge during the last rescue

Back then we were talking about our lives outside the NGOs, our motives to go on search and rescue missions, his old crews and what he experienced, Libya and the part the EU plays in this construct. It was a heated debate – my counterpart genuinely furious. “Just recently I was reading about early British settlers in America”, he put down his tea next to him and looked at the people who held out exhaustedly on the outer deck since their rescue, waiting to be brought to a secure place. “Many white people went to live with the Native Americans at that time and they were accepted just like they were. They were given the opportunity to become part of the community and hence to lead a better life – without putting obstacles in their way!”

He apologized, left the bridge and turned to a young man from Nigeria who was amongst the people rescued and who apparently suffered from seasickness. Jon gave him some water, allocated a place to him with a view of the horizon and put his hand on the man’s shoulder – both were laughing together for a moment.

A couple of minutes later – Jon had returned to his place on the bridge – he continued the conversation: “It is crazy that the Native Americans of the time were much more open-minded than the Europeans of today, with their specially created image of solidarity and the community of values, are.”

Human, Loyal, Emotional and Idealistic

It was countless moments like this that had a lasting effect on me, as well as on many other young people over the past years. Human, loyal, emotional and idealistic. This can only be a small and reduced insight into his world – in which he allowed us a brief glimpse – a good world, if you ask me. Keep on shining!

22th January 2018

Photojournalist Judith Buethe remembers Jon Castle from their time spent on a civil search and rescue ship in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya in 2016.

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Good News: Britain Has An Acute Plastics Crisis

Thanks to a waste-import ban by China, Britain has a window of opportunity to begin real progress on tackling the plastics crisis.  The same may apply to some other countries.

As the recycling industry and the UK media started pointing out around New Year, mountains of plastic waste will soon be piling up all over Britain, with nowhere to go.  ‘Waste meltdown’ said The Sun, ‘impending crisis’ wrote The Independent.

It seems to me that the best immediate response should be to simply stop selling plastic bottles.  Not a complete solution but a feasible and big step in the right direction – towards a phase out of non-essential uses of plastic.  (See more below).

It’s an acute political problem.  Politicians will seek a quick fix, and as being seen to act effectively will take precedence over anything else, so left to its own devices the UK Government(s) may well forgo the opportunity to do what is really needed, which is to start reducing the production of plastic pollution.

On a business-as-usual basis, the obvious ‘easy options’ are to burn the waste, and maybe fend-off concerns about pollution from incinerators by saying that this is what many other European countries do, or to find somewhere else to ‘export’ to, maybe in SE Asia or Africa.   Of course in theory those countries could say ‘no’ but there may be large financial inducements not to.  Most of it would then end up as pollution, as was happening in China.  Extract from Communications and Strategy Challenges Of The Plastics Issue (Dec 21 2017):

Isabel Hilton editor of China Dialogue told the BBC World Service ‘World Update’ on 5th December 2017 that “only ten percent” of the plastic waste ‘sent for recycling’ in China “is actually recyclable”, and  “the rest tends to get dumped in China, it finds its way into rivers, and eventually into the sea, and that has prompted the Chinese authorities to impose a ban on several varieties of plastic”.  Asked what this meant for countries exporting plastic waste to China, Hilton replied: “the rest of the world finally has to face up to its own problem”.

It’s a pretty reliable rule of campaigning that it’s hard to get much done about slow-developing problems, or ‘soft disasters’, and this one was a long time coming.  Big changes in direction tend to come about through disruptive events, often disasters and accidents.  Here’s an extract (p 183) from my book How To Win Campaigns: Communications for Change:

UK Environment Minister Michael Gove has been making waves through his sudden apparent conversion to greenery.  To the frustration of officials, in several Departments, he is known for liking to ‘think differently’.  Here then is  a Gove opportunity.  He’s backed deposit returns for plastic bottles but this is in a different league.  China’s decision to stop taking in much of Britain’s plastic waste and other ‘recyclate’ was signaled as long ago as July 2017 but it seems to have caught the Brexit-obssessed UK Government by surprise.  As to campaigners, they might wait years for an opportunity like this, and such opportunities are very hard to create, while this one has come along thanks to China.

These are the bare bone facts, from authoritative environmental intelligence magazine ENDS Report:

China has implemented its decision to ban the import of 24 kinds of solid wastes – a move which is stoking fears within the UK recycling industry.

The ban, which came into force on 1 January, covers eight categories of plastics waste, all unsorted mixed papers, 11 types of textile wastes not including clothing and four types of metal slag.

A further ban, set for April, will set new standards limiting all imported recycled materials to a maximum contamination level of 0.5%, a percentage that is seen as impossible to achieve across the board by many in the UK’s waste industry.

Around 70% of the UK’s mixed paper recyclates and 25% of plastic packaging are currently exported to China, according to WRAP, and the proposals have caused alarm within the UK waste industry.

The UK’s somewhat feeble plastics recycling capacity will choke on many thousands of tonnes of plastic, mostly packaging and mostly PET bottles, which now has no outlet.

Householders trying to ‘do the right thing’ and be ‘green’, may be dismayed to see mountains of plastic spilling out of depots run by the unfortunate Local Authorities tasked with collecting it and hitting recycling targets.  The recycling industry is furious. What may have seemed a long-term problem is fast becoming a very short term problem.

The UK can’t scale up its recycling capacity quickly but it does not need to, and should not anyway.  Instead it should start towards a phase-out, and the very top of the list, as numerous NGO campaigns have highlighted, is ‘single use plastic’, and at the top of that list in terms of scale of impact, avoid-ability, feasibility, and non-essential-ness, would be plastic bottles.

Nobody needs soft drinks or water in plastic bottles.  Supermarkets could clear their shelves of them like a product recall, and switch off a huge flow of plastic pollution.  Walking down the aisles of one local supermarket yesterday I noticed that many drinks now seem to be available in cans as well as in plastic bottles, and multipacks of those cans seem to be wrapped in cardboard.  So maybe the drinks industry has anticipated something like this?

The same product (top and middle) in plastic bottles and in cans

Britain also has more or less universal supply of excellent tap water, and thanks in no small part to campaigns, there are lots of stylish metal water bottles now available for those who may need to carry water around with them.  For the consumer, it would be an easy option, compared say, to avoiding plastic film wrapping on food, although as Andy Clarke, the ex-boss of ASDA told The Guardian last October, that packaging will have to go too.

“Regardless of how much is invested in Britain’s recycling infrastructure, virtually all plastic packaging will reach landfill or the bottom of the ocean sooner or later. Once there, it will remain on the earth for centuries.

“It is vital that the UK packaging industry and supermarkets work together to turn off the tap.”               Andy Clarke

Clarke is right.  ‘Recycling’ can’t resolve the plastics crisis, for reasons of ‘leakage’ into the environment and the effects of ‘downcycling’, such as turning PET from bottles into polyester fleeces or carpets which then in turn break up to create microplastics.  It can only be useful in the context of an active phase-out.  As scientist Roland Geyer has said, ‘in the long run, recycling reduces waste generation only if it reduces primary material production; otherwise, it merely delays it’. 

We need to get rid of plastic as a major use material.  Clearing the shelves of plastic bottles is a good place to start, and this ‘waste crisis’ is an opportunity too good to waste.

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Identity Factors and Values in Britain: A Survey

What defines us?  What makes up our ‘identity’?

As part of its large (3594 person) 2014 British Values Survey, CDSM (Cultural Dynamics Strategy and Marketing) asked two ‘my identity’ questions, with 31 ‘facts’ offered as options important in forming identity.  The results are published for the first time in this post.

In one question Cultural Dynamics asked people to pick as many of the 31 ‘facts’ as they liked, and in the other, to select the three they found ‘most important’ (including a ‘none of these’ option).  Some charts of the results are presented below, and images of the full data sets can be downloaded here.

The 31 ‘fact’ options were:

My nationality (English, Welsh, etc); Being British; My county or city (Yorkshire, London, etc); My local area; Being a parent; Being European; My social class; Being the sex I am; My skin colour; My religion; My tastes; My occupation; My standard of living, possessions; My family history; My age, stage of life; My intelligence; My creative abilities; My emotions and feelings; My imagination and fantasy; My practical abilities; My political convictions; My educational achievements; My interests; My principles and values; My circle of friends; My income; My body, face, hair; The way I dress; The way I speak; My ethnic origins; None of these.

The survey also collected information to segment the results by Motivational Values (the three Maslow Groups of Settler, Prospector and Pioneer, and the 12 Values Modes within them), and by sex, age and class (Socio Economic Group).

Chris Rose,   download this post as a pdf here

Above: 31 ‘identity’ factors used in its values-segmented 2014 survey by CDSM (  [This graphic was not part of the survey!]

It hardly needs saying but the more important ‘identity factors’ play a big role in intuitive responses to attempts to communicate with audiences, providing reflexive ‘Track One’ answers to questions such as “is this about me?” or “does this person understand me and my life?”

Some Findings Which Might Interest Campaigners and the ‘Political Classes’

Taking the samples as a whole, the five most frequently chosen ‘facts’ when invited to ‘Choose all the facts you feel are important in your identity – who you feel you are’ were ‘my interests’ (1), ‘my principles and values’ (2), ‘my intelligence’ (3), ‘my nationality’ (meaning English, Welsh, Scottish) (4), and ‘My emotions and feelings (5).

The five most frequent when asked to ‘Choose the THREE facts that are MOST important to you’, were: ‘my principles and values’ (1), ‘being a parent’ (2), ‘my intelligence’ (3), ‘Being British (4), and ‘my emotions and feelings’ (5).

In some cases there are quite marked differences in the choices in relation to values, age, sex, or class (later), which may be relevant to audience targeting.  In other cases there are no such differences, meaning that these are potential options to reach ‘across divides’.

Overall, the two ways of asking people to chose between the options gave similar results (above).  The 13 most frequent choices are the same in both cases, although the order is slightly different.  (In most of this blog I focus on the ‘top three’ results as that question forces people to think about their response a bit more and so gives greater discrimination eg across values.  But in some cases users don’t need or want maximum discrimination but to see even weak effects.  Readers can find the full data here).

A number of options touched on factors frequently debated in the news and social media on identity grounds but many of these do not appear in the more frequent choices.

For example, despite the huge amount of media discussion about sexual identity, politics, and feminism, ‘being the sex I am’ came in (top three question format) at rank 21 (in 3.6% of the choices), ‘my political convictions’ ranked 25th (2.7%), and ‘my ethnic origins’ and ‘my skin colour’ were both included in less than 2% of the ‘top three’ selections.  (See table below).

I don’t know if this is encouraging or discouraging to campaigners and policy wonks who spend an awful lot of their professional or activist time (much on ‘Track Two’) on issues of gender or diversity but at least in terms of self-identity, this suggests that as a whole, the British do not often define themselves in these ways.  Nor do they often define themselves by ‘social class’, ranked 30th at 1.4%: one for Jeremy Corbyn to ponder on perhaps?

Bottom of the list came ‘being European’.  This survey was conducted in October/November 2014, after January 2013 when David Cameron announced there would be a referendum on EU membership but before the European Union Referendum Act 2015 was passed and before he announced the June 2016 referendum date, in February 2016.  It is possible that the massive subsequent pre-occupation with ‘Brexit’ may have raised the priority for ‘being European’ but it is very unlikely that it has changed the low rating for the importance of ‘political convictions’, which was also seen in previous versions of this survey.  People who spend a lot of time ‘in politics’ or watching politics and ‘issues’ (like me), tend to massively over-estimate the public interest in what they are doing or consider important.

In Britain quite a lot of people vote but very few put ‘my political convictions’ in the top three of their identity factors.  ‘Very political’ people are very different from most of the British population.

Values and Identity

Readers familiar with the Values Modes model will know that because it creates groups from how people think, by measuring hundreds of attitudes and beliefs, values groups are in effect already an identity mapping exercise, in that they show sets of correlated convictions about how the world ‘really is’.  So for example, people in a particular Maslow Group (Settler, Prospector or Pioneer), or within in a Values Mode, will soon detect whether or not other people are ‘like them’, and in situations where they can exercise free choice, often end up socialising with people in similar groups.

Here’s the 2014/5 British Values Map.  Settler is top right, Prospector left, Pioneer lower right.

This shows the 100 ‘Attributes’ which statistically most separate the different values groups.  Each can be plotted as a single ‘map’ but here they are shown (the dots) at their points of maximum ‘espousal’,  the point on the map where they are ‘strongest’.  Behind this map is a 1000×1000 grid of survey responses, in effect like combining the results of a thousand separate surveys.

Links to explanations of the Values Modes system and more of my posts on values can be found here, and at CDSM’s website (including an alphabetical description of the Attributes).   See also my book What Makes People Tick, The Three Hidden Worlds of Settlers, Prospectors and Pioneers.

Understanding motivational values, which along with framing and heuristics are major drivers of everyday behaviour on ‘Track One’, gives a much greater insight into social dynamics in which identity plays a part, including politics and events like ‘Brexit’.  (See analysis of how that came about here and the insights of before and after referendum values and voting surveys here).

This ‘identity’ survey overtly asks people to think about their identity and offered 31 options, some of which are also used in other identity surveys, allowing for some comparison.

Here’s the overall response table with values skews shown to the right.

The coloured boxes indicate significant positive or negative associations at 95%, 97.5% or 99% levels. Warm colours indicate positive association, in other words that Maslow Group (Pioneer, Prospector or Settler) ‘over indexed’ on selecting that option, compared to the population average response.  So for instance Pioneers indexed 127 on ‘my principles’ and values (option ranked 1), 27% more than the population average, and although a lot of Settlers and Prospectors also ‘ticked that box’, Prospectors were 16% less likely to do this than as if ‘by chance’ (index 84), and Settlers (88) were 12% less likely.  In contrast, there is no significant difference in values terms in the case of ‘my emotions and feelings’ (ranked 5).  The ‘index’ takes into account the different sizes of the three Maslow Groups in the population (this survey found 34.5% Pioneers nationally, 36.9% Prospectors and 28.6% Settlers), as well as the response to the option.

Eight options (below) showed no values difference in responses at the Maslow Group level.  Of these ‘my emotions and feelings’ and ‘my circle of friends’ are popular responses, so if you started a conversation or created a proposition assuming these were important to identity on either of these bases, in Britain it would be very unlikely to trigger any values-inspired rejection.

Most of the responses are differentiated by values, and the coloured ‘skews’ are a  quick way of identifying these.  However looking at the skews alone can mislead us into overlooking the fact that substantial numbers of people from ‘under indexed’ or ‘average’ Groups also chose that option.  Here are the raw numbers of respondents from the 10 options most selected as in my ‘top three’.

This shows that the highest frequency of ‘my principles and values’ is down to support from all three Groups but with disproportionate support from the Pioneers.  What is meant by ‘my principles and values’ will be very different for each group, although with some things in common between pairs of groups.  Any conversation about ‘principles and values’ across Groups could start to diverge almost immediately.

The second most popular choice was ‘being a parent’ and this is also the most evenly matched between the Groups, although it shows as ‘skewed’ to Settler as it is chosen by a disproportionately large number of Settlers.  ‘Being a parent’ is more founded in common experiences than ‘principles and values’, and so offering a lot more potential ‘common ground’ and scope for agreement.  (Eventually it also would start to diverge, for example on the nature and objectives of ‘good parenting’ and the ‘right’ structure of ‘families’).    This is why I often advise communicators in Britain, that good starting point for communications deliberately or by default aimed at a mixture of values groups (eg “the public”), stands a better chance of ‘getting a hearing’ if it framed as about children or parents/families (cf for instance just ‘nature’ – see this example of the effect).

Testing by CDSM has not shown any difference in intelligence based for instance on IQ, between values groups.  There are differences in educational level, and although this is a hotly contested topic, it is very likely that this is in part due to social advantages (eg the influence of richer parents), and the effect of the educational process in enabling values-transitions, especially from Prospector to Pioneer (achieving esteem and self esteem).

So when Pioneers over-index on ‘my intelligence’ as an identity factor it is probably not because they are more intelligent but because they value ideas (for instance more than things) and have an unmet need to explore new ideas and connections.  From this, they may conclude that ‘intelligence’ is important.  It has to be said that one of the more annoying tendencies of Pioneers is to attribute their convictions to having made ‘the right’ (meaning clever) choices, and to have a lot of ‘facts’ and arguments available (as they spend time collecting them) to back these up.  This is why the other Maslow Groups often refer to them as ‘smug’.

By the same token, although ‘my interests’ was chosen by a lot of people from all three Groups, the Pioneers over-indexed, and they do tend to have more different ‘interests’ and greater active curiosity.  Similar reasons lead Pioneers to score ‘my creative abilities’ highly (whether or not other people think them very creative, it’s often important to them).

Two stand-out Settler over-indexes are on ‘my nationality and ‘being British’.  This topic became hugely discussed as a result of the ‘Brexit vote’, and at its simplest, the Settler emphasis on national identity is driven by an unmet need for safety, security and belonging.  See for example the discussion on perceived threats to cultural identity from immigration, in The Values Story of the Brexit Split (Part 1) [see slides 44-60 including on the authoritarian response to cultural change].

Brexit split the values map across the middle along a pre-exiting fault-line over ‘Europe’:

(above: attitude to EU, 2015; below, the Leave vote)

Identity was not the only factor but it was an important one.  It is interesting that nationality rather than geography and ‘place’ produces the higher results, across all values groups.  The option “my county or city, eg Yorkshire … London etc”  came in 17th when people were asked to pick the three most important factors (included by 4.2%), and ranked 19th when participants could select a many of the ‘facts’ as they wished (19.1%).   Likewise ‘my local area’ ranked 20th (at 3.6%) when people picked their ‘top three’ identity factors, and 16th (22%) in the unrestricted choice.

Writer and editor David Goodhart attracted a lot of ‘Brexit’ comment in 2017 when he proposed in his book The Road to Somewhere that the British now divide into ‘tribes’ of people based on affinity (or lack of it) to place or local cultural continuity: the ‘Anywhere’s’ (liberal, about 25%), ‘Somewheres’ (the reverse and ‘about half’ the population) with a strong connection to place, and ‘Inbetweeners’ (those ‘in between’ – about 25%).  This CDSM survey specifically asks about ‘my local county or city’ and ‘my local area’ and neither produce any sort of result suggesting this is a defining identity factor for 50% of the population.

