Can an Individual save the Planet?



We don’t want to save the planet.

I have made it no secret that I was participating in a panel on “plastic oceans.” Plastic Ocean is a film released in 2017 that made quite an impact. The film tells the story of ocean plastics and the effect it is having on fish, birds, marine mammals and ultimately, us. Both during the film and in the discussion afterwards there was a strong emphasis on the choices of the individual. What can we do to change individual behaviour? How can we make people see plastic is a real problem? And once people recognize it as a problem, how can we motivate them to change their behaviours?

When it comes to behavioural change, you start looking into theories such as COM-B. B stands for Behaviour, COM stands for Capability, Opportunity and Motivation. When it came to the discussion, the focus was on the fact that we are simply not motivated to change. Plastic is convenient, and we want what is convenient. We don't want to save the planet, and that is all there is to it. But is it?

Sure, we are incredibly ignorant when it comes to knowing (or caring) where our food comes from, let alone its packaging. And we should be more motivated to seek out information, and make decisions accordingly. It would be good if we used more items that are bio-degradable, non-toxic or just even plain-natural. So yes, we can do better. We can work on our Motivation. However, and this comment I have made during the discussion as well, if we are told something is a problem (in this case plastic) and then we go into a supermarket and are literally surrounded by plastic packaging, plastic wrapping, plastic bags etc. with no alternatives, what are we supposed to do? Even the most eco-warrior of my friends run into issues and limitations every time they leave their own house. On the individual level, we are screwed. It’s not motivation that’s the problem here. Even if we dearly want to, our environment will hardly let us.

Ironically, as a behavioural scientist, I don’t think the change will need to happen on the individual level at all. We need to focus much more on C & O. We need to make ourselves Capable of changing into plastic-free alternatives. Our environment needs to change into one that provides us with Opportunities to choose things that aren’t plastic-based. And for that, I’m looking up at governments. I’m looking at the law.


The current incentive structure being what it is, most companies are not inclined to deviate from what has essentially become the default: plastic. You cannot even imagine any food item, without the plastic packaging it comes in. Whether it even needs that type of packaging or not. On the panel was a man who has worked most of his life in the plastic-industry, he was a chemist. He knows companies are doing research into different materials, to essentially replace plastic. The reason they are not on the market? Either, they do not have the durability that plastic has, or they are more expensive to use and produce. As such, maintaining the default of plastic from a short-term, capitalistic point of view, makes sense. Major change won’t come from the plastic industry, regardless of the many cool start-ups that are looking into alternatives. So, what can we do? Legislate against it.

We have our 2020 goals. Every city has made goals for reducing car usage, removing diesel-based cars and other measures against gas emissions. And what do these things do? They create laws. They tell you what is legal and what is not. And from there the most important stuff happens: (social) norms are created. There are things that are okay, and things that are not okay. Things you do, and things you simply don’t. And that is what needs to happen with plastic.


I mentioned start-ups before. There are plenty of great companies out there who focus on recycling (which has become a very lucrative business as well, so don’t think those companies are out there 100% to save the planet…) and social plastic. We had two women who in the audience who were tired of everything being so plastic-focused. They started zero store, so they could get rid of all the plastic packaging they were so quickly accumulating. For both themselves and others. They got an overwhelming response, so there is demand for it. The main thing that I admired with them is that they asked their suppliers to stop using plastic. And they did. Just because they were asked to (and might otherwise lose business).



I don’t mean for this article to discourage you. There are plenty of things you can do as an individual to change and reduce your own plastic usage. And yes, you can put your money where your mouth is. The economy is based on supply and demand, and a change in demand will drive a change in supply. That drives change. But it needs to start being properly supported by government and legislation.


Change starts with a small group of motivated individuals. But we are way past the point of starting change, we need it to hit us like a tsunami. A tsunami that would currently consist out of more microplastics than it would waterdrops.



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