16 January 2019

‘Information key for consumers to address sustainability needs’ – OCU’s Belén Ramos on major CIRC-PACK survey

Between November 2017 and January 2018, 10,000 consumers in Belgium, Croatia, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the Istanbul district of Kartal were quizzed on plastic-related habits and preferences in a major survey commissioned by CIRC-PACK and conducted by Spanish consumer organisation OCU. For an in-depth look at the survey findings, caught up with OCU project officer Belén Ramos.

OCU was commissioned by CIRC-PACK to undertake a consumer survey on plastics in Europe. What was the main objective of this survey?

The main goal was to identify and analyse public perceptions and expectations in Europe about plastics in general, and more specifically, the plastic packaging value chain. With this survey we intended to find out as much information as possible about citizens’ behaviour – behaviour which should be considered by the CIRC-PACK consortium during the rollout of this project. For instance: when CIRC-PACK designs new packaging alternatives, tests new waste management streams, and even our communications and dissemination activities.

In general terms, what were the main findings of this consumer survey? What did it tell us about the attitudes of consumers to plastic products?

This was a very expansive survey, with a great many responses from citizens. But I would highlight three main findings:

Firstly, plastic for domestic use is considered by citizens to be a problem for the planet – one which uses many natural resources. However, when it comes to buying everyday packaged products, the environmental aspects of packaging exert only a moderate influence on citizens’ decision making. Quality and price are the main criteria. So we have this kind of ‘dysfunction’ whereby people are aware of the impact of plastic on the planet, but when it comes to buying, people are more concerned with other factors. In short, we are conscious of the problem, but we’re not taking too many actions – and this is something which stakeholders, including regulators, really need to address.

The second finding is that citizens wouldn’t consider new plastic types – biodegradable or compostable plastics – as their first choice when buying CIRC-PACK demonstration products (coffee capsules, coffee cups, kitchen trays, shampoo bottles). The exception however is Italy, where biodegradable alternatives are the preferred option. But notwithstanding this exception, in the other five countries in the survey, more than 50% of respondents would prefer conventional plastic options, or they don’t even have a clear preference when it comes to plastic packaging types.

The third highlight of this survey is that information has a key role to play when it comes to helping consumers addressing their sustainability needs. When it comes to information on newer, more environmentally friendly plastic materials, most citizens consider that they are not at all informed or largely uninformed. But a third of citizens say they want to be better informed. So the message we got from this is that finding trustworthy information channels is key to informing citizens on sustainability. I think we need to create a credible, independent, representative authority to disseminate such information if we want people to learn of, and believe in, new solutions.

Country by country, what were the main highlights? Did any of the countries yield surprising results?

There are a number of interesting country-specific results, although it is clear that we can’t directly compare results among countries for each question in the survey – they all have so many cultural and regulatory differences.

But if we look at Belgium and Italy, it seems that there is greater acceptance of new plastic types (and indeed greater consumption of these plastics), while in Croatia and especially Turkey, consumers are more reluctant to substitute conventional plastic packaging.

However, one specific – and surprising – finding from this survey is that a majority of respondents in Spain (62%) and Istanbul’s Kartal district (65%) have not even been offered the choice of a biodegradable plastic bag when they go shopping for groceries. This also applies to 49% of Croatians. In the case of Kartal, until this year there were not real restrictions or regulations concerning conventional bag versus biodegradable substitutes, so perhaps the figure can be explained this way. But all in all, the finding comes as a surprise. And clearly, if we want people to use these new plastic material products, it goes without saying that the products must be available on the market – and available when the consumer asks for them.

Another striking finding is that in Croatia, some 22% of respondents don’t see the need to sort household waste – because they feel their contribution has no impact on the problem in general. This is certainly something which has to be addressed.

Finally, in Belgium we learned that 43% of citizens always keep and reuse plastic bags for shopping, which is – though more progress is needed – an encouraging statistic.

Does this survey tell us anything about attitudes to single-use plastics?

The survey did focus on packaging and not single-use plastics per se, but we did gain a glimpse of consumer habits with shopping bags. For instance, whereas years ago we mainly used single-use plastic shopping bags, today we see that most European consumers bring bags from home when they go for groceries: 78% of Portuguese consumers, 72% of Belgians, 70% of Italians and 59% of Spaniards all do this. And most of the inhabitants of Kartal in Turkey do this too. In Croatia the number is a bit lower at 42%. This tells us that when we have awareness campaigns and indeed regulations in place restricting or penalising the use of single-use plastic bags, citizens tend to follow suit and act quickly! So we need these regulations and information campaigns.

And what the survey also tells us about plastics in general is that when Europeans go shopping, they encounter products with excessive plastic packaging or even products that don’t need packaging at all. For instance, in Spain, 43% of respondents often find products that don’t need packaging, and more than 50% regularly find “over-packaged” products.

What does this survey tell us about attitudes to new plastic types, such as biodegradable plastics or compostable plastics?

When consumers buy products, and they have the choice between (a) bio-based, (b) biodegradable, or (c) recycled plastics, they tend to prefer biodegradable plastics, closely followed by recycled plastics. Bio-based plastics lag some way behind.

Interestingly, there is a willingness to pay a little bit more for these new packaging options. But what this amount is varies among the countries in the survey.

How do you think the CIRC-PACK project can address some of the issues consumers have with plastics?

This project is good for changing minds; it demonstrates that sustainable plastic packaging is possible. It is possible to reach the market so that manufacturers can produce this sustainable packaging, and also to test the market. At CIRC-PACK we are testing various demonstration products (food packaging, cosmetic packaging, bags), and we are testing them from different angles: environmental, financial/economic and even from a social acceptance perspective. It can be a good way of encouraging the market to move towards an improved, more sustainable plastic packaging value chain.

Moreover, this project can inform citizens about what these improvements imply; why it is important to go for them, how we can recognise them on the market and how we behave when dealing with them during use or when sorting waste at home. Many respondents in this survey don’t have trust in manufacturers, supermarkets or the media as sources of information regarding new plastic materials, but the CIRC-PACK consortium includes representatives from every part of plastic value chain. This consortium can be considered an independent and valid source of information.

For a run-down of the survey results, readers can watch the video by OCU.