Geographic determinism is a popular option for political pundits in Britain and the US, perhaps because they are two of the few countries with a first-past-the-post electoral system based on geographic constituencies.  There was much reference to ‘Northern Towns’, ‘forgotten’ seaside towns and ‘Metropolitian Elites’ and ‘Rustbelts’ in media explanations of the EU Referendum result but the ‘locational’ explanations may owe more to half-remembered school geography books fished from journalistic Pensieves, than any analysis which stands up to scrutiny.

Values analysis produces a better explanation but the social geography of values is far too fine-grained to produce such convenient handles as Anywheres v. Somewheres.  It is likely for example, that Settler (and Golden Dreamer and Happy Follower Prospector) attachment to people-and-places-I-know,  is real but subsumed in some of the identity response captured in ‘my circle of friends’ and ‘my emotions and feelings’ but that’s not just about geography and where you are ‘from’.  Nor, in our mobile and online-connected world, are any of the values groups now confined to making social connections through face to face contact within ‘their local area’.

The different choices of three most important identity factors made within the main values groups may be of use to anyone thinking about how to engage these groups (above).   ‘My principles and values’ is a great place to start but requires a lot more insight than ‘being a parent’, while ‘Being British’ is a stronger factor for Settlers and Prospectors than Pioneers.

‘My body, face, hair’ creeps in at 10 for Prospectors: about appearance and looking good.  ‘My age, stage of life’ appears at 10 for Settlers, largely due to the cohort effect (it is a more frequent choice for older people and Britain’s current Settler population skew older).

Differences by Values Mode

The full table of twelve Values Modes against 31 options is too big to reproduce here (you can download it here) but below is a table of the ten most popular choices, extracted from the ‘pick three’ responses (showing only the indexes or skews).

In this table I have transposed the Values Modes into their ‘transition order’, from RT (Roots) to TX (Transcender).   CDSM research suggests that individuals ‘transition’ from one Values Mode to the next, if they do, along this sequence:

The names given to each Values Mode by CDSM are shown below, together with a schematic version of the ‘Values Map’, also showing the priority need of each of the ‘outside edge’ Values Modes:

values map

This table shows that three of the four Settler Values Modes (VMs) over index on ‘being a parent’, and three of the four Pioneer VMs on ‘my principles and values’.  The ‘outside edge’ VMs (see schematic map) are typically those with strongest values identities, and these VMs tend to define and dominate values dynamics (eg change or resistance to it).  The TX Transcender VM is frequently wildly over-represented amongst leaders of organisations, particularly those concerned with ‘issues’.  (You can take the values questionnaire and find your own Maslow Group and Values Mode from the CDSM website survey tool here).

TXs over-index on ‘my principles and values’, ‘my intelligence’, ‘my interests’ and ‘my creative abilities’ as identity factors, and strongly under index on ‘being British’ and ‘my nationality’, and slightly less so on ‘being a parent’.  On the other side of the Values Map, the ‘Brave New World’ and ‘Certainty First’ Settlers show almost the exact opposite skews.  This is the ‘Power v Universalism’ axis discussed in several previous blogs including on ‘Brexit’.

A key ‘swing’ group is the NP Now People Prospectors, who can act as a bridge for the spread of new attitudes and behaviours from Pioneers (taking them from the TX) and popularising them with other Prospectors.  It is notable that the identity factor ‘being British’ shows over indexes in all Settler and the first two (GD and HF) Prospector VMs but is then under strongly indexed in NP and TP (the similar Tomorrow People). This is the values inflexion across the middle of the values map, which was present in the EU/Brexit divide.  But it’s not the case for ‘my nationality’, being English, Welsh or Scottish, on which only the Settler VMs are over indexed.  I don’t have a good explanation for why this is.

It may be that the clarity of national identity – a binary in/out, presence or absence quality – acts as a simplifier, giving symbolic certainty which is satisfying to Settlers, whereas ‘my local area’ or ‘my county’ or town/city is harder to see in this way because everyday experience shows it to be more complex and less definitive.  I also wonder if ‘British-ness’ exists in juxtaposition to an outside influence (eg supposedly, as in the Boris Johnson caricatures, the EU).  But to investigate this would require qualitative research.

Like the Pioneers, the NPs also over index on ‘my intelligence’.

For more on the differences between individual VMs, follow the links on the home page at

Sex Differences

Above: the overall results in rank order with indexes showing the significant male/female differences.  About two thirds show sex differences.

Identity factors chosen by significantly more males:

The strongest over-index is on ‘my political convictions’.  Although this is a tiny group, it is a very male-dominated choice.  The next strongest skew is on ‘my county or city’.  I can’t help wondering if this might have something to do with affinity to sports clubs.

Identity factors chosen by significantly more females:

The biggest difference is on ‘my body, face hair’ (89 points), followed by ‘being a parent’.   The latter is most relevant in ‘targeting’ terms as this is a much more popular choice.  Together the top three probably illustrate the political or campaign significance of female dominated blogs, websites and media channels covering ‘classic’ “women’s issues”.

‘My principles and values’ is close to gender neutral, and probably is so amongst Pioneers.

Identity factors chosen equally by females and males:

Age and Identity Choices

In this case I have used the ‘chose as many as you like’ question and shown only those with clear age effects.

Those identity factors more important to older people:

The clearest age effect is ‘being a parent’, which also looks like an experience-related effect.  In other words’ it’s caused by the real-life experience of having children and being a parent.  It is also cited more frequently as people age.

Nationality, being British and ‘my local area’ all show similar age-related increases in frequency, only part of which can be down to the Settler-older correlation.

‘My political convictions’ and ‘My principles and values’ would be interesting to explore with qualitative research.  CDSM has made many studies of political affinity and voting in the UK, and shown strong values effects which tend to be quite consistent or slowly changing with respect to Labour and the Conservatives and Settlers and Pioneers but much more labile in relation to Prospectors (typically swing voters).  The values profile of UKIP, the Greens and the LibDems is much narrower and more static.  It seems this is not the same as ‘political convictions’ as an identity factor.

Those identity factors more important to younger people:

Fewer identity factors are skewed to the young.   As with ‘being a parent’ it is tempting to see some of these as lifestyle pre-occupations.  For example the salience of ‘my occupation’ falls of a bit of a cliff at 34 just as ‘being a parent’ takes off.

Finally, ‘age and lifestage’ as an identity factor, in relation to age:

This shows a different pattern over-indexing at each end of the spectrum, perhaps because the effects of age when very young and when increasingly old, become things that ‘middle aged’ people rarely have to think about.

For other posts with analysis on age and values in Britain see here and here.

Class and Identity

Lastly, we can look at the relationship between ‘identity’ factor choices and ‘class’, which in Britain is conventionally measured by Socio-Economic Group, itself defined by occupation.

The table above shows results from the ‘pick your top three’ question along with skews of significance by Social Class.  (AB is ‘professional’, C1 ‘clerical/ supervisory’, C2 ‘skilled manual’, DE ‘unskilled’, ‘unemployed’ and ‘retired’; student here is coded as C1).

There are differences in the British population across values groups and SEG, although they are not strong or consistent enough to treat one as a substitute for the other:

(more recent survey data)

As discussed in Brexit Values Story Part 1 and Brexit Values Story Part 2.1, the broad correlation between approving or not of Europe and voting for Brexit or not, with class and values, is consistent between CDSM values surveys and others such as Lord Ashcroft’s survey.  This is obvious in the case of identity factors such as ‘Britishness’ and ‘nationality’ and probably hidden within the responses to ‘my principles and values’.

The over indexes on ‘my intelligence’ and ‘my interests’ amongst ABs are at least partly due to the auto-correlation with Pioneers and ABs.  The over indexes amongst ABs on ‘my standard of living, possessions’ and ‘my occupation’ are at least partly due to these also over-indexing with Prospectors (ie ‘successful’ people), who also over index on ‘my educational achievements’.

Acknowledgement: thanks to Les Higgins and Pat Dade of CDSM ( for permission to use these data


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Communications and Strategy Challenges Of The Plastics Issue

Any campaigns taking on the plastic crisis face some significant communications and strategy challenges.  These include getting rid of the L-word, the visual ‘less is more’ problem (debris> microplastic), the communications legacy effect and potential motivational dead-ends of beach clean-ups, and the inability of increased ‘recycling’ to deliver a solution.

Advocates also need to persuade politicians to take an entirely new approach to plastic based on a production phase-out, temporary essential use exemptions, imposing responsibility ‘bonds’ or similar measures on allowed uses, and substitution rather than continued reliance on ‘recycling’.

Campaigners, scientists and politicians need first to signal that plastic is an inherently dangerous substance.  The plastics industry can be expected to fight, and starts with the advantage that it has already colonized ‘recycling’ and many ‘community’ activities, most notably on beach-cleans.

(Long blog: download as a pdf here)

Recap: this post follows four others which explored the rapidly breaking ‘issue’ of plastic pollution.  If you’ve looked at them, skip this bit.  If not, here’s a summary:

The first (September 27, 2017), A Beautiful if Evil Strategy, looked at the plastics industry strategy for avoiding controls on production, by framing plastic as litter and not ‘pollution’, and co-opting litter-picks, beach cleans and the goodwill they rely on.  It described the classic ‘Iron Eyes Cody’, Crying Indian advertising campaign as ‘the greatest communications dis-service ever done to nature’ and noted:  ‘The pure genius of this highly emotive campaign was that it bought a social licence for mass production of disposable packaging, by championing action to clean up the pollution it led to’.

It pointed out that ‘the exact same strategy still sustains the plastics industry’ and is today being used by groups like through projects such as  So successful is this misdirection and deception that scientists, politicians and many NGOs routinely use the “litter” frame without a second thought, even though the discovery of microplastic fragmentation means plastic pollution is quite unlike litter, and we are eating plastic pollution.

The second (November 16, 2017) Do Some Good and Shop Before Black Friday, delved further into microplastic, how its eaten by plankton and flows out of washing machines before draining into the sea, now that most of our clothes are made of synthetic plastic fibres (eg nylon, polyester, acrylic), which continually shed microfibres.  Visible plastic containers or fragments big enough to pick up are only a small part of the problem, meaning that beaches or anywhere else can’t really be “cleaned” without removing plastic microparticles and even nano-particles.

It featured the Guppy Friend fibre-trapping wash bag and other ‘end of pipe’ fixes which won’t cure the whole problem but may, like the catalytic converter for vehicles, help spur awareness as well as reducing emissions.  It proposed that Frans Timmermans and the European Commission could require manufacturers to put filters on all washing machines.

The third blog (December 7, 2017) offered a concept:  A Two-Track Tool for Issues Development and Campaign Design, which is applicable to any issue not just plastic.  It argues that Kahneman’s ‘System 1’ (unconscious intuitive) and ‘System 2’ (conscious, analytical) thinking are not simply choices for individuals (often involving instant substitution of System 1 to avoid the mentally arduous System 2) but our societies have developed whole social domains (eg science, economics, ‘disciplines’) specialised around System 2.  This leaves the ‘mainstream’ and the ‘general public’ to get on with ‘normal life’, very much relying on System 1, which means decision making based not on analysis but things like framing, heuristics and motivational values.  The consequences for issue development, campaigns and any attempt to ‘mainstream’ a concern, are substantial.

The fourth (December 11, 2017) Why We Suddenly Have a Plastics Crisis, traced the history of ‘the plastics issue’ in Track One and Two terms, from its fleeting appearance on Track One in 1970 (Thor Heyerdahl), through its long immersion in the research world of Track Two, until with Charles Moore’s ‘discovered’ microplastic pollution in the vast Pacific garbage patch in a Track One way, around 2000.  It shows that it was not a lack of knowledge of its hazards that kept plastic pollution from being recognized as a crisis but the effects of communications psychology, and the consequences of plastic being framed as ‘normal’, ‘beneficial’ and ‘essential’, even by scientists concerned to raise the alarm.

Subsequent pressure for action has come as much from scientists as NGOs or politicians, as they have completed analysis of the plastic pollution threat, from the most micro to macro levels.  Now at least in the UK, it’s on Track One.  Newspapers like the Daily Mail and TV programmes like David Attenborough’s Blue Planet 2, are taking Track Two research evidence into the mainstream.

It argues that for Track Two policy-makers, in terms of ‘risk’, plastic pollution poses a ‘Pandora’s Box’ type problem, similar to Persistent Organic Pollutants, and in order to tackle the crisis, we must ‘rethink’ plastic:

‘if scientists governments, the UN, EU and campaign groups working against plastic pollution want to make rapid and effective progress, they have to stop using the ‘litter’ frame for plastic, and start thinking of it as inherently dangerous stuff, and acting and communicating accordingly.

Perhaps more challenging, the reality is that ‘recycling’ and conventional waste strategies are not only incapable of taking plastic out of circulation to the point where plastic pollution actually declines and stops, but they, like ‘litter’ framed beach cleans, have been heavily co-opted by the plastics industry, whose simple objective is to maintain the flow of plastic production’.

This blog picks up that thread and makes suggestions for strategies for dealing with the plastic pollution crisis.

 Communications and Strategy Challenges Of The Plastics Issue

Marine styrofoam from a fish box on the strandline.  Plastic pollution about to go off and spawn more pollution.

Dumping the L-Word

What’s the difference between Litter and Pollution?  Essentially that pollution is bad stuff, and litter is just untidiness.  It’s embedded in the litter frame, the set of mental rules that constitutes’ the frame’, that litter can be easily remedied by clearing it up.  This has long attracted politicians, for a number of reasons.

Mrs Thatcher arrives for her infamous litter-pick photo opp of March 1988.  Litter was collected from St James’s Park in London (man left) and then redistributed for Mrs Thatcher to be seen to pick up.  Thatcher was good at dodging calls to control pollution.  Litter was ok as it was a question of personal, not industrial-corporate responsibility.  A Guardian journalist reported: “This is not,” she insisted, “the fault of the government. It is the fault of the people who knowingly and thoughtlessly throw it down.” That tells you a lot about why the plastics industry likes dealing with ‘litter’.  

Categories matter, including whether or not something is a pollutant, and thus a ‘bad thing’.  During his 2000 campaign, G W Bush pledged to control emissions of carbon dioxide as a pollutant, alongside others such as sulphur and nitrogen oxides.   Once elected President, Bush reversed this commitment in March 2001.  Officials said it had been a ‘mistake’.

‘A White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said Mr. Bush had made his decision in consultation with his cabinet.

”The president is following through on his commitment to a multipollutant strategy that will significantly reduce pollutants,” Mr. McClellan said. ”CO2 should not have been included as a pollutant during the campaign. It was a mistake.”’

(New York Times, 14 March 2001).

In the US, acknowledging that CO2 was a pollutant had important legal implications as it potentially led to an obligation to control it under clean air legislation.  Two weeks later, Bush walked away from the Kyoto Protocol.  He’d been fixed by the oil, coal and gas industries.  The rest is history: American foot-dragging over CO2 pollution has undoubtedly consigned the world to far worse climate change.

We are now at a similar point with plastic, although campaigners should not get hung up on a legalistic route for bringing about change.

Legal specifics aside, the more important point is that pollution is bad.  There is no good amount of pollution, only less is better, and none is best.  The word has many derivations including cultural and moral defilement as well as over-flowing into a wrong place but it’s never a good thing.

Seeing as CO2 is invisible, the “litter strategy” was not available as a diversion for the fossil fuel lobby but for the users of oil making plastic, it is, and every time scientists, NGOs, politicians or advocates of less-plastic-in-the-environment use the ‘L-word’, they are helping sustain the problem, not cure it.   As George Lakoff has pointed out, you cannot argue with a frame from inside it: doing so only makes it stronger.   So when plastic escaped being framed as pollution in the popular mind, it had long-lasting consequences.

How the ‘litter’ frame works:

When plastic (on the beach) is framed as ‘litter’, it is a question of personal responsibility, not corporate, or political, consumer or retail or even social responsibility.  To drop is bad, to pick up is good.  Down is bad, up is good (as it so often is in frames, heaven hell etc).  The problem action is elegantly reversible into the solution.  It’s binary, either/or, tangible, visualisable, bounded, human-scale, resolvable and discrete: all factors which make it an appealing causal story.  Applied to the story of a beach clean, the challenge is overcome, beauty is restored, good people prevail, the problem is solved, the arc of the story is completed.  

Any frame functions by its rules.  It’s a mental metaphor, usually triggered by or triggering an image.  What does not fit gets filtered out or ignored because it is not ‘relevant’: it cannot fit.  There’s no point in raising it.  Arguing with the frame merely strengthens it as we mentally refer to the rules and confirm them.  

Seeing plastic-on-the-beach now triggers the long-established clean-up litter frame.  This is why plastic-on-the-beach works so well for the plastics industry which does not want anyone to talk about questions such as sources, need, how much, consequences, risks or social benefit.  And why continuing to use plastic on the beach as the primary visual in environmental campaigns about plastic, is perhaps not always the best idea. 


Right and wrong from the world of litter

How the ‘pollution’ frame works:

In the pollution frame, it escapes.  It over-flows.  The source producer is responsible.  There’s usually a victim: it hs a bad effect for the surroundings and those in them.  The responsibility is bigger than individual.  It is by definition, not easily recovered and put back so emission has to be controlled.  No amount of it is good.

Clip art and official warning sign of pollution. 

If you need political and corporate action, you face a big difficulty if responsibility for the pollutant in question is framed as personal and individual.  As Mrs Thatcher pointed out decades ago, companies and government literally do not fit in the litter frame and so are out of sight, and out of mind.  And as an earlier blog established, in the case of plastics, this is no accident.

Anyone who wants to bring the plastics pollution crisis under control needs to avoid framing it as about ‘litter’ for this reason.  Although perhaps inconvenient, it’s the quickest and easiest first step that the relevant policy communities can take, and they should do everything they can to make sure that pollution rather than ‘litter’ appears in the title and texts of any government or corporate policies ostensibly intended to tackle the plastic crisis..

