Public perception can take a while to change. Legal marijuana sales look like they will be coming soon to many jurisdictions around the world. From 1969, when only 12% of the US population supported it, to the early 2010s when over 50% were in favour, this evolution in opinion took over four decades. In the UK, social acceptance of same-sex relationships grew from just under 20% in the early 80s to nearly 70%, and full legalisation of same-sex marriages, in recent polls. This shift in social attitudes took over three decades.
In comparison, the speed with which the British people have embraced the idea that plastics, and especially single-use plastics, are harmful and that something needs to be done was lightning fast. In 2015, in the wake of the introduction of a 5p charge on plastic bags, only a third of British consumers thought that serious action needed to be taken to curb environmentally unfavourable behaviours. Now nine out of ten shoppers want supermarkets to provide plastic-free options. Big fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) shops, including firms like Tesco and Sainsbury’s, have now pledged to eradicate single-use plastics unless they are absolutely necessary. Cotton buds and plastic straws look set to be outlawed by the government.
Such a swift change in public perception and corresponding pledges of action by the government is astonishing. As with most issues, there are several moving parts which account for changes and shifts in the public’s reaction to them. However, there might be one single event which did more than anything else to make the British public re-examine their beliefs. The wildly popular nature series Blue Planet 2 was the most popular British television show of 2017. In the final episode presenter and naturalist David Attenborough, the voice and face of the BBC’s nature documentaries for decades and widely accepted as a British national treasure, gave a heartfelt plea for the reduction of the use of plastics. In scenes which touched the hearts of viewers with clips of marine life harmed by throwaway plastics, their impact was made clear. An outpouring of indignation followed on Twitter, and the issue was brought to the front and centre of public discourse.
However, there is another, altogether more prosaic reason for the government also showing progress in the battle against disposable plastics. China stopped importing plastic waste in 2018, where a lot of the UK’s recycling went. The infrastructure in Britain was found wanting, as piles of waste began to build up in the nation’s recycling centres. Britain could no longer take the easy way out when it came to environmentally sound practices surrounding packaging. Michael Gove, the minister for the environment, released a plan to reduce the amount of plastics being sold, and simplify the recycling process by cutting down on the number of different types of plastics being used. The cost to on-shore the problem would be too high otherwise. But even then Mr Gove highlighted the role of Blue Planet’s appeal in forcing a change in policy.
The aim to reduce, and even ban, single use plastics is a goal that has quickly spread throughout the UK. Attitudes shift slowly, unless they are prompted by vivid scenes or looming crises. Both happened in the UK to quickly move the discourse beyond debate and to action.
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