What Americans Actually Think About Plastic Pollution

Informing action on plastic pollution using social science

Written By
Guest Blogger

This blog was written by Hannah De Frond, Ocean Conservancy Consultant and International Trash Trap Network Coordinator.

When speaking with friends and family about my work, I realize that many of the everyday topics I consistently think and talk about are issues that others don’t often consider. A recent example of this followed the publication of Ocean Conservancy and the University of Toronto’s research paper about microplastics in commonly consumed protein products. This research was shared by several news outlets, and although finding microplastics in these food items was not much of a surprise to us, plenty of people were shocked by our results and began to ask more questions about microplastic pollution and human health impacts.

Plastic pollution research is constantly evolving, with studies published on its prevalence and impacts increasing every year. In comparison, research on social science related to plastic pollution is lacking. Understanding public opinions, knowledge and concern around certain issues informs how we communicate scientific research, allowing us to understand what people care the most about—and this feeds into legislation, as policies with the most public support can have a greater chance of success. For example, if we learn that many people are not aware of the chemical hazards associated with plastic pollution, we can share more information about this throughout our networks and hopefully provide greater public support for policies to create safer plastics. 

In 2021, Ocean Conservancy led a survey of adults in the United States with polling and research firm EDGE Research to better understand public perceptions of ocean health, ocean threats and ocean plastic pollution. We wanted to understand what U.S. citizens are doing individually to take action against plastic pollution and their opinions about who bears the responsibility for tackling plastic pollution. Since Ocean Conservancy has many supporters who are highly engaged in this issue, we compared survey responses between the general public with Ocean Conservancy-connected individuals to investigate how regular interaction with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Ocean Conservancy affects people’s knowledge, perceptions and willingness to act. In total, we received survey responses from 1,960 adults and 882 Ocean Conservancy-connected individuals. 

What did we find?

  • Plastic pollution was ranked the most concerning ocean threat by U.S. adults and Ocean Conservancy supporters, ahead of oil spills, chemical and nutrient pollution and climate change. 
  • The U.S. public is most concerned about the impacts of plastic pollution on marine life related to entanglement and injury, ingestion and chemical leaching, more so than human health impacts. Specifically, 30% of U.S. adults rated the risk of entanglement and injury to marine animals as a top concern, compared to 18% that ranked human health impacts as a top concern.
  • About half of U.S. adults and 90% of Ocean Conservancy supporters had heard of microplastics before taking part in the survey. When we provided further information on microplastics, the percentage of U.S. adults who were very concerned about microplastic pollution increased from 55% to 66%.
  • People who eat seafood regularly were more concerned about the impacts of microplastics than those who don’t. From our recent study on microplastics in protein products, we have evidence that this should be a concern for all consumers, even those on a plant-based diet.
  • U.S. adults take regular action on individual levels to prevent plastic pollution, including carrying reusable bottles and bags and sorting their household waste for recycling. Compared to these actions which were broadly adopted, individuals less frequently brought personal food containers to restaurants for takeout or contacted local representatives or businesses about reducing plastic waste and pollution.
  • There was broad support across all U.S. adults and Ocean Conservancy supporters for a wide array of actions—including federal regulations—that would prevent microplastic from entering the environment. Public support was greatest for legislative solutions that hold the plastic industry largely responsible for solving the problem of ocean plastic pollution.
  • Ocean Conservancy members were generally better informed and more concerned about plastic pollution impacts and microplastics than U.S. adults and reported significantly greater levels of personal action to reduce their plastic footprint.

Now what?

These survey results provide new insights that can be used to direct future research on plastic pollution, tailor educational campaigns and resources, and identify policies with the greatest public support. For example, this research has identified topics where we can focus on providing further information to the U.S. public, such as the link between plastic pollution and climate change and the human health impacts of microplastics. We have also identified several individual actions, such as writing to local policymakers about plastic pollution, that organizations like Ocean Conservancy can encourage and support. The U.S. public has shown support for action both on individual and industry levels, and we hope that this provides motivation for legislation to prevent plastic pollution on local, national and international scales.

Read our full research paper here.

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