Some examples of advocates trying to cut plastic pollution while at the same time calling it ‘litter’:

EU science and policy and technical reports on marine plastic

The European Union routinely frames the plastics problem as ‘litter’ rather than as plastic pollution. So do many governments, and so of course does the plastics industry.


EU policy report (left), EU funded project with aquaria (right) and ‘Marine Litter Solutions’, a plastics industry greenwash ‘NGO’ with 69 plastics industry members

 Above: some of the signatories to the Marine Litter Solutions ‘declaration’.  A who’s who of those producing the plastic problem.

 EU policy on marine plastic pollution is currently framed as about about ‘litter’.  For example:

‘The Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) sets the framework for Member States to achieve by 2020 Good Environmental Status (GES) for their marine waters, considering 11 descriptors. One of these descriptors (descriptor 10) focuses on marine litter, stating that GES is achieved only when “properties and quantities of marine litter do not cause harm to the coastal and marine environment”.’

(My emphasis)

This illustrates the considerable success of the plastics industry in hijacking ‘the issue’ and rendering it as about individual responsibility (for littering) rather than control of corporate pollution.

The EU clearly understands the issues of microplastic and plastic beneath the waves that you can’t see.  It even produces this ingenious if slightly weird graphic:

But note the child: visually it still says ‘litter’ and personal responsibility, not the need to control plastic pollution at source, even though the accompanying text states:.

Cleaning up the oceans is one option, it is however not the most efficient method against marine litter. You could compare it to scouring the sand in the desert and this is simply something that no country could afford. The solution is to tackle the problem at its source.

Nor does it stop there.  One of the most active and respected research groups is the International Marine Litter Research Unit at Plymouth University, led by Professor Richard Thompson who first coined the term ‘microplastic’ in 2004.  Thompson was one of the authors of this compendious 564 page report ‘Marine Anthropogenic Litter’,  produced in 2015.

Even some NGOs conducting vigorous campaigns against plastic pollution are also still using the ‘litter’ frame:

Surfers Against Sewage

Some scientists and others familiar with ‘the issue’ on Track Two may feel that it simply does not matter because the term is just a ‘technicality’ and what matters are ‘the facts’ but it does matter because on Track One, in public and political communication, reference to plastic as ‘litter’ neutralises the impact of plastic pollution.

It’s also true that some may use the terms interchangeably and some researchers have framed papers as about ‘pollution’ for instance [examples] but that only strengthens the case for avoiding the L-word.

In my view the long-established custom and practice of framing policy and even research in ‘marine litter’ terms undoubtedly delayed recognition of plastic pollution as a crisis.

Going going but never actually gone

Less Can Be Worse

In communications terms there’s another more counter-intuitive reason why the ‘litter’ frame is problematic and no longer matches the plastic problem.  That’s because with items of litter, more = worse, and that can be confirmed visually.  On the other hand, with microplastic caused by fragmentation, unless you are using a microscope, the visual signal is the opposite.

As described in an earlier blog, a single coke bottle can fragment to produce 17,000 1mm microplastic particles.  So if you find half a coke bottle, and 8,500 microparticles have got free, that’s worse than a whole coke bottle. Once you take fragmentation into account, a beach with ‘less litter’ may not be one with less plastic pollution: less can be more.

Moreover litter as items large enough to hold (macroplastic in Track Two jargon) is tangible, and microplastic is effectively intangible.  This makes plastic pollution more like any widespread and spreading threat which multiplies.

Plastic pollution sorely needs reframing, and to do that, the key question is what other bad things work like this, things, which get more dangerous as they become less visible. ?

A plague perhaps, or a biological weapon formed of a dangerous virus or bacterium: safe when trapped in a sealed container, more threatening when it escapes, especially if it can go on multiplying.   Or a fragmentation weapon, or a lump of radioactive waste, or toxic chemicals, or a sheet of asbestos which can break up into hazardous dust.

This is the unfortunate reality of plastic. It’s inherently dangerous stuff, and it takes us into the politics of the invisible.

The lynchpin requirement to stimulating effective change on plastics is simple: to recognize that it’s inherently dangerous and send unambiguous signals to that effect. Without that, the psychological impetus and political space necessary to restrict use, change behaviour, tighten those material ‘loops’ and rapidly develop alternatives, will simply not be there.

Signifying Risk and Hazard

If someone walked into your kitchen with a jar of white powder, you’d expect to be ‘told’ if it was hazardous.  Or perhaps to be able to see that from the label.  And if it was ‘really dangerous’, we wouldn’t expect it to be in our kitchens at all, nor indeed in our homes or shops: anthrax or asbestos for example.  Yet asbestos was once treated as harmless enough to be used around the home, and we were taught about its many benefits, alongside plastic.

Likewise, when I was growing up, tobacco smoking was accepted as normal, and it was considered polite to provide ashtrays even in houses where nobody smoked.  Right up to the 1990s if you were very polite, you might even keep cigarettes just to offer to visitors.  As recently as 2006 cigarette smoking was still legal in UK workplaces (see ‘smoke and mirrors’ in Campaign Strategy Newsletter 26 on campaign strategies which changed attitudes and the law).  Now smoking is so thoroughly desocialised that it is being restricted outdoors, and every time we comply with one of these measures, we reinforce the idea that smoking is hazardous.

If products or substances are dangerous, we expect to have our attention drawn to that by a symbol, usually in an orange box.  These have become so familiar that they are part of our visual language.  Such symbols and restrictions now need to be applied to plastic.  The good news is that in Track Two world there’s a whole industry of designers and cognitive psychologists ready to nudge us into changing behaviours (and hence attitudes, opinions and potentially politics: see VBCOP), if only they are given the brief to do so.

The bad news is that like the tobacco industry, the plastics industry will move heaven and earth to stop this from happening.   After generations in which their business has boomed without control, they now see the first signs of sunset on the horizon, and they will not go without fighting tooth and nail, every inch of the way, not least by lavish use of money.

But let’s imagine that somewhere the first company or government starts putting warnings on plastic (if they have already done so, please let me know).  Our comms designers face an interesting problem: given that plastic poses so many different types of risk and hazard, which ones should we depict on a warning label?

Here’s one for starters:

It has the advantage of familiarity, for instance found on DIY and gardening products which should not be let out.

What about plastic’s inbuilt ability to fragment, and break down into micro-particles/ fibres, which is a multidimensional risk-magnifier in itself?  In some ways this makes it a danger because it is very small.  Hazardous dusts fall into this category and have their own symbols.

I looked up fragmentation as a hazard and found it also has a symbol to itself – an orange hexagon – although usually associated with explosive force.  Perhaps this could be adapted something like this:

Plastic applications also differ in their propensity to end up in the environment.  For example many plastic car parts are now supposed to be recovered when a car is scrapped and presumably (I have not checked) are therefore at a low risk of ending up dumped, or in the Track Two jargon, ‘as leakage’.  At the other extreme, packaging for on-the-go foods are highly likely to ‘escape’, or become ‘feral’ plastic.  In the technical world of hazardous gases like CFCs these escapees are called ‘fugitive’ emissions.  All examples of framing (as in a fugitive from the law, etc).  So it could make sense to label plastic things to recognize particularly high probability of escape (escape risk if you like), and this might please users of lower-risk-of-escaping plastic applications.

Volatile substances are escape-prone and have their own sign, although it doesn’t quite do justice to plastic:

Plastic also poses a problem because it’s very long lived in the environment, in some cases with a half-life of centuries or longer (it’s even arguable that the ‘half life’ concept isn’t fully applicable to plastic).  Perhaps it needs labelling like radioactive waste for similar reasons ?

Does plastic merit a new version of this ?

But then cycling in food webs as it does, plastic also behaves like a biohazard, which has its own established sign:

Given that plastic poses a multiplicity of risks and hazards including transport of toxic chemicals, I suppose you could settle for the simple ‘harmful’ catch-alls:

So where might these be applied?  Plastic packaging and clothing see two obvious starting points but they should be on all plastic.  So at the moment, clothing labels look a bit like this:

But maybe need to look a bit more like this:

And Coke labels maybe need to look more like this:

And so we could go on. Plastic Free Zones, Low Plastic Communities, Plastic Free Products: they all send a signal that plastic is a problem and, that something can be done about it. Visual language, risk avoidance behaviour, flagging of responsibility, and social proof are all Track One communication dynamics.

Commercial or social initiatives to give up, ban or restrict plastic, or to offer alternatives, also send important signals.  For instance the recent UK decisions by the café ‘Pret a Manger’ to offer glasses of filtered water rather than water in plastic bottles, and the decision by pub chain Wetherspoons to stop using plastic straws:

Report from The Independent

Such moves are a target category with high leverage (supply chain) and high visibility, as well as being high-touch in Track One life, which makes them great intermediate campaign targets.  On this issue ‘plastic-free’ lifestyle blogs are also hugely important gearing, and a test-bed for proof-of-possibility for substitution.  I’ll write more about that another time.

Can We Win By ‘Fighting On the Beaches’?

A reality facing campaign designers is that plastic on the beach is already established as the iconic visual.  The beach is emotional Ground Zero for most communications aimed at curbing plastic pollution.  Here’s what I got when I put ‘plastic pollution’ into a Google image search.

Beach plastic is where public motivation has long met public opportunity to take a chunk out of the problem.   It’s what gets us going but where to?   Getting the context or battleground right or wrong can often make the difference between campaign success or failure.  The beach has been a great location for showing there’s a problem with plastic and for public engagement but can it now meet the needs of campaigns to end plastic pollution?

Call of the Beach  

‘Beach-combing’, walking the strandline is an ancient activity, going back at least to the Stone Age.  Today from Mumbai to Hong Kong, from Australia to the US, people voluntarily take to their beaches to try and combat plastic pollution.  Let me be clear: I’m all in favour of beach-cleans, and I do them too.

There’s something awfully satisfying about cleaning the plastic from a beach, particularly a beautiful one.  Restoring natural glory knocks emotional spots off a tidy-up of plastic behind a supermarket car-park.  It also produces pleasing, visually definitive results, as with this beach-clean in Utila, Honduras:

Beach clean in Utila (Honduras) by Ecodive.  Problem solved?

A beach of plastic bottles is the defining visual poster-child of the issue.   A plastic-covered beach counterposed with a ‘pristine’ beach provides a dramatic visual polarity.  That makes it the first choice for news media imagery, and a choice emulated by millions of us on social media.

So as click-bait visual language and starting from where concern-is-at, a good plastic-littered beach is hard for campaigners to resist, and for the public, the relative presence or absence of beach plastic has become a critical visual indicator of the ‘health’ of the seas, and a social barometer of how we are doing on ‘plastics problem’.

Photo: Greenpeace

In 2016 a team of academic researchers analysed a decade of UK beach-cleans and wrote:

The aesthetic impact of anthropogenic litter has implications for tourism and human well-being. For example, 85% of 1000 residents and tourists said they would not visit a beach with an excess of two litter items per metre … [and] ,,, beach choice was more strongly determined by clean, litter-free sand and seawater than by safety [plus]  the restorative psychological benefits ordinarily experienced by people visiting the coast were undermined by the presence of litter.

In other words we prefer clean beaches, and they make us feel better.

So sensitive are we to the visual signal, that any ‘fiddling’ with the beach plastic barometer is worth remarking on.  Recently I was talking to a fisherman about plastic and he raised the “unfairly blamed” point with me.  A piece in Fishing News, he said, had pointed out that when the BBC visited Cornish plastics campaigners to report the amount of fishing industry waste (about 15% of UK beach-clean items), they first piled it all up to make a ‘better pitcure’.  Conversely, Jo Ruxton, formerly a producer on the BBC’s Blue Planet, and now an anti-marine-plastics campaigner, told the Daily Telegraph: “I’ve known film crews spend two hours clearing up beaches before they can take shots of turtles.”

[David Attenborough’s programmes have been increasingly criticized for giving an unrealistically positive view of the state of nature, including by me but to his credit, Attenborough used the latest, Blue Planet II, to make a strong call for action on plastic].

Beach Clean Ups – Do They Really Make a Difference?

Now we know about microplastic, does a beach with little or no visible plastic give a misleading picture ?  And might the act of beach-cleaning even function as a sink for public concern, and create a ‘dead-end’ stopping public concern from reaching the places where it really could help cut-off the problem at source?

At first sight, the maths suggest it is not even scratching at the surface of the problem.

The largest and best documented beach clean network is International Coastal Clean Up co-ordinated by the US-based Oceans Conservancy.  Starting in the US State of Oregon in 1984, it went nationwide by 1988 and now includes over 90 countries.  In 2015 800,000 volunteers recovered 14m items weighing 8m kg, almost entirely plastic.  It’s a lot to pick up, weighing as the Conservancy says, ‘More Than 100 Boeing 737s’.

8m kg is 8,000 tonnes.  By comparison, a 2015 study in Science estimated that in one year (2010) about 8m tonnes of plastic entered the seas from coastal communities (ie including via rivers) and that is increasing.  So even the heroic efforts of nearly a million volunteers only accounted for about 0.1% of all the plastic estimated to be entering the ocean.  Even if we added in other (maybe imaginary) clean-ups and increased the Conservancy figure tenfold, we’d still only be recapturing about 1% of the plastic getting free into the sea.

Oceans Conservancy’s home page features a striking image of a woman collecting beach plastic with the words:  ‘ending the flow of trash at the source’, which is the right idea as a mission but exactly what beach clean ups do not do because plastic is not made on the beach and 80% of the plastic in the sea, does not come from disposal at sea.

Is this the source of plastic pollution?

To be fair, if you drill down several levels the Conservancy does offer some educational information on behaviours, such as a ‘6 week trash free challenge’ including in week two: ‘Use as few single-use beverage bottles and cups as possible’ but it does not seem to propose anything intended to ensure corporations make less plastic.

The Conservancy argues that the data on types of ‘trash’ collected during beach-cleans enables others to ‘divert solid waste’ before it reaches the sea, or recycle it, for example a scheme to recycle flip-flops in a Kenyan Marine Park.

The Conservancy’s 2016 ‘data release’ on ‘International Coastal Cleanup’ does mention microplastic turning up in seafood and wildlife but regards it as a matter for ‘further study’.  In short, the proposition of this global network is to do something good in itself, which is removing plastic from our beaches but it seems to be the same framing activities, described in A Beautiful If Evil Strategy:  one liable to reduce demand for effective regulatory action by drawing well-intentioned citizen consumers into litter picking rather than change campaigns.

Sponsored by Coca Cola

Alarmingly to some, the Conservancy’s lead sponsor for its beach cleans is Coca Cola, while Dow Chemical appears as a ‘Healthy Bay partner’, while Keep America Beautiful (see earlier blog) is an ‘Outreach Partner’.

Actions attached to a beach-clean – Surfers Against Sewage

In the UK, the Marine Conservation Society is a contributor to International Coastal Clean Up.  It’s known for the Beachwatch survey/beach clean run since 1993.  In 2016 its volunteers picked up nearly 270,000 pieces of beach litter, mostly plastic, and encouragingly, have found a 22% reduction in plastic carrier bags since charges on them were introduced in 2011.

MCS does not seem to weigh its plastic but another UK organisation running beach cleans does, the more campaign-oriented Surfers Against Sewage or SAS.

In 2017 SAS reported: ‘the Big Spring Clean saw us remove over 55 tonnes of marine plastic pollution and litter from 475 beaches across the UK’ and SAS netted another 35 tonnes in the Autumn clean-up, making a total haul of 90t.  Some 10,000–27,000 tonnes of ‘mismanaged’ plastics are estimated to be discharged from land in the UK, so in relation to say 18,000 tonnes, 90 tonnes represents around 0.5%.

Recapturing 0.1% – 0.5% of the plastic getting into the sea is not a lot but the activity is obviously worthwhile in many ways.  For one thing, marine plastic tends to be concentrated near the coast.  A study modelling the potential of floating ‘plastic collectors’ to trap microplastic found that if placed near coasts they could remove 31% of microplastics, versus 1% if they were all in the ‘Great Pacific Garbage patch’.

Fortunately for collecting, it also turns out that many beaches act as traps for plastic. Consultancy Eunomia points out that the average global concentration of sea-surface plastic is less than 1kg/km2 , and the highest concentration is in the North Pacific Gyre at 18kg/km2 but on beaches  it is five times greater at 2,000kg/km2 .  Eunomina says ‘there is a ‘flux’ of litter between beaches and the sea. By removing beach litter, we are therefore cleaning the oceans’.

Above: from Plastics in the Marine Environment by Eunomia

So keep cleaning your beaches: it’s more effective to pick it up there, than to try catching it at sea.  Just do it frequently enough to get to the plastic before it’s washed back out to sea, or before UV from sunlight makes the plastic brittle, and before wind, waves, pebbles and small life-forms break it up into microplastic.  Eunomia also worked out that if beaches were cleaned on a daily basis rather than just twice a year, about eight times more plastic would be recovered.

Of course it is very hard to pick up very small bits of plastic. On some beaches over 80% of all the pieces of plastic found between the high and low water marks are now ‘invisible’ microplastics.

This also leaves the problem that beach-cleans and beach-plastic dominate the engagement visuals of the plastics issue.  Showing beach cleans solving a problem does not show beach cleans solving the problem and cannot do so but perhaps it is also possible to adapt beach-cleans to give them greater leverage.

Enhancing Beach Cleans

Beach-cleans offer a good opportunity to show and involve people in the reality of microplastic, including on the beach itself.   There is potential ‘citizen science’ projects such as this one in Florida and this at St Kilda in Australia:

Community members investigating microplastics with Environment Protection Authority Victoria

Hands-on activity to sieve and reveal microplastic on the spot would be the best way to bring home the reality of fragmentation and microplastic, and if conditions do not allow, then ‘one we made earlier’ type displays could be used.

A big weakness of beaches as a context for plastic campaigns is the absence of corporations and politicians.  Unlike the urban environment, beaches tend to be brand free zones.  One approach to bridge this gap between beach plastic and responsible decision-makers is to celebrate clean-ups, and then ask the participants to demand political action, such as via the petitions run by Surfers Against Sewage.  But even this does not actually put corporates or politicians ‘in the picture’ on the beach.  Indeed plastic-makers and users probably hope that by becoming corporate sponsors, they may shelter behind projects like beach-cleans and evade campaigns such as Greenpeace’s push against Coca Cola.

