By analyzing social media and traditional media messages about plastics in 2017 and 2018, we were able to provide an understanding of the stigmatization processes at play. The stigma, what the industry has called an “attack on plastic”, has focused heavily on symbolic products visible to the final consumer, such as bottles, straws and single-use food containers. In addition, the humiliation of the names has also focused on famous consumer brands like Coca-Cola.
However, it is questionable whether the stigmatization strategies triggered the necessary actions to stem the plastic problem. Plastic production continues to increase and industry players are focusing on recycling, not switching to other materials or reducing the use of plastic. Governments have implemented bans on specific symbolic items and legislated on circular economy packages, but recent concerns about Covid-19 have led to the promotion of single-use plastics as a healthcare solution rather than a problem. Indeed, plastics lobbyists have asked the European Commission to delay the implementation of limits on single-use plastics.
The concentrated and coordinated stigma can lead to a ban on a limited range of products. However, research indicates that without education or environmental programs, bans can have limited benefits for the environment. As stigmatization focuses on successive visual and symbolic elements and well-known brands, the reaction itself is visible to the general public and stigmatizers, but without visibility from the production and supply side, the flow of plastic entering our society continues. .
Stigma could also be harmful by distracting the bigger picture of plastic manufacturing and the pollution it creates, which is huge compared to the pollution created by stigmatized (and now banned) items. While changes in the use of plastics by consumer brands are a welcome step forward, they will not significantly affect the plastic production and contamination curve.
Breaking the link between plastic and society
Deinstitutionalization – the elimination of widespread practices and products built around a particular substance – is a much longer process. Asbestos and pesticide DDT were deinstitutionalized as the link between them and human health became undeniable, resulting in radical legal action and bans. The deinstitutionalization of plastics would require systemic thinking, as with other large complex challenges. Today, the use of plastics is deeply intertwined with other issues such as food waste, greenhouse gas emissions, income inequality, waste, biodiversity loss and oil production.
Stigma is just one of the many tactics that can be used to combat plastic pollution. While he has succeeded in shedding light on the issue, broader and longer-term strategies are needed. For example, developing a global plastics treaty through the United Nations, such as the one created for gases that deplete the ozone layer, could be one way to consider.