Single-use plastics are bad, why can’t we stop using them?

According to Indy Star, we’ve seen the destruction: A turtle struggling to breathe with a plastic straw stuck up its nose. A whale starving to death with a belly tangled by plastic shopping bags.

The public is increasingly aware of the harm that single-use plastic products do to wildlife and the environment. And yet, at grocery stores and restaurants, we take them without a second thought. Why?

Not just McDonald’s and Starbucks: These Indianapolis are curbing their straw waste. This Subaru plant is less trashy than you: How the Lafayette facility went zero waste

“Research shows that knowledge isn’t the only thing that will change behavior. You usually need much more,” said Caitie Nigrelli, an environmental social scientist at Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. “The benefits have to be tangible and the behavior needs to be feasible and within their abilities.”

As plastic production increases and our landfills fill up, can social science help us control our plastic addiction? It’s a social problem. One significant obstacle is that single-use plastic is almost impossible to avoid.

“The consumer often times has little choice to refuse plastic, ” said Trent Hodges, Plastic Pollution Manager for the Surfrider Foundation. “And because it’s so ubiquitous and such a common item, it becomes a force of habit. We go to the grocery store, buy some produce, put it in a plastic bag, walk out.” To break that habit, environmental advocates are turning to social behavior change campaigns.

Models of successful behavior change programs are a familiar part of American culture. The “Click it or Ticket” campaign that began in the 1990s still encourages public seat belt use today. The “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” campaign has helped to curb impaired driving since the 1980s, and who can forget Smokey the Bear’s timeless credo: “Only you can prevent a forest fire.”

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