A beach brand audit can bring plastic-using brands to the beach by attaching them to individual bits of pollution.  In the Philippines Greenpeace identified plastic from Nestlé, Unilever and Proctor and Gamble as amongst the worst offenders.  A step on from that could be a RTS or Return-to-Sender action; taking the plastic back to the users or producers.

Such enhancements could help retain the satisfaction of ‘cleaning the beach’ while embedding awareness that it’s not a complete solution.  The ideal outcome is that the beach gets cleaner but participants, having ‘done their bit’, are motivated and enabled to press for upstream action.

A Massive Expansion of Beach Cleans?

It’s possible that growing awareness of the plastics crisis will stimulate calls to increase beach-cleans.  Eunomia estimates that as beach cleans cover only 1.9% of the world’s coastline, at any one time the actual amount of recoverable plastic on beaches could be around 1.4 million tonnes.  Expanding beach cleaning 50-100 fold could therefore harvest more of the plastic washing onto and off beaches but would also require significant resources.

If campaigners set about pressing governments to fund a massive increase in these mainly voluntary activities, there is a chance that they might succeed.  The MacArthur Foundation notes that even in the EU, cleaning coasts and beaches of plastic could cost up to EUR 630 million per year, as pollution grows.  So it could appeal to politicians as a great way to encourage volunteering, boost civic minded participation, be seen to do something ‘big’, and possibly divert the unemployed or low-paid into useful activity.  Some charities might love the idea as it could create a new profile and cash flow for them.

But unless beach-cleans are enhanced as campaign platforms as discussed above, just scaling them up could actually prevent effective action by reinforcing a perception of the problem and solution to plastic pollution in terms of ‘beach+litter+cleanup’.  Something similar happened in the past with ‘clean ups’ of beached oil spills and oiled wildlife.

One way to avoid a reinforcement of the status quo would be to make the polluters pay. Why should the taxpayers or volunteers pay to clean up plastic pollution just because the ‘leaky’ plastics system is a profitable business model for chemicals companies?

The MacArthur Foundation has pointed out that on conservative estimate,  ‘costs of the negative externalities of plastics in the oceans’ total least USD 13 billion each year.   In other words, the impact of plastic pollution is costing us at least US$13bn per annum but the plastics industry is not paying.

Governments could use tax or other measures to extract at least these sums from the plastics industry, and then to use some of that to recover plastic from our beaches.  Alternatively, one could take the ‘community service’ penalty approach and make the plastics industry executives get out and pick up the plastic themselves.  Campaigns to demand this might at least force corporations into the open.

Of course none of this makes much sense so long as the ‘Niagara Falls’ scale flow of plastic into the environment continues unabated.

In the end campaigns to tackle the plastics crisis cannot be won just ‘fighting on the beaches’.  Campaigners have inherited a legacy activity conceived to manage a local impact, not resolve the underlying causes.  It’s a problem management activity not a problem solving strategy, and can only partly be transitioned into a battle winning campaign tool.   Effort needs to migrate upstream, into homes, shops, schools, workplaces, legislatures, investment, design and industry.

The Limitations of Recycling

Perhaps the biggest communications challenge facing architects of new plastics campaigns, is ‘recycling’, an activity which has become almost synonymous with ‘being green’.  Our customary ‘Track One’ conceptualisation of the ‘plastics issue’ includes plastic waste (often on the beach), and recycling.    Unfortunately, in the case of plastics, this simple WYSIATI, (what-you-see-is-all-there-is), is an illusion.

What we imagine, because of what we ‘see’.  Not what happens.  Leastways, hardly ever.

That it is good to recycle, has become a social norm and so it has become conventional wisdom that if we recycled plastic, then coupled with recovering it from the environment, as in beach-cleans, we could ‘solve the problem’.  Unfortunately when experts have looked into this, it seems that whereas recycling may indeed achieve great things on say, aluminium, that’s not the case with plastic.  It can’t solve the plastics crisis.

This poses a communications challenge but it’s unavoidable, as it’s part of the reason why we need to stop using plastic.  Yes the current recycling system can be ‘tightened up’ but that only makes sense as a transitional mitigation during a phase out.  Substitution of non-plastic alternatives, needs to loom large in campaigns, communications and government strategies.

Re-appraising how we communicate about recycling within a plastic phase out framework is going to take some working out.  The naieve version of ‘recycling the solution’ is well embedded.

Above: the first US plastics recycling facility was opened in 1972.  The magical green box takes plastic away to be ‘recycled’.  It helps us feel good by doing good but it too often it is an exercise in deception.  From industry site Plastics Make It Possible

‘Track Two’ type analysis shows that the plastics recycling ‘system’ is not ‘fit for purpose’ when it comes to delivering a solution to the plastics crisis.  It’s not just like a bucket with a hole in it, it’s more hole than bucket, in fact about 90% hole.

In 2009 as part of the Royal Society study Our Plastic Age  two plastics industry consultants described a great many recycling processes that could in theory make a difference to overall waste and pollution, but no examples of it actually reducing producion of new plastic.  (The industry provides countless examples of pilots and prototypes that are very ‘closed loop’ but the forest of examples disguises the fact that hardly any plastic is actually in anything like a closed loop system: a case of not seeing the wood for the trees).

In 2014 ‘Stemming the Tide’, a report by consultants McKinsey’s for Oceans Conservancy,  identified a series of ‘drivers’ of ‘leakage’ into the environment offering scope for relatively rapid reduction (mostly incineration).

McKinseys wrote:

Analysis suggests that recycling alone is not a solution, as about 80 percent of the plasticwaste stream is too low in value to incentivize extraction, and almost 30 percent cannot be distinguished at a polymer level without additional investment in optical sorting equipment.

Writing in the Journal of Industrial Ecology in 2015 under the title Common Misconceptions about Recycling, Roland Geyer noted:

in the long run, recycling reduces waste generation only if it reduces primary material production; otherwise, it merely delays it’. 

In other words, recycling plastic may not lead to a reduction in the production of new and extra plastic, and even the best imagined improvements won’t resolve the pollution crisis.

In 2016 the Ellen MacArthur Foundation study The New Plastics Economy, detailed a huge range of steps required if plastics were to be made and used on much more ‘circular economy’ basis.  It noted:

32% of plastics escape the collection system globally. Plastic packaging is particularly prone to leakage due to its small size, high rate of  dispersion and low residual value

and although ‘a critical first step in addressing leakage [a euphemism for pollution] would
be to urgently improve after-use infrastructure in high-leakage countries’:

‘this measure in isolation is likely not sufficient …  even under the very best current scenarios for improving infrastructure, such measures would stabilise, not eliminate, leakage into the ocean.

The expected reduction of global leakage (45% by 2025 in a best-case scenario) would be neutralised by the annual growth of plastics production of currently around 5%. As a consequence of such stabilised leakage, the cumulative total volume of plastics in the ocean would continue to rise quickly’.

Meaning that even with a huge effort to improve the performance of the many steps in the ‘recovery’, collection, recycling and ‘waste management’ systems, plastic pollution would increase, unless production is curtailed.

In 2017 Jenna Jambeck and others published  Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made  in Science Advances.  They estimated that so far, less than a tenth of all the plastic ever made, has been recycled, and wrote:

 ‘Recycling delays, rather than avoids, final disposal. It reduces future plastic waste generation only if it displaces primary plastic production; however, because of its counterfactual nature, this displacement is extremely difficult to establish’. 

From Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made Geyer, Jambeck, Law Sci. Adv. 2017; 3: e1700782 19 July 2017.  Solid lines data on plastic to date (2015). Dotted lines: projections.  This gives an idea of the problem being created if we continue ‘Business as Usual’.

The authors calculated that half of all plastic ever made, had been produced in the preceding 13 years and over 40% of the non-fibre plastics had been used in packaging, with a very short life before becoming waste.

From Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made.  Of the 4900Mt discarded (environment or landfill) some 600Mt are fibres.  Of the 600Mt recycled, only 10% have been recycled more than once.

Geyer et al estimate that worldwide, 18% of non-fibre plastic was recycled in 2014 with higher rates in Europe (30%) and China (24%) than the US (9%).  Very little fibre plastic is recycled.  They concluded:

‘The growth of plastics production in the past 65 years has substantially outpaced any other manufactured material … without a well-designed and tailor-made management strategy for end-of-life plastics, humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet’.

More New Plastic 

The plastics industry is fond of talking about recycling and the need for more of it. Plastics Europe says 7.5m tonnes were recycled in Europe in 2014.  What we don’t hear much about, is how much difference plastic recycling is actually making in terms of ‘closing the loop’ or avoiding the need for creation of ‘new plastic’ or taking it out of circulation.

Plastics Europe says 59mt of plastic were produced in Europe in 2014.  It does not say what percentage came from ‘recyclate’ or recycled plastic but even at the most optimistic, it won’t be more than 7.5mt or about 13%.  In reality it might be nearer 1.3%.

The most likely reason for this is a combination of economics – only when the oil or gas price rises high enough does the industry turn to ‘recyclate’ –  the massive fuss and bother involved with using recycled as opposed to virgin materials, and fears of users (such as Coca Cola) that recycled material may be hard to make as nice and shiny as virgin plastic.

When Recycling Really Means Relocation

For decades ‘plastic recycling’ in many developed countries has often really meant plastic waste export.   A 2014 report for the International Solid Waste Association found the EU was exporting ‘almost half of the plastics collected for recycling … corresponding to 12% of the entire post-consumer plastic waste arisings’.   87% of this ended up in China.   Unless the European plastic industry is at the same time buying in plastic waste from outside Europe, it seems certain that it is using very little of the plastic sent for recycling by Europeans.

So might China hoover up all the world’s recyclable plastic instead of using fossil fuels to make more?  Probably not.  Hearing their plastic has been “sent for recycling”, consumers might imagine it was recycled.  But no.  It turns out that most of the plastic ‘recyclate’ is too dirty to be used.  Since 2013 China has adopted a ‘Green Wall’ policy, restricting what it accepts as waste imports.   China recently shocked European and especially UK plastic waste exporters by announcing vastly tighter quality rules.  These outlaw shipments of 24 classes of recyclate, including some plastic, with more than 0.3% contamination.

Isabel Hilton: : “the rest of the world finally has to face up to its own problem”

Isabel Hilton editor of China Dialogue told the BBC World Service ‘World Update’ on 5th December 2017 that “only ten percent” of the plastic waste ‘sent for recycling’ in China “is actually recyclable”, and  “the rest tends to get dumped in China, it finds its way into rivers, and eventually into the sea, and that has prompted the Chinese authorities to impose a ban on several varieties of plastic”.  Asked what this meant for countries exporting plastic waste to China, Hilton replied: “the rest of the world finally has to face up to its own problem”.

Whether this does indeed stimulate greater and better domestic recycling, product redesign and substitution or simply a search for another place to dump plastic collected for ‘recycling’, remains to be seen.  It also presumably means that some of the marine plastic pollution ‘from China’ is actually plastic pollution from Europe, the US and other developed countries.

Incineration is actually what happens to most plastic collected for ‘recycling’ in the European countries with higher rates of ‘recovery’.


‘Energy recovery’ means incineration. The highest rate of plastics recycling is in Germany but that was under 40%. From: Our Plastic Age, Royal Society 2009.

Plastic’s Downcycling Problem

Massive incineration happens even when ‘recovery’ is high,  because the plastics industry does not much want to use ’recycled’ plastic to make new versions of the original item.  One reason for this is ‘downcycling’, as illustrated by these examples from Cambridge University Engineering Department.  They are some years old (2006) but the basics are unchanged.

In-house scrap means inside the plastics production factory.  Once it’s outside in the supply chain, most plastic is difficult to recycle and especially, to make back into the same product.  PET, often used to make plastic bottles, is the easiest plastic to recycle but even that mainly gets made into lower-grade products like polyester carpets or wood-substitute ‘plastic lumber’.  These in turn are very rarely recycled (they are dumped),  while both carpets and polyester fleeces made from PET, continually shed microfibres while in use.  This, as Geyer says, is only delaying pollution, not preventing it.

In this example only 5% of PET from sources like bottles, stand any chance of going around a ‘closed loop’ and re-emerging as another plastic bottle.  For most of the dozens of other types of plastic, the position is worse.

The Impractical Complexity of Plastic

Psychologically, we probably equate ‘recycling’ with re-use, as we imagine that a used plastic bottle becomes a new plastic bottle.  If we see a plastic bottle return-vending machine accepting old plastic bottles and rewarding us with a returned deposit, our childlike understanding of whatever goes on inside that box, is probably that it’s ‘solving the problem’.   Likewise if we hear about the ‘Circular Economy’ we may simply picture a much bigger version of much the same thing.

Sadly, plastic is a category of substances not a single substance, so it’s massive headache for recyclers. Although there is a whole industrial ecosystem of recycling engineers, product innovators and NGOs trying to make it work, the problems are formidable: a case-study of non-sustainability

A 2016 EU report Sustainable supply of raw materials: Optimal recycling by Business Innovation Observatory pointed out that packaging involves 250 different kinds of plastic, so:

during recycling, different kinds of plastics tend to get blended together as it is difficult to separate them in the recycling process. Processes which try to separate polymers generally involve first melting the plastic and then separating the polymers through a chemical process. However, the output is not as high quality as virgin material, which limits its use and decreases the demand for recycled plastic. A large part of the packaging plastic instead goes to landfills or for incineration’.

This provides a huge incentive for plastics producers to make new plastic from virgin materials, which currently means to oil, coal or gas.  When those are cheap, that incentive is greater and recycling companies may go out of business.  This has happened with falling oil prices in the UK and gas from fracking in the US.

Fibre Problems

‘Downcycling’ has long been recognized as an economic problem in seeking a more ‘circular economy’ but  the realisation that plastic microfibres from textiles are a massive source of microplastic pollution, makes converting container plastic to plastic fibres, or re-circulating fibrous plastic, look like a very bad idea. The recycling policy community do not seem to have caught up with this.

In November 2017, the industry-linked ‘environmental non profit’ GreenBlue published a report Making Fiber-to-Fiber Recycling a Reality for Polyester Textiles arguing that new forms of chemical rather than mechanical recycling could enable recycled PET to create feedstock for any desired grade of PET, and laying out a vision for a large PET-based textile economy.  PET fibre is ‘polyester’ and according to GreenBlue represents 55% of all textile fibres produced.

GreenBlue’s enthusiastic endorsement of inter-company exchange of PET (involving apparel manufacturing, contract textile mills, carpet manufacturing and contract offce furniture manufacturing) forsees ‘watersheds’ of regionally linked enterprises, in a gigantic upscaling of the famous rent and take-back model of Atlanta-based company Interface.  It may make sense in terms of avoiding landfill and energy use but do we really want to be carpeting any country in vast areas of plastic which sheds microplastic fibres?

Geoff Wooster from Dow Chemical is a member board of GreenBlue and authored a 2016 article,  You’ve been thinking about plastics all wrong, in Business Insider.   The mission of such ‘sustainable business’ groups looks similar to environmental sustainability but for companies like Dow it is essentially to keep their business sustainable.  Jeff’s article may be all his own work but it certainly reads like it was written by a PR, and in a style familiar since the 1970s.  It starts:

‘Plastics are an indispensable part of our lives today, and recent advances in material science have delivered truly amazing products from dissolving heart stents to lifesaving air bags to smart packaging that both protects our food and warns us when it’s about to be “past its prime.”’

It hits the good old Settler ‘Security Driven’ hot buttons of saving life and limb in order to smuggle in an overall message that plastic is ‘indispensable’ which is simply untrue.

We don’t need plastic as ‘lumber’: we could use wood.  We don’t need plastic for bags, we could use paper, or cloth, or string.  We don’t need bubble-wrap, we could use cardboard.  We don’t need polyester: we could use cotton, wool or other naturally derived fibres.  We don’t need plastic straws, we could use straws made of … what’s the word ?

Recycling Has Been Colonized by the Plastics Industry

Recycling is a case of ‘do what we say, not what we do’: you the consumer ‘recycle’, we the plastics industry make more new plastic.

Like decrying litter, emphasising the importance of ‘recycling’ is a brilliant way to distract the public from the fact that plastics production is in effect pollution production, as except for indefinite dry storage (like radwaste), or incineration (with its own pollution issues), or pyrolysis or chemical-recycling (to make more raw materials for plastic), there is no way to get rid of the stuff.

As Michael Warhurst from Chemtrust has said, recirculating an inherently hazardous and substance is not ‘green’, it’s a risk.

Scientists and advocates should recognize what’s going on: the plastics recycling business is significantly co-opted by the plastics industry, as well as being a public waste service.  For the plastics industry, on the one hand it supplies feedstock when convenient (rarely), and credibility, respectability and a shield against campaigns and regulation that threaten to downsize plastic production and use on the other (frequently).


If one truth emerges about the plastics industry from the history of this issue, it is that it cannot be trusted.  It promotes plastic recycling for example, and uses 90% virgin materials but it does not explain this to the public.

By colonizing the response to plastic pollution the plastics industry has put itself in a strong position to influence that response so that it does not threaten its core business.  It has even convinced well-intentioned but naieve scientists trying to stop plastic pollution, that they should talk about benefits of plastic.

By sponsoring and becoming part of the global beach clean community, the plastics industry saps the energy from what should be anti-pollution campaigns.

It cynically co-opts goodwill and takes on the clothes of voluntarism to play on the side of citizens looking for a solution. shows you schoolchildren looking for ‘litter’, not plastics executives.

By participating in and funding ‘research’ into how to make plastics ‘more sustainable’, it buys itself more time.   If groups like GreenBlue are serious about their mission for ‘sustainable use of materials in society’ they should not be developing new markets for plastic.

And it still tries to normalise the idea that reliance on plastic is inevitable and desirable.  It tries to rob alternatives of attention, credibility and resourcing (preventing a renewables moment).

Conclusions and A New Political Ask

The world is swamped in plastic.  It’s time governments followed the call of the director of UN Environment and “declared war” on plastic.  We need a phase-out, and quickly.

The plastics industry estimates that global production will double by 2035 and quadruple by 2050.  According to The Guardian, ‘a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and the number will jump another 20% by 2021 … equivalent to about 20,000 bottles being bought every second’.

