October 4, 2018
By Efraín López
It’s an unfortunate truth that, nowadays, our oceans are being polluted by huge amounts of plastic from around the globe, which is causing many species of sea life to become endangered. Awareness of this issue is increasing, however, and strides are being made to deal with this growing threat. There are many non-government organizations that are making great efforts to prevent our oceans from becoming fully covered by plastic waste, such as The Lonely Whale, Greenpeace and Plastic Pollution Coalition.
These efforts made us wonder: how are these campaigns affecting consumers and industries whose plastic consumption has become so deeply ingrained in their daily activities? How much should brands worry about their plastic consumption and potential negative PR issues associated with it? For the answers to these questions and more, we looked to the world of social media.
The social media conversations concerning plastic waste in the U.S. over the last year (from January 1, 2018 to September 31, 2018) has been higher than in the last 4 years (429K mentions). In fact, the conversations in 2018 represent nearly half (49%) of mentions of plastic waste since 2014.
Conversations around plastic waste began increasing on July 21, 2017, when social media users began sharing a post about the death of 29 whales in Germany; their stomachs had been full of plastic. This post received more than 10K mentions.
The second contributing factor to the increase in conversations was the BBC documentary Blue Planet, which showed the effects of plastic pollution on sea life. On November 20, 2017, social media users began sharing a moving scene from the documentary. This drove considerable conversations on the topic (36K mentions).
a mother whale lost her baby due to plastic pollution and carried her baby’s dead body with her for days before giving up and we can’t even carry our plastic to a recycle bin https://t.co/g1jZcsDXhZ
— Taylor Nicole Dean (@taylorndean) November 19, 2017
An additional driver of commentary was Earth Day 2018 (April 22). A grassroots movement was started in which users pleaded with each other to celebrate this holiday by reducing their use of plastic products. There were 18K mentions about this topic.
Non-profit organizations have also been partially responsible for raising awareness of the issue; many have created campaigns aimed at reducing the amount of plastic that is used on a daily basis. The #Stopsucking campaign (which was created by The Lonely Whale Foundation and aimed at reducing the use of plastic straws) has been one of the the most popular online campaigns related to the topic, representing 3% of the total conversation surrounding plastic waste from January 1 to August 31, 2018 (14K mentions). Another is the Greenpeace campaign #BreakFreeFromPlastic, which represented about 2% of the conversation (9K mentions).
— Greenpeace (@Greenpeace) September 2, 2018
One of the main changes that we have identified is the increase in conversations about changing plasticware to more eco-friendly products. In 2017, only 1% of plastic-waste conversations revolved around this topic; however, in 2018, this topic now represents 9% of the total conversation. In fact, the post with most engagementamong the conversations about plastic waste included a list of eco-friendly, affordable products (35K Retweets, 79K Likes). Consumers are becoming more and more careful about their environmental footprint, and this has impacted their buying decisions. Consumers have begun to take more time to examine their options and determine if a company’s values match their own.
Plastic has been an important material used in practically every industry. However, the numbers are beginning to show that this is quickly changing. Increasing consumer awareness of the issue has also led to efforts by companies to try and improve and, thus, reduce their plastic waste.
In some cases, however, these efforts have been misguided. For example, one of the most mentioned posts was related to a National Geographic magazine on the dangers of plastic waste which, ironically, was delivered in a plastic bag. This post received more than 6K Retweets and more than 11K Likes, and was highly critical of the company for not practicing what they preach.
— Luiz Rocha (@CoralReefFish) June 10, 2018
Companies have had to become increasingly careful when launching new products, keeping in mind the relatively newfound consumer preference for eco-friendly material. Another incident that received considerable attention on social media was an ad published by news website Mashable on May 19, 2018 for a product called “Clean Step”, a shoe wrapping machine that covers your shoes with plastic film, keeping dirt off your floors. Not surprisingly, 53% of comments about this product were negative. Users complained that not only was the product a waste of plastic, but that there were far more efficient ways to spend money to keep your house clean.
Social awareness has led companies like Starbucks, Disney, and American Airlines to create long terms plan which promise to significantly reduce, stop, or ban the use of plasticware or plastic straws and replace them with more eco-friendly products. However, plans to be more eco-friendly have also come under intense public scrutiny, such as the case of Starbucks. It recently rolled out new plastic lids in an attempt to eliminate plastic straws; however, almost 60% of user comments were negative. Users stated that it was still a waste of plastic and were confused by the change.
The issue of plastic waste has never been more prevalent than it is currently. The draw of plastic products has always been their price and availability; however, consumers are now taking a harder look at their options and realizing that cheaper options may come at a greater cost to the environment.
The ability of companies to track and monitor social media activity can lead to valuable insights into consumer attitudes toward products and marketing strategies. Additionally, the interchange of perspectives and information on social media can provide companies a wealth of ideas and strategies about how to effectively reduce their ecological footprints; the key is for companies to listen.