Consumer Attitudes About Plastics

If you ask a friend what they think of their laptop (encased in plastic with lots of internal plastic components), you will likely get a thumbs-up. Ask them about the plastic bag they carried it out of the store in, and they would give you thumbs-down.

The plastic industry is stuck with this bi-polar consumer attitude about the plastic products they produce. People can’t really live in a modern society without plastic products, yet many highly resent some of the products produced.

Products  can be broken into two categories — durable vs. disposable.

People love products made from plastic, but not all products. Google “consumer attitudes about plastic products,” and you will get a page filled with Web sites about plastic bags, but not much about consumer attitudes about durable plastic products like laptops, chairs, clothing, dishware, medical products, and recycled plastic decking material.

In fact, the anti-plastic bag and disposable plastic attitude is clearly very negative, while few of these same Web sites even bring up durable plastics as an issue.  Lots of scholarly studies have been done on plastic bags, packaging and throw-away containers like water bottles, but little is found on durable plastic products intended for years of service.

The concern about shopping bags started all the way back in 1974 in some communities. At that time it was thought that paper bags were killing all the trees. But a switch to plastic bags in that decade became another cause for the landfill-aware consumer. Of course, the issue reversed course when “renewable” resources were compared with non-renewable resource awareness. Trees, after all, have been farmed specifically for paper usage for nearly a hundred years; old-growth forests are not cut for paper bags.

The public concerns about waste in general were well known by the 1990s when academic studies were completed by behavioral marketing research firms. A Purdue study in 1995 concluded that, “Buying and using recycled products can stimulate the market of recycled materials, which is good for the environment. The results of this study suggest that consumers’ willingness to buy recycled products can be motivated by emphasizing the importance of environmental issues, positive attitudes toward recycled products, and the feeling of contribution to the environment from the purchase of recycled products.

Of course, the inference on recycling is that it can be an asset, after the initial disposal of plastic or paper. Later studies focus on plastic bags as a heinous environmental pollutant because it did not deteriorate quickly enough and was hurting fish, animals, and the environment. In California recently the voting public supported this attitude by voting to charge for plastic bags at some retail stores — the assumption, of course, being that less plastic would be used

Finding studies that support or condemn durable plastic product production on the other hand, is difficult to find.  However, consumer behavior — watching what they do instead of what they say — can provide some information.

Plastics consumption and production alone is a simple test of acceptance. In the last thirty years, it has grown almost 600%, from 50 Metric Tons to just about 300 Metric Tons. Even in Europe, which is sensitive to waste, plastic packaging is nearly 40% of all plastic demand.  Consumer and household durable goods were 22.4%.

These facts alone explain the consumer demand. If people did not buy plastic products, they would not be produced for long. The issues with plastic appear not to be about usage but about disposal and reuse.

Packaging is one of the sensitive areas for plastic production. It’s really easy to criticize a single use of packaging when it stays around the environment for hundreds of years. A new Microsoft Surface Pro comes in a beautifully designed cardboard box, but a great vinyl (plastic) cover for it is encased in three layers of plastic; a clear plastic box containing another plastic spacer inside, and plastic wrap around the box. They were well designed, but not something you would save. The Surface Pro will be well used for perhaps six to ten years, as will the cover. Then much of that will be recycled. But the plastic wrapping will go directly into the trash, and even though it is in the recycle bin, it will likely not make it back into another plastic product. The consumer asks why it was necessary to encase the product in plastic.

But one study indicates that packaging increased the salability of products. In a MeadWestvaco study, “64 percent of those surveyed indicated they purchased a new product because the packaging caught their eye. And 42 percent said they used products more regularly because of packaging. And 36 percent — more than one of every three people surveyed — said they changed brands from a product they previously used because of new packaging.”

Packaging can influence buying behavior. In the case mentioned above, the case is easily viewed on all sides due to the clear plastic boxes. Did the item really get bought because it was visible? It probably did play a part of the decision because it was visible and elegant, creating a perception of superior quality (way beyond its actual price).

How many times do you wish you could look and feel how a piece of hardware will work with your project? Or simply want to see the toy you are about to buy your kid for Christmas? Of course, plastic can be used with paper and cardboard in packaging, but the plastic will outlast the paper in a trash fill about a hundred times.

Retailers will also tell you that plastic clam shell packaging also reduces theft because it is difficult to get the product out of the package without a knife. Seeing the product without removing it from the package is driven by inventory shrinkage as well.

Packaging experts will say that both plastic and paper have advantages and disadvantages. Paper takes more energy to produce than plastic, but traditional plastic from petroleum doesn’t biodegrade.

The promise of biopolymer plastic bags is not quite here, but this may lead to plastic bags that people can feel better about. This may also lead to biodegradable packaging, but the truth is that even this option is not a panacea. The consumer is confused about how to make buying decisions due to the complexity of understanding the trade-offs between plastic, paper and other options.

As long as we see plastic on beaches and floating in big circles in the middle of the Pacific Ocean the problem stays in the forefront of the consumer’s mind.  It is likely they will continue to find fault with plastic as disposables even as they love their durable plastic products.

Marketers of plastics will still need to honestly assess each use of plastic, and truthfully communicate the reasons for the decision to use the material. This is a task that is still lacking for most purveyors of plastic products. As long as this continues, consumers will have doubts about disposable plastics. Transparent, logical thinking about what plastic is used for, is the best way forward for all of us in the industry.

  1. The Determinants of Consumers’ Purchase Decisions For Recycled Products: an Application of Acquisition-Transaction Utility Theory, Lien-Ti Bei, Purdue University, Eithel M. Simpson, Purdue University.
  2. Some evidence indicates that the way the law may be implemented would actually cause a larger plastic consumption by 30% due to use of larger, sturdier reusable bags.>

  3. World plastics production. PlasticsEurope (PEMRG).

  4. European plastics demant by segment, 2013. Source PlasticsEurope (PEMRG)/Consultic

  5. MeadWestvaco tracks consumer attitudes about packaging

  6. Packaging Matters Blog, “The “Paper vs. Plastic” debate brings up a common challenge for most organizations: what are the best materials to use for packaging? With so many factors to consider, such as cost, protection, and the environmental impact, it is important to understand the pros and cons of all material options.”

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