NGOs, scientists and other advocates of action on the plastics crisis need to call it as it is: pollution, not the L-word.  And scientific experts on plastics pollution need to understand the basics of communication psychology if they are not to repeat the mistakes of the scientific community on climate change.

Environmentalists need to grasp the nettle and say that more ‘recycling’ simply cannot solve the plastics crisis.  It can only make a contribution within a context of a phase out of plastic, meaning a rapid year on year reduction in production.

In 2016 consultancy Eunomia have put together this infographic summarising recent knowledge about marine plastic pollution.  Four fifths of it comes from land and 94% of the plastic going into the ocean ends up on the sea floor. ‘There is now on average an estimated 70kg of plastic in each square kilometre of sea bed’.

We now need political leaders to accept that the risk posed by plastic is different from the long-recognized public nuisance caused by discarded packaging, and even the choking and strangling of endangered wildlife.

The fragmentation of plastic into micro- and nano-pollution, it’s extreme persistence, ubiquity, its ability to release, concentrate and transport toxic chemicals damaging to health, all make plastic both a real and present danger, and a threat to future generations.

So policy needs to change: plastic needs to be rapidly phased out.  It needs to be labelled, to raise awareness of the different types of risks it poses, and to aid appropriate recovery.

Policy makers should emulate the Montreal Protocol and the case of CFCs and treat plastic as a crisis substance.   The Montreal Protocol started from the assumption that ozone destroying chemicals had to be banned, and for practical purposes, it established lists of “essential uses” which could continue while substitutes were developed.  The same approach should be adopted with plastic, which means we can keep blood bags and other medical applications, while rapidly getting shot of things like bubble wrap, blister packs, and plastic cups, bags and bottles.

Setting phase out dates also sends an unmistakable signal which stimulates redesign, reformulation, substitution and changes in investment decisions.

Given the untrustworthy nature of the industry, policy-makers should also find ways to lock in responsibility and liability.  For example, with versions of Germany’s ‘Green Dot’ scheme, or financial bonds only redeemable once plastic is proven to be recovered from use.   We are used to thinking of plastic as cheap and something that can be bought.  Maybe given its inherently hazardous nature, it should only be rented ?

All this is quite a big ask and in return, politicians are likely to ask advocates to help ‘educate’ the public and build ‘awareness’.

A lot of ‘Track Two’ work has already been done on technical  feasibility but campaigners, communicators and funders of programmes would be making a big mistake if they responded by now trying to explain to the public all the possible steps which might make a real difference.

That would be trying to immerse the public in ‘Track Two’ detail in order to make something happen on Track One, and it is one of the cardinal errors made by climate scientists when they found themselves at the forefront of public communication, and assumed that effective political action depended on first explaining the problem, starting with how the climate system works.

The principal task of campaigns should first be to associate plastic with pollution, and get it treated as an inherently dangerous substance, as without that, not a lot is going to change.







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#Brexit, (Track One) and The Will Of The People

Below are the results from a long running survey (49 polls) by YouGov, which asks the question, “In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU?“.  Two things are fairly clear.  First, that public opinion on this has been fairly firmly anchored near to 50:50 which reflects the split 52% Leave, 48% Remain of the 23 June 2016 ‘EU Referendum’ in the UK.  That split ‘Britain’ almost down the middle, and the country remains split.  Second, that there is a slight but clear tendency for later polls to err to saying that Brexit is a mistake – it was a wrong decision.

I suggest the functioning of Track One and Track Two explain these results.

As you can see above (view the data in more detail at the YouGov website), ‘don’t knows’ fluctuate around 10% and from 1 August 2016 to 29 November 2016, every poll showed more agreement with ‘Leave’.  The first dissent came on 5 December 2016 when as Mr Speaker might say, “the mistakers had it”. From then through to 22 June 2017, it was a mixed picture but mainly, just in terms of these polling outcomes*, pro Brexit: 6 times pro-Remain, 16 times pro-Leave.  It was tight and over the full set of polls, 7 are ‘tied’ between saying that ‘Britain was wrong’ to vote to leave, and saying it was right to do so.

But since 11 July this year when the ‘Leavers had it’, the ‘Remainers’ have won every poll, indicating that by a small margin, Britain is now against Brexit .

Of course this is not what the Brexit camp, which nominally includes the Government, want to hear.    So as Brexit grinds along in fits and starts, pro-Brexit British politicians, and even some pro Remain politicians who fear the electoral consequences of saying otherwise, constantly repeat the mantra that politicians must accept “the will of the people”, meaning the narrow Leave EU Referendum result.

Thus although that Referendum was not binding but only advisory, and ‘the will of the people’ does appear to have changed, it gets largely ignored.

Both Labour (which is oh-so-gradually shifting away from Brexit) and Conservatives want to ‘move on’ and the media are largely complicit in this, as they largely must be on a story where the content and all the drama is made by political infighting and manouevers.  So this poll and similar ones get little attention.  For the time being.

For the benefit of any readers outside the UK, and for UK readers who understandably do not follow Brexit in any detail, most of that politicking now focuses on what sort of Brexit it might be.  The two most debated economic tests of this are whether or not Britain stays in (or sort of in) the Single Market, and in (or sort of in) the Customs Union.

Other polls regularly show far greater public support for staying in either or both of these.

Consequently many of the more ardent Brexiteers allege that “people knew what they were voting for when they voted Leave” and although neither was mentioned on the ballot paper, that “obviously included” leaving the EU Single Market and the Customs Union. “Otherwise it would ‘not really’ be leaving the EU”.

As a media ‘bridging’ device this usually works because journalists normally lack any brief or means to question whether it is true.  In other words, there are no (not many accessible) ‘facts’ about what people actually thought they were doing in June 2016.  Some play was made after the Referendum with the fact that large numbers of Brits were Googling things like “what is the EU?” immediately after the result was declared, to suggest, in line with much anecdotal experience, that many people voting Leave really had no idea of what was involved.   But we can do the same thing with the two issues, now hugely discussed but little mentioned in the campaign before June 23rd 2016, the Single Market and the Customs Union.

The Single Market and Customs Union are, to be honest, quite techy topics. So if these were issues which the voters were really exercised about and giving a lot of thought to, the natural time to do this would have been before the Referendum.  We can’t read their minds but we can look at Google trends for the UK.

Above: UK Google search trend Dec 2012 – Dec 2017, Single Market (red) and Customs Union (Blue).

Here’s what we find.  Very few searches until June 2016.  A lot more since the Referendum.  It seems something happened which made people want to know more.

Here’s the results from 20 February 2016, when the announcement of the Referendum was made to date.  It looks like there was not that much interest in the Single Market or Customs Union before the Referendum?  Let’s take a closer look.

Here we can see that there was a slight rise on polling day but a massive one afterwards. It’s pretty clear what happened. The huge political and media discussion which ensued, and in which the Customs Union and Single Market have featured prominently, stimulated people to want to know more.  Only too late to inform their views on 23rd June 2016.

The claim that most people voting Leave ‘knew’ it ‘meant’ leaving the Single Market or Customs Union (or quite probably, knew anything about them) is, to use Boris Johnson language, piffle and balderdash.

Brexit Was Mostly A Track One Vote

So how did people decide to vote?  Some undoubtedly did put a lot of effort into researching the pro’s and cons, including some who voted Remain and some who voted Leave but not many of them (and perhaps some of the current ‘don’t knows’ and the nearly 30% who did not vote at all but probably even less of them).

Most of them will have decided on a ‘Track One’ basis: what felt right.

A recent post A Two-Track Tool For Issues Development and Campaign Design  argued that society operates on two ‘tracks’, differentiated by whether Kahneman’s ‘System 1’ (intuitive, emotional, reflexive, unconscious, automatic, easy) decision making is dominant, or ‘System 2’, the conscious, ‘effortful’, analytical, reflective way of making decisions.

On a technical political issue of huge complexity like staying in or leaving the EU, Track Two discussions would have been severely limited to policy communities, political scientists, economists, a thin slice of political nerds and geeks, businesses with a particular interest, and MPs who had specialised in the area for decades.  These people frequently appeared in the media (especially after the result) but their arguments would have been of almost no interest to most of the ‘general public’ (unlike topics like immigration or money for the NHS).  If you look at it in these terms, Remain fought a much more Track Two campaign than Leave, and lost.

On Track One, System 1 gives us what Kahneman described as ‘a way of jumping to conclusions’.  Plus if something is hard to weigh up and difficult to grapple with – as many people reported about the arguments pro- and anti- ‘Brexit’), if there’s an easier option on offer, we take it (what he calls, substitution – use System 1 instead).  Hence, framing, heuristics (mental shortcuts) and unconscious motivational values come into play.  As I showed in previous blogs on Brexit eg The Values Story of the Brexit Split (Part 1), “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” – Will You Chose The Old or The Young ?, and Brexit Values Story Part 2.1), values explain the Referendum result more clearly than any other analytical tools.

Above: example of the Track-One-Track-Two differences.  See also this subsequent blog for how it played out in the plastics issue: Why We Suddenly Have a Plastics Crisis.

And that’s how they are now mostly answering the question: ”In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU?

The claims and counter claims are confusing and I can’t be bothered trying to research it.  So the easiest way to answer nice Mr or Ms YouGov is by reference to how I voted in the Referendum.  That’s the ‘consistency’ effect (I was sane then, and still am, so it must have made sense).  Then there’s social proof.  Most people I know voted this way, and so it was the right thing to do.  These will also apply to people who did not vote but who mentally reference others whose opinions they tend to agree with.  All this anchors opinion around the 50/50 split.

Those few percent already drifting off to say yes it was a mistake, may well be those whose personal experiences (eg through business), or subsequent research (not many of them) on Track Two, have led them to change their minds.

That’s with a question framed about how Britain voted.

Questions about other aspects of Brexit such as ‘should we have another Referendum?’ (lots of agreement) or ‘is the government doing a good job in the negotiations?’, do not have any anchoring effect and so opinion is much more labile.  And because of course they never took a view on the Single Market or Customs Union, there is also a lot of support for staying in both or either, even amongst those who voted Leave.

What might make a big difference to the YouGov polls?  If there was some Track One type evidence, salient, simple, easy to process, definitive looking, which made Brexit feel bad, and if there was an obvious alternative.  Which is why it is still the case that if the Labour Party clearly came out against leaving the EU, providing ‘some else’ to take care of (think about) things**, public opinion would very probably start to change rapidly.

* There were a lot of polls in this period so that probably exaggerates the ‘Leave’ impression

** I’ve been asked to clarify this.  It’s that if there was a clear different option, giving a ‘real choice’ which registered on the Leave-Remain spectrum, rather than Labour offering a ‘shade of’ the Conservative Brexit, this would simplify the choice-making to something like ‘who do I follow’ (using System 1) as opposed to trying to do an analysis and then asking which option comes closest to it (using System 2 and then making a choice).  Hence the creation of the clearly different ‘Labour Remain Option’ would itself facilitate substitution.  Plus because of the numbers of MPs in Parliament, it is only the Labour Party which could make this happen, which a lot of people will be at least dimly aware of, and so long as Labour does not do it, there is no ‘moment’ to provoke re-appraisal.

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Why We Suddenly Have A Plastics Crisis

or  How Kahneman’s System 1 Fast-Tracked The Plastic Crisis,  and System 2 Slow-Tracked The Issue

A child’s plastic fish, and a plastic cotton bud innard, both found on my local beach.

(Long post – download it as pdf here)


The UN has acknowledged that we have a ‘plastics crisis’ and on December 6th 2017, adopted a (non-binding) resolution calling for an end to plastic entering the sea.

Many see plastic pollution as comparable in scale, threat and challenge to Climate Change.  Yet if it seems to have crept up on us ‘as if from nowhere’, that’s not for lack of earlier warning signs, dating back to the 1960s.

We’ve had knowledge about the key elements for a very long time but that knowledge has not been accessed or acted upon.   Why not?   In large part, it’s because for decades, ‘plastic’ as pollution has been a  ‘Track Two’ issue (see my previous blog for an explanation), confined to the slow-moving domain of analysis and in this case, mainly rather obscure science.  It was, as my American friends might say, ‘lost in the weeds’.

Plastic enjoyed a ‘near miss’ in terms of becoming a Track One mainstream issue back in 1970 when explorer Thor Heyerdahl got the world’s attention with his discover of ‘a sewer’ of pollution in the deep mid Atlantic but it then sank below the surface of ‘general public’ awareness until the chance discovery of ‘Plastic Soup’ in a Pacific Ocean gyre by sailor Charles Moore (see below).  This gave plastic pollution its second signal ‘moment’ on Track One at the turn of the century.

The high degree of separation of slow Track Two from the fast moving mainstream of Track One, helped keep it plastic off the radar of major policy and campaign groups from 1970 through to the 21st century.    Decades of research into plastic pollution down on Track Two effectively found no audience up on Track One.

Moore’s discovery turned him into a scientist and campaigner.  The publicity he gained boosted existing research efforts and began to interest the media in plastic as a global pollutant, sucking up scientific findings from Track Two, making it ‘news’ on Track One and feeding dramatic documentaries like the BBC’s recent Blue Planet II, in which David Attenborough has admirably laid into plastic.

Here’s a summary:

A history of plastic as a pollutant in Track One and Two terms.  See later for discussion.  Communication on Track One is dominated by Kahneman’s System 1, intuitive, easy, unconscious and fast, and on Track Two by System 2, slow, hard, conscious and analytical.

Moore’s 1997 discovery was blessed with scientific confirmation in 2001, meaning that it’s taken another sixteen years to get plastic pollution firmly onto Track One.  1970 – 2017 is most of a lifetime of wasted opportunity, leaving us with a truly monumental problem.

So as there were signs that plastic posed a pollution threat early on, how did plastic proliferation evade control from the 1960s until the present day?   One significant reason is the psychological status that was conferred on plastic on Track One, through decades of everyday use.   Intuitive System 1 thinking means that we take-for-granted and mainly just don’t notice what is normal and repeated, and interpret new information through what we ‘already know is true’.  Plastic, became framed as a benign, helpful, modern convenience (cheap and disposable).  This was promoted by the plastics industry even before it was actually true (early plastic items were quite durable and relatively expensive).

The ‘throwaway’ appeal of plastic celebrated in LIFE magazine in 1955.

So, as noted in the previous blog, the more we saw others using plastic (social proof), the more we used it; and the more we used it, the more we accepted it (the consistency heuristic): behaviour rationalised as opinion.

It became ‘common sense’ and ‘inevitable’ that we ‘rely’ on plastic.  Anything which did not fit with that frame had a hard time being taken seriously.  So ingrained is this idea, that even science groups generating evidence to the contrary, have often accepted it as a starting point.  In the Royal Society’s 2009 ‘Theme Issue’ Plastics, the environment and human health, which was mainly devoted to the problems created by plastic, the very first ‘scientific’ article stated:

‘Any future scenario where plastics do not play an increasingly important role in human life [therefore] seems unrealistic’.

In the early 1990s I remember hearing a very senior UK government climate expert saying something similar about fossil fuels:  ‘no government would ever close a coal-fired power station to meet climate commitments’.  I doubt he’d really thought about it, rather asked by a journalist if that’s what was needed, it just seemed ‘unrealistic’ to imagine it.

Plastic has had some highly effective advocates in the shape of the PR and advertising industries.  They made sure that mass use of plastic was helped on its way by judicious promotion to hit all the Motivational Values ‘hot button’s: from being safe, to fashionable, to planet-saving (eg it’s lighter than glass so transporting plastics drinks bottles creates less climate changing emissions).  Here are a few examples of how the industry has covered off the three values groups of Settlers, Prospectors and Pioneers:

Plastics make you safe.  Settler messages from industry group ‘Plastics Make it Possible’: safety slides and life saving heroes using plastic.

Plastic is fashionable.  Prospector messaging. Vintage 1960s when vinyl became fashionable (for the first time).

Plastics Save the Planet. Slide from a 2015 Plastics Europe strategy workshop.  Their main concern (centre) was regulation against endocrine (hormone) disrupting chemicals but bottom right you have two public communications objectives, one (saving energy, less CO2) aimed at climate-concerned Pioneers.  ‘The Wonder Material’ is what the industry has been claiming since the 1950s and is now probably evidence of self-delusion.

Rethinking Plastic

There’s a small group (which I’ve done a bit of work for) called ‘Rethink Plastic’ and that’s exactly what needs to happen.

Plastic communication strategy needs more than a bit of an overhaul.  For example if scientists governments, the UN, EU and campaign groups working against plastic pollution want to make rapid and effective progress, they have to stop using the ‘litter’ frame for plastic, and start thinking of it as inherently dangerous stuff, and acting and communicating accordingly.

Perhaps more challenging, the reality is that ‘recycling’ and conventional waste strategies are not only incapable of taking plastic out of circulation to the point where plastic pollution actually declines and stops, but they, like ‘litter’ framed beach cleans, have been heavily co-opted by the plastics industry, whose simple objective is to maintain the flow of plastic production.

I’ll return to this in a following post but now that plastic pollution has finally become a public issue, the immediate risk is that it is kicked into the ‘political long grass’ of Track Two, with detailed and lengthy ‘studies’ and ‘commissions’ on how to rejig the ‘recycling system’ and if politicians succumb to the entreaties of the plastics industry for time to come up with ‘innovations’, which will inevitably be reformulations of their polymers.

To begin with, we need to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, both on issues like climate change, and in the history of plastic pollution itself.

1970: Plastic Momentarily Gets Onto Track One

Just as the mass production of plastic was really taking off, there was a moment where plastic in the ‘wrong place’ hit the headlines with the help explorer Thor Heyerdahl, of Kon Tiki fame.

In 1969, Heyerdahl had set out on a papyrus boat Ra I to try and show that ancient people could have made it across the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas.  He almost succeeded before having to abandon the voyage.  On the way he had signs of noticed pollution, and arranged to make observations send a report to the UN, on his second attempt a year later.  That came at a moment when the world was sensitized to news of environmental pollution, as the first ‘Earth Day was to be held in April 1970.

