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Tracking concerns over plastic waste in oceans

By Jeremy Holland

There have always been concerns over plastic waste, but especially so in the past couple of months. What started with the plastic bag ban has extended to other single use plastics including plastic straws.

The amount of plastic we now produce totals over 300 million tonnes. Most of this is single use, which means that the plastic is thrown away almost immediately. Currently, over 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans every year. By 2050, there’ll be more plastic by weight in the ocean than there are fish in the sea.

Clearly the situation is unsustainable. It’s also squarely in the public eye, with the press and public alike sharing concerns over the amount of plastic waste produced. So, what can the current crisis teach organisations about managing risk and public concern?

Concerns over plastic in oceans

Activity and mentions surrounding plastic waste have peaked in recent months. Polecat data highlights that plastic straws are currently discussed most. Single use plastic and plastic pollution follow closely behind. The annual sales of plastic have also become a concern.

The press have jumped on the plastic waste bandwagon. U.S. media mostly provides positive commentary on the situation. In the UK and Europe, there is a much more measured approach - with some cynicism over whether measures like banning straws actually work.

Companies responding to the crisis

The actions taken by the likes of Alaska Airlines and Starbucks have already been touched on. Both companies are banning plastic straws, with Starbucks vowing to be free of them by 2020 and the airline banning them outright.

In recent mentions, Polecat found that much commentary about plastic waste in oceans centred on these two organisations. By getting ahead of the impending crisis, both Starbucks and Alaska Airlines have created positive conversations around their own plastic use.

But this is a small drop in the ocean compared to wider efforts. Starbucks and Alaska Airlines are not the only organisations to be tackling plastic waste - although they are currently the most high-profile.

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Plastic straws feature as an emerging topic over the previous 30 days in news media online due to efforts to curb their use by large companies such as Alaska Airlines and Starbucks [source - Polecat]

Early innovators

Back in January this year, the UK supermarket chain Iceland vowed to go completely plastic-free on its own brand packaging. This move was followed by over 40 companies (including Sainsburys, Coca-Cola, Tesco and Lidl) signing the UK Plastics Pact. It pledges to stop using single-use plastic packaging by 2025.

Not enough

Asda also followed Iceland’s lead by pledging to cut its plastic use by 10% in 12 months. But unlike the positive PR generated through Iceland’s initiative, Asda was criticised for its low ambitions. It didn’t go far enough.

As Greenpeace Oceans Campaigner, Tisha Brown said to The Guardian, "A 10% reduction in own brand products over one year doesn’t beat Iceland’s pledge. If Asda applied the same tactic to reducing plastics as it does to competing on price, we’d be really impressed."

Steering public perception

There is a fine line for organisations to tread between being perceived as genuine and coming across as fake. Brands like Starbucks have generated positive headlines, but others like Asda have come under fire. Which is interesting given that plastic straws are only ranked 11th on the list of the most common ocean plastic waste.

It highlights how well some companies are steering the conversation around plastic waste in oceans. Most of the public understand that plastic is the enemy, however their knowledge doesn’t extend much further than that. Any brand that can show a positive and seemingly sizeable impact on the issue, is likely to be seen in a positive light.

P&G, the maker of Head & Shoulders shampoo, recently ran a campaign to turn plastic beach litter into shampoo bottles. Although limited to just France, the campaign showed some tangible benefits to the brand’s reputation. Shoppers in Carrefour, where the recycled bottles were sold, stated that they saw the brand more positively after the campaign.

Having measures in place to track the effectiveness of such campaigns is as integral as the recycling itself. By tracking sentiment around a specific campaign, companies can avoid an Asda-esque misstep and understand how the campaign is affecting public knowledge. There is still much education required around plastic waste in oceans - part of which needs to be done by pro-active brands that lead the conversation.

Getting ahead of the problem

Many organisations are becoming aware of plastic waste as an industry-wide issue. Whereas some companies have been viewed as taking a positive step towards reducing waste, others have been criticised for failing to address the issue enough. The plastic waste crisis underpins the importance of understanding online discussions.

Any campaign needs to be measured and tracked to determine its success and overall impact. But especially when dealing with ocean plastic waste, where public knowledge is still relatively limited. This should be an ongoing exercise, so corporate leaders can see exactly how efforts are changing conversations around plastic waste.