Earth Day 1970 –

Earth Day 1970, regarded by many as the inception of ‘the modern’ environmental movement, took place on April 22nd 1970. It featured ‘teach-in’s’ across the US and a rally in New York, along with demonstrations, speeches, protests and the start of the great environmentalist bombardment of ‘the general public’ with ‘facts’ (the start of a long-running attempt to change people on Track One with System 2 thinking). 

Earth Day 1970 AP Photo

On 8th July 1970, after traveling some 6,100km across the Atlantic (some of it backwards as he was relying on intuition and experiment rather than knowledge of how to steer such a craft), Heyerdahl made it to Barbados.  Not surprisingly, this feat created a lot of public interest but so did the revelation that he had found signs of industrial pollution far out in the ocean.

May 1970 Heyerdahl’s papyrus boat Ra II proves the ancients could have crossed the Atlantic, and shocked the world with reports of mid-ocean pollution.  Signed by the 8 crew members.

Heyerdahl’s reports of nylon and other plastic containers in the ‘unspoilt’ mid ocean, along with many clots of oil, momentarily captured mainstream attention.  He recollected : 

‘we had hardly been to sea three days before we discovered that we were in something like a city sewer—and yet we were 100 miles or more from land … we saw plastic containers, nylon bags, empty bottles, all sorts of refuse’

But it seems he took no pictures of plastic and he counted the sightings of oil: “I decided to make a day-by-day survey, dipping down with a dipper and taking samples of the oil clots. We found oil clots on 43 days of the 57”.

Heyerdahl’s report to the United Nations spurred action on oil, which was already framed as ‘pollution’ but plastic pollution receded from view.   While far from the only factor, Heyerdahl’s oil report probably gained more political traction because he put numbers to the oil.  That complied with the dictum attributed to management guru Peter Drucker: “what gets measured, gets done”.

From the Kon-Tiki museum in Norway

Most of all, oil looked like pollution was expected to look.  Plastic didn’t, and in the following decades, a succession of  oil-spill disasters such as Exxon Valdeez (1989) kept oil in the ‘public eye’ and on the monitor-and-manage agenda of institutions tasked with pollution control.

Sea Otters oiled by the Exxon Valdeez in 1989.  After the spill Exxon kept the ship but changed the name.  After being resold more than once it was scrapped under the name Oriental Nicety in 2012.

For politicians, quantifying oil also helped resolve their constant need to prioritise: let’s ‘do something’ about the ‘biggest’ (and also most soluble) problem.

There’s not much to be gained by dwelling on might-have-beens but we can imagine that if Heyerdahl’s report to the UN had led to a surveys to check on plastic at sea elsewhere, and some examination of the emerging science, things might have turned out differently.

As it was, although by 1970, plastic was already starting to lose its sheen as a ‘wonder material’ and symbol of modernity (most famously captured in Dustin Hoffman’s encounter with Mr McGuire “there’s a great future in plastics” in the 1968 movie The Graduate), plastic was already established as a mainstream opportunity.

“A great future in plastics” – and there was.

Growth of plastics. From one of the best recent assessments of the problem is Plastic as a Persistent Marine Pollutant  by Boris Worm, Heike K. Lotze, Isabelle Jubinville, Chris Wilcox, and Jenna Jambeck (2017)

Plastic as a pollutant was probably still counter-intuitive to many in the early 1970s. In 1974, W C Fergusson, a member of the Council of the British Plastics Federation and a Fellow of the Plastics Institute, probably felt confident when he stated:

‘‘plastics litter is a very small proportion of all litter and causes no harm to the environment except as an eyesore”. 

The Ladybird ‘Achievements’ Book on plastics, aimed at children

In 1972, the authors of the Ladybird Story of Plastics, painted an unremittingly positive picture, and openly acknowledged ‘the co-operation of ICI Plastics Division and the Plastics Institute Information Sub-committee in preparing this work’.

Plastic Gets Overlooked

In the 1970s and 1980s a succession of other pollution ‘issues’ broke onto Track One because they had the necessary qualities to be processed intuitively: CFCs for example, connected the personal, such as hairspray, to the well-being of our planet.  Discovered in 1985, the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica  looked like we’d holed the roof of the planet.  It led to an unusually fast-track response.

Hole in the ozone layer 1995-2004 at the bottom of the planet – slowly healing thanks to a 1987 restriction on pollution from CFCs and other ozone depleting substances under the Montreal Protocol

In the 1980s, ‘acid rain’ air pollution produced significant political action led by Germany when forests started dying, and private forest owners sided with the Greens, threatening the government.  Waldsterben or forest-decline, produced dramatic pictures and dead trees from iconic forests were carried into the German Parliament.   Germany led Europe into embracing the catalytic converter for cars and stricter new emission rules.

Acid rain’: dead trees in Germany, 1980s

By this time plastic production was galloping ahead and almost none of it was getting re-used. In 1991 Germany was alone in introducing a law (attached to the Green Dot scheme) extending responsibility for recovery of plastic and other packaging to the producer.  Britain had just one plastics recycling officer at that time.  In most countries plastic got dumped but it was regarded as an unsightly nuisance, awful to look at but harmless.

‘Next time try recycling’: message from Greenpeace, 1987

‘Waste’ made a rare appearance in the international media in 1987, when the Mobro 4000 with 3,000 tonnes of New York waste became a real-life ‘Flying Dutchman’ and ‘the world’s most famous barge’.

Towed by the romantically named tug the Break of Dawn under captain Duffy St Pierre, it was originally destined for a North Carolina landfill but after 112 days and 5,000 miles, it ended up back in New York, having being turned away by ports from Louisiana to Texas, Florida and Belize.   One account noted that:  ‘authorities in Mexico and Cuba threatened to fire artillery at the barge if it tried to dock’.

This episode caused the number of US cities with ‘curbside recycling’ collections to increase from 600 to 10,000 but even today, only 9% of US plastic packaging is ‘recycled’.  (The barge of waste was eventually burnt in a Brooklyn incinerator).  The take-away lesson that lodged in the public consciousness was that ‘recycling’ was the answer to ‘getting rid of’ waste.

Then in 1988, the ‘world discovered’ climate change. On a sweltering 23rd June, Jim Hansen of NASA told the Senate in Washington DC that it was ‘99% certain’ climate change was real, adding in case they didn’t get it, that “it’s time to stop waffling so much and say the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here”. An international climate conference was about to get underway in Toronto and press and politicians rang the alarm on climate change.

US Presidential Candidate G W Bush declared that if he elected he would ‘deal with’ climate change.  He didn’t but the UN set up the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change).  It all sent a signal loud enough and authoritative to take hold in Track One: something must be done about climate and especially, ‘carbon’.

In the cosmology of the pollution apocalypse climate change took over as threat no.1, and there it has remained.  It was not the only reason that plastic got eclipsed but responding to the climate threat sucked the air from many other pollution problems, a number of which such as Persistent Organic Pollutants, themselves pose an existential threat to us, and much other life on earth.

1970 – 2000: Plastic’s Long Sojourn on Track Two

Out of sight and out of mind to almost everyone except esoteric networks of marine biologists and oceanographers, the ‘plastics issue’ never really went away, and even pre-dates Ra II.   It just stayed in the slow, carefully studied world of Track Two, invisible to almost everyone, and largely ignored by big-science, campaigners, politicians and the media alike.

Plastic Pollution Research:  A Track Two Timeline   [Ryan and other sources]

  • 1960 New Zealand: stranded Prions (seabirds) found to have ingested plastic
  • 1962 Newfoundland: Leach’s Storm Petrels found to have ingested plastic
  • 1966 Midway Island: 74 of 100 dead Laysann Albatross chicks have plastic in their stomachs
  • 1968 South Africa: plastic pellets found in young loggerhead turtles
  • 1969 Atlantic:  Puffins with balls of plastic thread filling their gizzards
  • 1969 California: a mass death of sea-living red phalarope; plastic is found in all 20 birds examined
  • 1970: South Africa: plastic sheet blocks intestine of a Leather Back Turtle
  • 1971 North Sea: in ‘Pollution by synthetic fibres’  Buchanan finds up to 100,000 fibres /m3 of seawater & larger fragments in plankton samples in “embarrassing proportions”.
  • 1971 Sargasso Sea: Carpenter and Smith find 3500 plastic particles km2, “accumulating in the North Atlantic gyre* for some time”. Suggest such particles could become a significant problem if plastic production continues, and could carry toxics such as plasticisers, PCBs into food chain
  • 1971 Long Island New York: ‘food’ regurgitated by terns for their young, contains plastic, showing it moves up the food chain
  • 1972 New England: Carpenter finds up to 14 plastic pellets (nurdles) /m3 of seawater, and 14 species of fish eating plastic
  • 1973, 1974, 1976: UK studies find three fish species eating plastic & up to 30 pieces in Flounders
  • 1975 Skagerrak the Baltic: Holmström reports Swedish fishermen “almost invariably” catch plastic sheets [packaging] in their trawls, showing that plastic reached the seabed.
  • 1975: a New Zealand fur seal is seen to be entangled in plastic, elsewhere sharks are entangled
  • 1974 Hawaii: plastic ‘pellets’ in the gyre  found to outnumber tar balls from oil, with up to 34,000 pellets /km2
  • 1975 Baltic: Holmström shows encrusting sealife can weigh down plastic, carrying it into the depths
  • 1977 North Sea: plastic bottles found to travel over 100km/week, some reaching Germany and Denmark from the UK in 3-6 weeks
  • 1980s Mediterranean, more than 100,000 items of plastic /km2 on the seabed of the Mediterranean, and floating plastic particles and pellets recorded across the Pacific.
  • 1980 Alaska: Day shows that plastics affects an entire ecological community. Of 2000 birds from 37 species studied in 1969 -1977, plastic is found in 40 % of species and 23 % of individuals.
  • 1983 South Atlantic: Furness finds over 90% of Great Shearwaters contain plastic, one with 78 pieces in its gut
  • 1984 Honolulu: first Workshop on the Fate and Impact of Marine Debris takes place attended by 125 people from eight countries, discusses plastic ingestion, entanglement
  • 1985: Wallace estimates 100,000 marine mammals die a year from plastic ingestion or entanglement in the North Pacific Ocean alone
  • 1986: California: Sixth International Ocean Disposal Symposium focuses on dumping of plastic at sea
  • 1986 Alaska: Day, Clausen and Ignell find an accumulation of small plastic particles in the N Pacific gyre
  • 1987 Southern Oceans: Ryan shows 40-60% of seabirds are ingesting plastic
  • 1987 Florida: Azzarello and Van Vleet collate dozens of studies showing choking, reproductive failure, starvation, weight-loss and death of seabirds due to plastic. These ‘profound effects on birds’, are down to ‘industrial and user-plastics composed of polystyrene, polypropylene, polyethylene, styrofoam, and polyvinyl chloride’, the ‘most prevalent forms of plastic marine pollution’
  • 1987: Gregory infers that beached plastic degrades more rapidly than seaborne plastic, due to sunlight
  • 1989 Honolulu: Second International Conference on Marine Debris with 170 delegates from 10 countries, discusses ‘tackling the problem … solutionsthrough technology, law and policy, and education, as well as the first estimatesof the economic costs of marine litter’
  • 1993: Ryan and Moloney publish Marine litter keeps increasing in Nature
  • 1994 Miami: Third International Conference onMarine Debris: the report includes 10 chapters on land based sources of plastic
  • 1997 Coe and Rogers editMarine debris: sources, impacts, and solutions, a 432 page book

* gyre: ocean area where current circulation concentrates floating debris

Despite this research and more like it,  right up to the 1990s most books on ‘pollution issues’, hardly mentioned plastic [1].  Even in 2001 when the European Environment Agency published Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle 1896–2000 , specifically about such slow-burn unforeseen problems, plastics was mentioned just once in over 200 pages, and that only as a carrier for CFCs in styrofoam.  [Nor does it feature among the dozens of problems described in the 764 page 2013 follow-up volume except for as a carrier for toxic additives such as BPA, mercury and PCE.  By then, science was in fact catching up with the problem but much of the policy machinery had not caught up with the science].


1997 – 2001: Charles Moore Resurfaces Plastic Pollution

It took sailor Charles Moore, to put plastic pollution on the world’s mental map, and onto Track One.  When Moore’s findings captured public attention, that in turn spurred greater research activity, and led to Track Two science activity being imported onto Track One by the media.

Charles Moore with samples of microplastic – from

Moore was not thinking about plastic when he crossed the North Pacific Gyre in 1997. He was on his way back to California, after taking part in the TransPac ocean race, undertaken to test a new mast on his sailing boat.

Moving slowly across the sea, he began to notice small bits of drifting plastic such as ‘shards’, bottle tops and bits of plastic rope.  He later recalled for Lucy Barnes of BBC Witness (2013) that at first:

“it was just these bits and pieces of stuff there that seemed out of place … I don’t know the time of the first realisation that something was wrong out there.  It’s more a cumulative effect. This is not an ‘aha’ moment, this is not a ‘eureka’ type of event, it’s more a gradual awakening to the fact that something is amiss”.

Seeing as the plastic caused no hazard to the boat, Moore didn’t mention it in his ship’s log but he started checking for the plastic.

I said to myself that as I came out on the deck and surveyed the horizon ‘this time that I bet I can stay here for a few minutes and I won’t see any detritus floating by but I would always lose that bet”

“I did a kind of on the napkin calculation of a half a pound per hundred square metres and it turned out to rival you know the years deposition in the Puente Hills landfill which is the largest landfill of trash in California”

Once home, Moore started talking about what he’s seen and got some System 2 back up for his discovery by contacting oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer.

Curtis Ebbesmeyer with some of the flotsam used to track ocean currents   By Rick Rickman –, Public Domain,

An expert on flotsam, Ebbesmeyer was already known to the media for his studies of how plastic ducks and Nike running shoes had made their way around the oceans after being spilt from ships in the 1990s.  Moore sent Ebbesmeyer some plastic ‘chips’ obtained from the coastguard,  to check they had not come from a passing barge.  Ebbesmeyer decided they had come from many different sources.  In Moore’s words: Ebbesmeyer thought “it was such that a one-liter bottle could put enough plastic pieces in the ocean to put one on every square mile of beach in the entire world. He said he thought this stuff was not coming from a barge but was getting spit out from this gyre that was accumulating it”.

Armed with advice from Ebbesmeyer, a scientific sampling protocol, special nets and some scientists, Moore went back in 1999 and undertook a systematic survey.  The most striking finding was that by weight, their ultra-fine trawl nets captured six times more plastic than plankton.

“We were just absolutely shocked” Moore told Barnes. “It was an explosive discovery that changed the direction of my career, it changed the focus of our marine research institute and has generated now a whole new body of research.  Papers are coming out every day now by scientists around the world looking at the consequences of this detritus, which turns out is not confined to these gyres at all but just part of the world ocean”

Oceanographers, indeed even Jules Verne, had long known about oceanic gyres.  Unknown to Moore, Alaska-based scientist Bob Day had already plastic in the gyre but Moore was the first to publicise the fact that the plastic was collecting in huge amounts of mostly small fragments in mid ocean.

Charles Moore of the Agalita Foundation, set up with his own money

Most of all Moore had a story that was interesting, shocking, easy to understand and which he told in the popular media.  Like the hole in the ozone layer within an atmospheric vortex, the oceanic gyres formed vortexes which could be visualised on a world map: pollution this big simply looked big. The Pacific ‘patch’ was as big as Portugal, Spain and France combined.

Moore told the BBC:

“You can sit and observe the albatross on midway island regurgitating coathangers into the baby chick, or cigarette lighters or bottle caps, when you can actually observe the tragedy of being fed rubbish.  And then when you see the quantities of plastic inside these baby birds that never get to fledge, never make it off the island, that die with a full stomach”

“Whales are washing up dead full of plastic, even whales that feed on plankton and whales like the grey whales that feed on the mud at the bottom of the ocean are washing up with golf-balls and surgical gloves in their stomachs.  Every trophic level, meaning every feeding stage in the ocean in the food pyramid  is being affected by this polluted plastic”.

… maybe we don’t have a plastic island now out there but if we keep putting it in and it doesn’t go away, we will have the surface of the planet covered in plastic.”

Laysan Albatross with plastic on Midway Island-

The Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch or North Pacific Gyre (top left) described by The Independent newspaper as ‘the world’s rubbish dump: a tip that stretches from Hawaii to Japan’.

Like Heyerdahl, Moore gave the media a personality.  This was ‘System 1’ communication: vivid, easy to pass on, intuitive to grasp, hard to ignore.  Plus they gave it names: Ebbesmeyer coined the term ‘Eastern (Pacific) Garbage Patch’, and Moore the term ‘plastic soup’.

The Independent reported that Ebbesmeyer ‘compares the trash vortex to a living entity: “It moves around like a big animal without a leash.” When that animal comes close to land, as it does at the Hawaiian archipelago, the results are dramatic. “The garbage patch barfs, and you get a beach covered with this confetti of plastic”’

Moore has been back to sea many times. In 2009 he told Earth Island Institute “We went back last year and found 46-to-1 plastic to plankton … every decade, it’s getting close to 10 times worse”.

In the world of science, Moore’s discovery started making real waves in 2001 with the publication of a paper of which he was lead author: A Comparison of Plastic and Plankton in the North Pacific Central Gyre.

Not everyone was convinced that plastic posed a real and systematic ecological threat.  Scientists were aware that there was still a lot to find out and some were inclined to discount any claims from ‘campaigners’.  As late as 2011 when Moore and Cassandra Phillips published a book called Plastic Ocean, Bob Holmes a reviewer for New Scientist magazine,  quoted Moore:

“I wasn’t the first to be disturbed about plastic trash in the ocean, and I wasn’t the first to study it … but maybe I was the first to freak out about it.”

‘Many readers’ wrote Holmes, ‘especially New Scientist readers – are likely to find Moore unpersuasive … the biggest problem is that Plastic Ocean comes across as a bit of a rant’. (I thought it was a pretty good book).

The Microplastic Threat Multiplier

For scientists, the threat posed by plastic pollution underwent a step change with confirmation that microplastic fragments were widespread, and were being eaten by living things at the base of the food chain, and had increased over decades.

In 2004 UK researchers led by R C Thompson from Plymouth University published a paper  Lost at Sea: Where Is All the Plastic?  which analysed microplastic on beaches, estuaries and sediments, and stored samples from Atlantic plankton surveys stretching back to the 1960s.  This ‘time series’ was equivalent to the climate pollution record of gases trapped in ice-cores, in that it showed how the problem had changed over time, alongside increasing plastic production.

Increase in plastic in plankton, and plastic microfibre production, from Thompson et al, Lost at Sea: Where Is All the Plastic ? Science,  June 2004, DOI: 10.1126/science.1094559

One third of all the very small ‘micro’ scale particles they analysed were plastic polymers including such familiar names as acrylic, propylene, nylon, polyester, polyethylene and polypropylene.  While some microplastics were granular, most were brightly coloured fibres.

Their next step was to keep three types of small marine life in aquaria containing some microplastic as well as natural food. They found ‘all three species ingested plastics within a few days’.

A 2009 review of marine plastic debris by David Barnes of British Antarctic Survey pointed out that away from surface sunlight or when covered in marine life, many plastics break down very slowly.  This was illustrated by accounts ‘that plastic swallowed by an albatross had originated from a plane shot down 60 years previously some 9600 km away’. In deep ocean waters plastic is thought to have a life of hundreds of thousands of years.  Barnes noted that ‘plastics comprise 50–80% of the waste stranded on beaches, floating on the ocean surface and on the seabed’, and ‘the abundance and global distribution of micro-plastic fragments have increased over the last few decades’.

In 2011 Mark Browne and colleagues published Accumulation of microplastic on shorelines worldwide: sources and sinks showing global pollution by microfibres from textiles such as polyester, nylon and acrylic, coming from washing machines, drains and sewers.  Washing machines could become the ‘hairspray’ of microplastic pollution: a source of global pollution in the home, and gadgets to stop that could become the ‘catalytic converters’ of the issue (more at this previous blog).

In the next year or so, microfibres were found in tap- water (including in Trump Towers and the US EPA), in edible fish, salt, beer, honey and other foods, as well as in houses and falling from the air over cities.  One researcher calculated that someone fond of mussels might consume up to 11,000 plastic microfibres a year.  The two largest microfibre sources are from clothes and wear of car tyres, as well as road markings.

In 2014 Marcus Eriksen, a co-worker of Charles Moore, headed a team who made the first ‘global estimate’ of floating marine plastic: Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea.  This combined the results of 24 voyages to sample plastic in the upper two metres of seas around the world, from 2007-13.

‘Five trillion pieces of plastic’ caught the attention of news media and showed the mind-numbing difficulty of any retrieval operation but it only represented 0.1% of world annual plastic production.  There was far less floating microplastic at the surface than expected, perhaps meaning that the huge majority was sunk well below the waves, in the water column or on the bottom, and so even harder to get back, or even more worrying, being cycled around the food-web inside living creatures.

Eriksen and colleagues pointed out that ‘many recent studies also demonstrate that many more organisms ingest small plastic particles than previously thought, either directly or indirectly, i.e. via their prey organisms’, and ‘there is ‘increasing evidence that some microbes can biodegrade microplastic particles’, leading to yet smaller plastics entering marine food chains nanoplastic.  Subsequent studies have confirmed that even the 0.33mm sieves used by Eriksen are indeed too large to catch the smallest particles.

In short, although it is an excellent idea to remove what plastic can be caught in the ocean gyres, like beach-cleaning, this leaves the vast majority of plastic pollution unaccounted for, and as it gets progressively mingled up with sediments along coasts and in deep waters, and gets into the bodies of wildlife and people, and into soil and freshwater systems, the problem becomes ever harder to tackle.

5.25 trillion pieces of plastic is ‘720 items for every person alive today’ but a more recent, a follow-up study arrived at an even larger estimate of 15 – 51 trillion particles floating in the oceans in 2014.

Recognizing A Different Type of Threat

Put these findings together, and plastic poses a threat far worse than ‘just’ entanglement or choking wildlife, or in Track Two jargon, it’s a completely different class of risk from say, ‘litter’.

The discovery that plastic goes on breaking down into smaller and smaller fragments, rather than ‘actually going away’, makes it long-lived and extremely hard to detect, let alone retrieve with current technologies.

On top of this, as with climate-changing gases, there is a future ‘commitment effect’ from the many millions of tonnes of plastic already in the environment and the damage it can do may increase as it breaks up.

Plastic is also known to pose a health-hazard to humans, mammals, fish and invertebrates because being made from oil, it attracts and concentrates pollutants insoluble in water, such as PCBs, long-lived insecticides, flame-retardants and other industrial pollutants. In 2001 Hideshige Takada and colleagues showed these can be concentrated a million-fold on the surface of ocean plastic particles.   Such chemicals are implicated in the ill-health and reproductive failure of top-predator mammals like killer whales.

Long lived PCBs are long-banned highly toxic chemicals but still circulating in the environment.  Through ‘International Pellet Watch’ Takada works with volunteers collecting plastic pellets from beaches, to map how much pollution is ‘sponged up’ by plastic particles around the world.  From Microplastics and the Threat to Our Seafood , Hideshige Takada 2013

As if that isn’t enough, plastics release their own cocktail of chemicals, partly by ‘outgassing’ from the day they are made (such as ‘new car smell’ and the smell of plastic printing inks), and partly as their polymers degrade and let go of single-chemical monomers like ethylene and styrene.  Some of these are toxic, along with dozens of different additive chemicals used to make plastic hard, soft, heat resistant, colourful, resistant to sunlight and other things.  Many of these ingredients are kept secret under the guise of commercial confidentiality.

The full implications of breathing, drinking and eating plastic pollution are not yet known:  science hasn’t had the resources or time to find out but they are unlikely to be positive.

For scientists and policy makers subscribing to the Precautionary Principle (a very Track Two concept enshrined in EU law), or in ‘common sense’ Track One terms (‘when in a hole, first stop digging’ or ‘better safe than sorry’), this means one thing: first stop making the problem any worse.

Calls From Scientists

With many parallels to the early history of the current climate change issue, there have been an unusual number of calls from scientists global action on plastic.  Some of these have even reached beyond the confines of scientific journals on Track Two.

In 2013 the journal Nature carried a call from ten researchers to reclassify plastics as hazardous waste, saying ‘policies for managing plastic debris are outdated and threaten the health of people and wildlife’.

In 2017 four scientists from Canada, Australia,  and the US called for ‘a Global Convention on Plastic Pollution’ in the face of ‘the unfolding plastic pollution crisis’.   Plastic, they said, is a persistent organic pollutant, akin to the toxic PCBs and pesticides covered by the Stockholm Convention on POPs or Persistent Organic Pollutants.

Also in 2017 Stephanie Borrelle from New Zealand and six others from Norway, Canada and the UK, proposed ‘an international agreement with measurable reduction targets to lessen the plastic pollution in the world’s oceans’, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the US.

They warned:

‘…  international plastic pollution agreements are now where climate change agreements were in 1992, when the UN … formally recognized the climate change problem and simply encouraged voluntary, undefined support. If policies for plastic pollution maintain the same pace as international carbon emissions deliberations … an effective agreement may not happen until after 2040. By this time, emissions of plastic into the ocean are predicted to increase by an order of magnitude …  To avoid waiting 25 years for an international plastics agreement with reduction targets, reporting, and signatories … the scale and pace of solutions must match the scale and pace of emissions’.

‘Plastic pollution’ they noted, ‘has received little attention in terms of international agreements—a notable contrast to carbon emissions and other global pollutants, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)’.

Putting Plastic Back in Pandora’s Box

In February 2017 UN Environment ‘Declared War on Ocean Plastic’.  Erik Solheim, Head of the agency said, “It is past time that we tackle the plastic problem that blights our oceans. … We’ve stood by too long as the problem has gotten worse. It must stop.”

Plastic now poses a hideous problem for politicians and regulators.  Vast quantities are abroad in the environment, and all of it turns out to be hazardous as it breaks into ever smaller particles.  Nobody knows how to get it all back.  Recycling has not contained it and existing recover, re-cycle and remanufacture practices do not make it go away (more in the next blog).   Governments are not yet thinking about containing production, and only just beginning to restrict the most non-essential uses.

Back in 1999 the German Advisory Council on Global Change recognized different classes of risk problem (since refined) and gave them Greek-God names like Medusa, Cassandra and Damocles.

They assessed environmental risk against eight criteria: Probability of occurrenceExtent of damage, Certainty of assessment, Ubiquity, Persistency, Reversibility, Delay effect and Potential of mobilisation (political relevance).  Plastics ‘ticks many of these boxes’ and has finally checked off the last one.

Plastic crosses the boundaries but it comes closest to the type of threat termed ‘Pandora’s Box’.

Here’s the description of risk type Pandora’s Box:

Risk class ‘Pandora’s box’:  The old Greeks explained many evils and complaints with the myth of Pandora’s box – a box which was sent to the beautiful Pandora by the king of the gods Zeus.  It only contained many evils and complaints.  As long as the evils and complaints stayed in the box, no damage at all had to be feared. However, when the box was opened, all evils and complaints were released which then irreversibly, persistently and ubiquitously struck the earth.  This risk class is characterised by both uncertainty in the criteria probability of occurrence and extent of damage (only presumptions) and high persistency. Here, persistent organic pollutants and endocrine disruptors can be quoted as examples.


A Plastic Gift Box

If plastic was sent to test us, the gods have succeeded.

[1] ‘Plastic’ did even not appear in the indexes Colin Moorcrafts’ Must The Seas Die ? (1972), or K A Gourlay’s Poisoners of the Seas (1988) or The Ocean our Future (1998), the Report of the Independent World Commission on the Oceans.  I take my share of the blame: my own book, The Dirty Man of Europe published in 1990, made just two references to plastic, both about recycling

In a Future Post: What to do About The Plastic Crisis

Psychology played a role in getting us here, what does it now mean for the design of campaigns and policies to curb the problem

  • How does plastic need to be re-framed?
  • The visual language of the plastics problem and solution: are beach cleans and recycling now themselves part of the crisis?
  • Why does the plastics industry promote beach cleans and recycling, and what real difference can they make?
  • Can scientists and NGOs be persuaded to stop talking about “litter”?
  • Are scientific experts on plastic pollution the right people to lead communications on getting rid of it?
  • What strategy lessons can be learnt from past pollution crises so we can get on the fast track?
  • What should governments do and what should be left to the market?
  • What role for lifestyle campaigns?


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A Two-Track Tool For Issues Development and Campaign Design

   (download this blog as a pdf here)

Campaigners will be very aware that not many people spend much of their time bothering about “issues”.  For most people, most of the time, what bothers and pre-occupies campaigners, ‘policy wonks’, political nerds and political scientists, is of little interest to the ‘mainstream’.  Some campaign organisations use distinctions like ‘elite’ audiences, often meaning those ‘already in the know’ about the issue, as opposed to ‘public audiences’.  And some will have experienced the quixotic way in which, once ‘an issue breaks into the mainstream’, it ceases to become ‘an issue’ (contested, argued about) and becomes ‘normal’, at which point most of us assume we always knew about it.

I’ve been looking at how the ‘plastics issue’ seems to have ‘suddenly’ emerged ‘as if from nowhere’.  It’s obviously an ‘environmental’ or ‘sustainability’ issue yet until very recently it’s been a hyper-specialised interest, even for most sustainability professionals.  My last blog featured two new products people can use to stop microplastic (microfibres) draining from their washing machines and getting into drains, sewers, and the sea, where it then enters the food-chain.  I showed one of these products, the ‘Guppyfriend’ wash bag being promoted by clothing company Patagonia, to a room full of such professionals on a Cambridge University Masters Course, as an example of an innovation which Pioneers were taking up and Prospectors and Settlers could be expected to follow, (in this case I guess, quickly).  I asked for a ‘hands up’: “has anybody heard of it?”  Nobody had.  Microplastic wasn’t on their radar: it wasn’t in their particular issues silo (though I did notice some people writing it down).

Above: the spread-of-behaviours example slide from a presentation to CISL courses in November 2017.  Illustrates how new behaviours start in Pioneers and if they spread to become ‘normal’ are next adopted by Prospectors and then Settlers (values groups dynamic).  Solar pv/thermal has got ‘all the way round’, the trend for ‘upcycling’ clothes is now adopted by Pioneers and Prospectors, and ‘going plastic free’ is just starting out.  It’s also an example of an issue breaking from obscurity on Track Two and appearing in Track One, in this case manifest in a new behaviour of buying a washing bag to trap plastic fibres.  (For other going-plastic-free examples see here).  A product converts the complex issue into a much simpler choice, enabling participation on Track One terms.

My next blog looks in more detail at the way plastics pollution nearly became a big thing (Track One) almost fifty years ago, then languished in obscurity for thirty years (Track Two), before finally surfacing like a fully-formed whale, gradually breaking from the waves (onto Track One).

This blog proposes a way of thinking about issues in terms of two tracks, which may be applied to any issue.

Here’s one visualisation of the Two Tracks.

Track Two is defined by careful, often painstaking, deliberate thinking and is obscure to those not involved.  It’s also not a single track but more a network of tracks or city of connected communities, many obscure to each other.  The development of ideas and new behaviours on that track is slow because it depends on analysis, which reveals complexity. Track Two has a potentially infinite ‘bandwidth’ but no human has the ‘Renaissance’ capacity to grasp it all.   A working assumption at almost every point on Track Two is that “there is more to this than meets the eye”.  Track Two is the natural home and breeding ground of ‘issues’.

Track One is where things can move much faster.  Thinking and decision-making here is dominated by unconscious intuition.  Behaviour does not have to wait for analysis but is powered by framing, heuristics and values.  Track One is mainstream life, and it has far less capacity for complexity than Track Two.  Track One errs to simplification.  Anything too complicated won’t to get onto Track One, and anything which becomes too complicated may get diverted off.   Track One works on the basis “What You See Is All There Is”.

Issues can persist on Track Two almost indefinitely but they will not change the mainstream.  Issues gaining promotion to Track One, tend get quickly resolved in Track One terms (ie perceived to be resolved), even if those familiar with them on Track Two, see unfinished business.

The business of campaigns, for otherwise they would generally not be needed, is to get an issue onto Track One, and to do that, they need to be designed in ‘Track One’ terms.  This means campaigners need to understand how Track One works (itself a Track Two task), and planners face the often unpopular task of taking some of the ‘issue’ as perceived in its full complex glory on Track Two, and finding a way to drive just a bit of it onto Track One, in a way that will produce a useful result.  That is campaign strategy.

A Recap: Two Speed Thinking

Many readers will recognize that the key difference between Track One and Two is the decision-making divide identified by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

Above: Kahneman’s System 1 left, and System 2 right.

Kahneman and Tversky famously showed that we have two modes of thinking: System 1 is the ‘intuitive’ easy, reflexive, unconscious autopilot which constantly offers us instant answers that we usually accept.  System 2 is the laborious, analytical, reflective process, in which we ‘really think about’ whatever ‘it’ is.  System 1 is dominant, shaping the vast majority of our daily decisions, and when confronted by a need to be analytical, if there’s an easier System 1 option on offer, we usually take it. Kahneman calls this ‘substitution’ of System 1 for System 2 and the forms that takes are known as ‘heuristics’ or ‘rules of thumb’, or in posher language, cognitive biases.

Above: how substitution works in particular ways which generate testable ‘heuristics’ as studied by Kahneman and other psychologists

Evolutionary history has provided us with the basic neural wiring of System 1, acting in Kahneman’s words, as a ‘system for jumping to conclusions’.  This is why I always try to convince anyone whose project needs to ‘fly’ with anyone outside their specialist community (where System 2 is probably in use), that their communications need to work in System 1 terms.  That means using the systematic tools of the unconscious mind, such as Framing, Heuristics and Motivational Values.  If a call to action, problem or solution first requires public explanation, it will probably struggle.

An Example

Below is a slide from a campaign planning presentation for WWF, which is suitably vintage (2003) and so gives nothing away.  It proposes reframing an ‘issue’ (hormone-disrupting chemicals affecting health) from being ‘about science’, very System 2, to being about the world of consumer goods and consumer choice (operating on well understood System 1 rules).  In the terms of this blog, it amounts to shifting (the public part of) the campaign from Track Two to Track One.

In 2003 the WWF toxics campaign was operating in the frame (left) of ‘science’ and bogged down by industry gaming of the science process.  This proposed shifting to a faster track (consumer choice) with different ‘rules’, to get a better outcome.

Shopping, it need hardly be said, operates almost entirely on a System 1 basis, and that’s how advertisers and retailers want to keep it.  In this case, shifting from Track Two to Track one involved changing the context or ‘battlefield’ and thus the actors involved, as well as the proposition (and visuals, engagement and storytelling opportunities etc – see more on this example in my book How to Win Campaigns, Appendix Two).

Not Just Individuals

As cognitive psychologists, the work of Kahneman and Tversky was on the individual human mind.  Their ideas were tested and verified with experiments which showed how individuals think.  Consequently most applications of their work have naturally centred on individual behaviours.  For instance in ‘behaviour change’ campaigns, marketing and advertising.

We tend not to conceive of the two ways of making decisions as applying to ‘issues’ or to groups of people, whole societies or institutional systems but it seems to me that these have evolved into two quite distinct domains defined by whether System 1 or 2 is dominant, and that the very functioning of those ways of thinking, acts to keep them largely on separate tracks.

My earlier diagram tries to show the fast Track One as like an elevated urban motorway, running above the largely hidden and far more convoluted Track Two.

In this case I’ve imagined ‘traffic’ (eg of ideas, behaviours) which progresses towards the same destination in both cases but which flows along far more easily on the upper Track One.  Up there, if it passes the requirements for Track One ‘traffic’, it can move smoothly with little social friction.  For something to be flowing along on Track One, it’s normalised and we don’t question it much.

Anything routinely and widely accepted is by definition tootling along on Track One, often being done again and again, with much thought being given to it.  Plastics as something useful and essential got up there in the 1960s if not the 1950s, and has been there ever since, which is why we can now make so of it much without anybody really noticing.   (Plastic production now exceeds the weight of all human beings alive, every year).  That, and the fact that we assume ‘recycling’ makes it ‘ok’.  More on that in the next blog.

Down on Track Two, analysis slows things right down.  The processes of System 2 thinking put more and more information into play.  It has much greater information content than Track One.  But establishing what that information means, is a long and tedious process with many dead ends and ‘traffic lights’.  I’ve just shown a few indicative examples typical of ‘science’ led policy processes but you could do the same thing for development of principles of law, in human rights, or in medicine with its double-blind tests.  Almost every step of the way creates a waiting game, as research and testing or just debate and deliberation takes place.

Governments sometimes aspire to ‘evidence-based’ decision making (Track Two) but ‘politics’ and needs of the moment (Track One) often get in the way.

Up on Track One our behaviours and attitudes are largely untroubled by deliberation.  The requirements for forward motion simply include, getting ‘waved on’ by the System 1 mental traffic cops of Framing, Heuristics and Values (not necessarily in that order).  If something fails those tests, and becomes too confusing or unrewarding or simply has no visibility, it can drop from Track One to Track Two.

Debating the details of any “issue” almost always takes place on Track Two.  Getting any significant change to the issue almost always requires public support, which in order to create political support (aka political space, political appetite or willingness), almost always has to happen on Track One.  So to be successful, campaign design usually needs to project the issue onto Track One.

What defines the difference between Track One and 2 is not information, knowledge, significance or understanding but how communications works.  Track One predominantly works on System 1 intuitive communication.  Track Two works on System 2 analytical communication.

None of us are purely Track One or Track Two people.  These are not tribes but spheres of activity, places we spend time, although some of us spend far more time in One or Two, than others.  Sometimes far too much time, as my partner keeps reminding me.

The ‘Traffic Cops’ Of Track One

Framing involves being recognized as a ‘type’ of thing, a mental frame whose operating terms are used by the brain to give meaning to information.  If information does not fit the frame, the brain discards it and we are not even aware that’s happened.

Not everything on the fast Track One is a desirable positive: dominant ideas about what’s bad are also there, such as ‘pollution’ (never good), and this is why the plastics industry has successfully strived to have plastic debris framed as ‘litter’, and not pollution (see this blog).

The Heuristics traffic cop has a whole Highway Code of rules to deploy, all defined by being accepted by more people than not, such as ‘social proof’, meaning that if most others seem to be doing it, then it’s probably right.  The more we saw others using plastic, the more we used it, and the more we used it, the more we accepted (the consistency heuristic) the ‘fantastic-plastic’ frame that says it’s wonderful and harmless [behaviour>opinion].

Motivational Values work a bit like a vastly more complex combination of heuristics but they boil down to whether or not something feels good or ‘right’ because it helps us meet our particular set of dominant needs.  If I am a Settler, it will feel right if the something ticks a box for safety, security or identity; if a Prospector, it needs to help deliver me esteem of others (eg looking good) or self esteem, and if I’m a Pioneer, it needs to help me innovate, explore new ideas, or be a net benefit in the ‘bigger picture’.

Track Connections

I’ve shown the two tracks as completely isolated from one another but in reality of course this is not true.  Major events which disrupt our behaviours (such as disasters, conflicts) and other things such as unexpected big signals from authority (eg government), from ‘celebrity’ figures and the media, can also promote ‘new issues’ onto the fast track but only if they present in simple, tangible forms that can be processed by System 1.

Most of the time though, the ‘traffic’ from the Track Two world to Track One is information which confirms what is already the conventional wisdom (confirmation bias).  Track One is conservative: it sucks up new information which reinforces the dominant perception but ignores what ‘doesn’t fit’.

System 1 only works on what we already ‘know’ to be true or right.  Amongst it’s many other effects, it always prioritises going on doing what we are already doing (the commitment, consistency heuristics) and used to doing, over diverting to a new behaviour.  The overall result is conservatism:  it’s a domain of instant autopilot decision-making constituting what’s ‘mainstream’ because others are doing it (social proof), and because it’s easier to do so (cognitive ease, requiring least effort).


To remain ‘sane’ functioning human beings, we also compartmentalise life to limit the amount of ‘System 2’ thinking required on a daily basis.   Our day job may require us to use System 2, but we look forward to ‘switching off’ in the evenings.   Likewise we are more likely to try new behaviours when on holiday than when at work, and exploring ‘new ideas’ may be firewalled by reading a few pages of a book before bed or watching the odd documentary.

‘Education’ and ‘training’ require System 2 thinking: learning new things is hard, and we need ‘time off’ from both.  Plus when we are very young and most like ‘sponges’ for new information, we tend to accept what we are told by parents or teachers, and this is an influence of System 1 (the authority heuristic).  It gets more exhausting once we are asked to question everything and exhorted to test ideas for ourselves.

Thinking about it

Yet society needs System 2 thinking.  The advancement of knowledge and understanding has long been understood to bring benefits.  For instance discovering that fatal diseases are not brought about by upsetting ‘the gods’ or ‘bad humours’ in the air but things like bacteria and viruses.

So our social ecosystems have created ‘think tanks’ and whole domains where System 2 rules, or are supposed to, such as in Science, Medicine and the Law, in which we require testable ‘evidence’.

This sort of evidence is not like the ‘evidences’ provided by advertisers, story-tellers or film-makers.  ‘Evidences’ here mean simply cues, usually visual, which for instance, advertisers know will be immediately taken by our System 1 reflexes to ‘prove’ something without any analysis being necessary.  A shot of an egg frying on a pavement signifies that “it’s hot”. Amazon informs us that “people like you” also bought x y and z (the similarity and social proof heuristics).

Compartmentalisation helps maintain the distinction between the Two Tracks, with limited interaction and generally,  lower participation on the slow Track Two.  The consequences include the scientists struggling to ‘educate the public’ about ‘science’, and the overall primitive understanding of how the political system works, in the US and UK.

In general, although most of us have a fairly good idea what’s happening on Track One, Track Two is largely invisible from Track One. It requires an effort to get into that world.

And if you are a national political leader and need to deal with an entire waterfront of problems from health care to defence and the economy, or the ‘news media’, then a category like ‘pollution’ is likely to end up represented by just the most salient ‘issue’, that most recognized easily by the public, and so that’s the one to ‘focus on’ and act on.  (Cognitive scientists studying the workings of System 1 call this ‘single action bias’).

So far as I know, Daniel Kahneman hasn’t really written much about how his System 1 and 2 manifest themselves at group or institutional level or in relation to social trends and dynamics but he does devote an interesting page or two to organisations (417-8 if you are interested) in Thinking Fast and Slow.

‘Organizations’ he says:

’are better than individuals when it comes to avoiding errors, because they naturally think more slowly and have the power to impose orderly procedures.  Organizations can institute and enforce the application of useful checklists, as well as more elaborate exercises, such as reference-class forecasting and the premortem.  At least in part by a distinctive vocabulary, organizations can also encourage a culture in which people watch out for one another as they approach minefields.  Whatever else it produces, an organization is a factory that manufactures judgements and decisions’.

Which describes the ‘Track Two’ role of campaign groups and policy and research institutes quite well.  It’s also one reason why effective campaigns are very hard to run without organizations, and why behind every issue that breaks onto Track One, there’s usually a long tail of activity on Track Two, much of it often by NGOs.

Applying Track One and Two To Campaign Design

It’s true that campaigns can be started with no ‘Track Two’ type input.  The advent of social media has made it possible for millions of one-person ‘campaigns’ to be started in Track One terms with a single post, and sometimes by pure serendipity, they spread and become established but only very rarely. Those which do become established, frequently run into subsequent difficulties as the organisers get to know more about the stakeholders, dynamics and details of ‘the issue’.

Not yet a critical path …

It’s also clear that a lot of the preparatory work for any public campaign, such as understanding of ‘the problem’, power and situation analysis, choosing and testing a point of intervention and making a critical path, are very System 2 tasks and hard to share outside an organisation (or even across it internally).  Many supposedly ‘crowd sourced’ campaigns are actually only sharing options around one step of a plan cooked up in a proverbial ‘back room’, and many which are not, consist of just a single tactical ‘beat’, perhaps relying on just one heuristic.  As such they are usually not strategic or they do have a bigger but hidden strategy.

Assuming that campaign planners do research, create and test a critical path, the most appropriate point to apply the Two Tracks concept is probably when it is in draft.  At its simplest, look at the plan and ask where and how much System 1 type thinking must apply, or whether System 2 type thinking has to apply.  A System 1 and 2 Audit if you like.

This can then be verified by testing propositions intended for ‘public’ or ‘mainstream’ audiences with qualitative research: ‘does it work for them’?  That’s a big topic which has been discussed in many of my Newsletters and posts but there are no short-cuts and the old rule still applies: rubbish in, rubbish out.


Here’s a summary of some of the differences between Track One and Track Two.

Dominant decision method (thinking) Intuitive, automatic, unconscious (System 1) Analytical, reflective, conscious (System 2)
Operating experience Easy, natural Laborious
Speed (ideas, behaviours) Fast Slow
Bandwidth/ information capacity Low High
Internal commonality of experience High Low
Mutual recognition of reference points within Track High High in sub-tracks, otherwise low
Visibility track to track Track Two largely invisible Track One largely visible
Repetition of processes, behaviours Default Unusual
Common descriptive ‘handles’ Mainstream, public, popular, normal, general public Elite, professional, academic, technical, specialist, disciplines
Indicators Icons, symbols Footnotes
Information acquisition reflex Acquired where it confirms existing beliefs Sought as needed for analysis
Default appraisal perspective WYSIATI There’s more to this than meets the eye
Internal potential for contagion High Low
Lumper/splitter tendency Lumper Splitter
Complexity Reducer Increaser
Perception tendency One world Multiple worlds
Dominant source of individual status Salience, prominence Forefront reputation



And here’s a small Track One bookshelf:

(left) George Lakoff’s primer on framing, Daniel Kahneman’s and Robert Cialdini’s books on heuristics, all well worth reading although Caildini’s book is a lot easier going than Kahneman’s, and (right) my book on motivational values.  All three topics are also summarised in How to Win Campaigns.  


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Do Some Good and Shop Before Black Friday

Microplastic at plankton scale (copyright Dr Richard Kirby).  These little sea creatures get tangled in plastic fibres and eat plastic particles.  Fish eat plankton.  We eat fish.  Look at @PlanktonPundit’s tweets to see amazing and beautiful images and videos of plankton wrestling with and ingesting microplastic Or visit Richard’s website.

Want to do something good to help curb the tide of plastic pollution?  There’s something you can buy which will help.  (Read on – Black Friday is 24th Nov. so shop early!).

We’ve all seen pictures of plastic bags choking turtles, filling the stomachs of albatrosses and killing their chicks and lacerating the necks of seals but if you own a fleece, socks or any other clothes made with synthetic fibres like polyester, acrylic or nylon, microplastic fibres will be escaping from your washing machine every time you wash.  They go down our drains by the billion upon billion, and into the environment, where they are irretrievably small.

Video of plankton eating plastic if you’ve not seen it before.  Fish, seabirds and shellfish also eat it, and it seems they are attracted to the smell.

Fortunately there is something you can do.  Get one of these gadgets to catch some of the microscopic fibres (most under 1mm long) before they reach the big wide world.

The Guppy Friend, was created by Alexander Nolte and Oliver Spies, surfers and co-owners of German retailer Langbrett which sells outdoor clothing.   This is a ziplock nylon mesh wash-bag which traps fibres.  It is being marketed with Patagonia, known for its many environmentally-minded actions including, turning post-consumer plastic into outdoor clothing.  Patagonia funded research into microfibre pollution with  the University of California Santa Barbara and according to Grist Magazine, ‘found that a single fleece jacket can lose as many as 250,000 synthetic fibers, or 1.7 grams of plastic, in the laundry’.

When I checked at Patagonia from the UK, the Guppy Friend was out of stock but I imagine many readers of this blog will own one soon.  I bought one direct from Langbrett here.

According to the Netherlands-based group Plastic Soup, a filter has already been developed for septic tanks, which might also be deployed on domestic wastewater outlets but it gives few details.  Patagonia also suggests ‘install a permanent washing machine filter, like Wexco’s Filtrol 160’.  As they say, it ‘requires some plumbing expertise’

For more on effects of washing techniques and the latest from Patagonia visit


The Coraball – another microfibre trapper.

Also for washing machines, the Rozalia Project is scrambling to market ‘the world’s first microfiber-catching laundry ball’ – the Coraball – which it has patented.  You can get it here in the US.  Not sure about the Rest of the World.

What Europe Could Do Soon

Frans Timmermans, Vice President of the European Commission is door-stepped by plastics pollution campaigners in Brussels from #Rethinkplastic, bearing a 500,000 signature petition (October 2017)

At the European Commission, Frans Timmermans is currently poring over the draft of the EU’s planned ‘Plastics Strategy’.   An early leaked draft showed the Commission was thinking about restricting ‘Single Use Plastics’ like water bottles (the law that could enable this already exists in Europe, and was used to get Member States to restrict plastic bag use).  A good idea.  Then the plastics industry started intensive lobbying and the Commission got cold feet.  Now the idea is back in play and a public draft should be out for consultation before Christmas.  This is relevant to other countries as where Europe goes, others may follow.

Washing machines may not be on the Commissions agenda but if they were looking for a quick hit to take out a significant chunk of the pollution problem, mandating manufacturers to build in filters to catch micro-plastic fibres would make sense.

I imagine that microfibre pollution is a hot topic in the backrooms of the white goods world.  If past experience (such as with refrigeration and use of industrial greenhouse gases) is anything to go by, the first ‘out of the traps’ with a ‘Micro Filter Washingmachine’ might be a German company.  Washing machines with microfibre filters could become the ‘catalytic converters’ of the micro-waste issue, both cutting pollution and increasing understanding of the problem.

Why you Need to Clean Up Your Wash

In 2011 a team led by Mark Browne from University College Dublin tested three types of washing machine and showed huge amounts of microscopic plastic fibres were being washed from everyday clothing, which nowadays contains a lot more synthetic than natural fibre.   Their paper  Accumulation of microplastic on shorelines worldwide: sources and sinks reported that a single synthetic fibre item such as a fleece, could release 1900 fibres with every wash.


The three different types of washing machines used in the study.

The researchers also compared the quantity of microplastics shorelines at 18 shorelines ‘representing six continents from the poles to the equator’, to investigate the relation of wastewater (sewage effluent) to plastic in the environment.  For each litre of sediment, they found from 8 microplastic particles (Australia) to 124 (Portgual and the UK).

The team found that offshore sites used by the UK to dump sewage sludge until it was banned to comply with EU rules in 1984, still contained over two-and-a-half the amount of plastic found in reference sites, showing that plastic going ‘down the drain’ is accumulating and persistent in the environment.  What is more, when they tested for the microplastic in sewage effluent, they found it in similar proportions to the marine sediments (polyester 67 %,  acrylic 17 %, and nylon – polyamide 16 %).

An EU-LIFE funded project involving researchers from Italy, Spain and the Dutch Plastic Soup Foundation, has been assessing possible technical fixes for microfibre pollution from washing clothes. It reports even higher figures for loss of fibres under 1mm in length: one 680 gramme polyester fleece jacket loses almost a million fibres per wash, an acrylic scarf loses 300,000 and a pair of nylon socks 136,000.  According to Plastic Soup, acrylic can release more than 3,000 fibres in each wash.

An ingenious demonstration of the problem from Plastic Soup

After tests on washing machines, in 2016 Imogen Napper and Richard Thompson reported in the Marine Pollution Bulletin: ‘we estimate over 700,000 fibres could be released from an average 6 kg wash load of acrylic fabric’.

Microplastic in Food, Air and Water

As Plastic Soup points out, Gerd Liebezeit from the University of Oldenburg has found microplastic in honey, beer (24 German brands) and mineral water.

It has also been found in salt, especially sea-salt and in tap water.  In 2017 The Guardian’s Environment Editor Damian Carrington reported that ‘scores of tap water samples from more than a dozen nations were analysed by scientists for an investigation by Orb Media …  overall, 83% of the samples were contaminated with plastic fibres’.

Above: plastic microfibres in drinking water, surveyed with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health/ Difaf  From  Fittingly, it was also found in Trump Tower and the HQ of the US Environmental Protection Agency

As Chris Tyree & Dan Morrison of Orb Media wrote: ‘it is everywhere: the most enduring, insidious, and intimate product in the world … the evidence is unmistakable: We are living in The Plastic Age’.

Not surprisingly, plastic is also an air pollutant.  Carrington wrote:  ‘In Paris in 2015, researchers discovered microplastic falling from the air, which they estimated deposits three to 10 tonnes of fibres on the city each year, and that it was also present in the air in people’s homes’.

Is There Any Complete Solution?

Few sewage works have filters that can trap microplastics and these small millimetre scale particles break down further into ‘nanoplastics’, meaning they are in the nanometer scale: one-one thousandth of one-one thousandth of a millimeter.  These defeat almost any filter and can get into the body across lungs or the gut, as described in my earlier blog.

Aside from washing machines another huge source of microplastic particles is wear from car-tyres, now made from plastic.  Plus of course break down of any plastic item – it just goes on getting smaller and potentially more dangerous, as it fragments.  I worked out that this Coke bottle contains enough plastic (25 grammes = about 17 cubic centimetres of PET) to make 17,000 1mm wide (effectively invisible) microplastic particles.

You don’t see it but it’s there

The health effects of microplastic pollution are currently unknown but are not likely to be positive.  Microplastic particles have been found in tumours and many of the chemicals attracted to, concentrated around and transported by plastic are long-lived accumulative toxic organic pollutants or POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants), such as PCBs.  Many of these get concentrated in the food chain, are stored in body fat, cause cancer, birth defects and disrupt development hormones: endocrine disruptors, and include pesticides and PCBs.  Many plastics also release their ‘own’ toxic chemicals as they break down, such as styrene.

Plastic in general and microplastic in particular is a threat-multiplier: plastics x toxic chemicals is a lot worse than either threat on its own.  Plastic fragmentation should give a shot in the arm – if that’s not too unfortunate a phrase – to efforts to clamp down on POPs.

Plastic isn’t just a litter problem, it’s now a global pollution crisis similar to climate change.  More on how this crept up on us, and whether campaigns can still just focus mainly on beach cleans and recycling, in future blogs.

video from Story of Stuff


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