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What can consumers teach brands, charities, and NGOs about plastic waste?

We studied millions of social posts and surveyed thousands of consumers to find out how the public views the problem of plastic waste, and who’s going to solve it.

REPORTWhat can consumers teach brands, charities, and NGOs about plastic waste?

Plastic. It’s everywhere, and that’s the problem.

Plastic manufacturing really took off in the 1950s, and roughly half of the plastics ever made came about in the last 15 years. That’s 70 years of plastic creation, although discussion around plastic’s effects on the environment has only recently become a big issue in the public consciousness.

This report studies six million public social media posts and 4,000 survey responses gathered using Qriously to find out what consumers think of plastic waste.

You’ll learn how:

  • Consumers are keen to take responsibility for their part in reducing the effects of plastic waste, but the well-intended actions they’re taking may not align with what’s best for the planet.
  • Activist, charity, and NGO conversation is scattered and disjointed. An effort to consolidate causes and educate consumers on making lifestyle choices that benefit the planet could go a long way.
  • Consumers aren’t blaming brands or industry for plastic waste – instead, they’re looking to them for solutions. There are plenty of opportunities for brands to help lead on reducing the harmful effects of plastic waste, and to get involved with consumer education. In our conclusion, we’ll reveal actionable takeaways for brands, charities, NGOs and online activists.

Here’s what we found when we explored what consumers think of plastic waste.

Peak plastic

We’re currently living in the era of peak plastic.

This became abundantly clear when we looked at the almost six million online mentions of plastic waste since 2017 by month.

The two months that received the most plastic waste mentions happened very recently, with May 2019 and June 2019 registering over 433,000 mentions and nearly 418,000 mentions respectively.

Time of year

Looking at the data from this altitude, we find our first insight: English-language conversation around plastic waste is most common in the summer months, which is something that was also reflected by our survey. When we asked people when they noticed plastic litter the most, 59% selected ‘Summer’, with ‘Don’t know’ being the next most popular response (24%).

Warm weather seems to spark and fuel the online conversation around plastic waste and pollution. Logically, this makes complete sense – as we emerge from hibernation and have more opportunity to enjoy outdoor spaces, there are more opportunities to litter and to notice the litter dropped.

Gender split

Again, taking a broad look at the data, we found that women are generally more vocal within the plastic waste discussion than men, as 55% of all unique authors are women.

Women also reported higher levels of worry around plastic waste than men (33% of the women we surveyed reported being ‘very worried’, while only 29% of men felt the same).

Now, let’s get more granular.

Key conversation drivers

Influential voices

Many influential voices are driving the plastic waste conversation on social media.

For example, here are some of the celebrities with the largest followings who’ve addressed plastic pollution online:

  1. Ellen DeGeneres
  2. Kourtney Kardashian
  3. Leonardo DiCaprio
  4. J.K. Rowling
  5. Stephen Fry

World leaders such as Narendra Modi and Justin Trudeau have also caused spikes in the conversation.

This is no surprise – politicians are high on the list of figures people look to to lead conversation around plastic waste. Consumers in our survey reported that they’d prefer to look to academics and elected officials than their peers, social influencers, or celebrities to lead the conversation on plastic waste.

The power of television

When it comes to where people want to get their information from in regard to plastic waste, it’s traditional media that continues to dominate.

Given the hunger for scientific information delivered via traditional media, you won’t be surprised to read about one of the most impactful topics in the conversation around plastic waste – Blue Planet 2.

November 20th, 2017 saw #BluePlanet2 elevate the plastic pollution conversation to more than 71,000 mentions in a single day.

The show cemented the problem of plastic pollution in the public consciousness, with plastic waste conversation staying consistently high and rising from November 2017 onwards.

The ocean dominates conversation around polluted areas

Given the incredible impact of Blue Planet 2, it’s not surprising how water is a hot topic of online conversation in regard to plastic waste.

Of all types of geographic areas on Earth, the ocean is the place that is most closely associated with plastic waste – we found more than 1.4 million mentions of plastic waste and the ocean.

Following the ocean, we found that rivers and coastlines are the areas most associated with plastic pollution.

Individuals and responsibility

The perception of industry

Pollution conversation that specifically mentions industry is increasing. (We found 156,000 mentions – quite small compared to the close to 6 million mentions of the original conversation, but the volume has risen over the time frame we studied).

When we examine those social mentions further, breaking them down by emotion, we’re able to understand the complex issue of responsibility a little more.

We found that early mentions of industry were more likely to be categorized with the emotion ‘disgust’, while as the conversation has gone on there is less blame and vitriol towards industry online. Instead, people are discussing the measures industries are putting in place to cut their plastic consumption.

Within social conversations, the industries that rose to the forefront were fishing and fashion. Meanwhile, people were keen to discuss the tourism industry and how areas that depend on tourism are being hurt due to plastic waste.

Consumers are taking responsibility

The single day that recorded the most mentions of plastic pollution in our study was February 28, 2018. This one day had more than 108,000 mentions, and they were all sparked by a single Tweet that resonated with a large audience. The author wasn’t a celebrity, just someone with a message and a warning.

This tweet causing the largest spike in conversation around plastic waste links neatly with a finding in our survey: When we asked our survey respondents who was responsible for improving the impact of plastic waste, the most popular answer, with nearly a third of respondents selecting it, was ‘consumers.’

That said, while most consumers seem to be keen to take responsibility for their part in reducing plastic waste, 32% have not adopted a lifestyle that helps the cause. And of those that said they hadn’t, the majority hadn’t even considered it. There’s a clear opportunity here to change some minds.

Consumers are taking responsibility, but are they making a difference?

Using our survey, we were able to find out which plastic items consumers were avoiding most.

  • 45% said they avoid using or buying plastic straws
  • 44% said they avoid using or buying plastic bags
  • 30% said they avoid using or buying plastic bottles

The popularity of avoiding straws and bags vs bottles is evident on social media, too.

This might sound good – people are talking about plastic bags and plastic straws and they’re actively avoiding them in order to reduce plastic waste in the environment.

But is this actually helping things in the wider picture? Analysis of the objects that make up the most litter reveals that bottles are actually more present than bags or straws.

Plastic food wrappers or containers seem to be causing the biggest issue, although in our survey only 27% of people said they avoided using or buying goods packaged in plastic.

While it’s commendable that consumers are taking responsibility and spreading the word, it’s worth noting that they may not be taking the most impactful actions for the planet.

So, we’ve identified two opportunities for education here:

  1. To help those who haven’t considered a lifestyle that reduces plastic waste to see the benefits
  2. To help those who have adopted a lifestyle that reduces plastic waste understand which actions will have the most positive effects

The role of charities, NGOs, and activism

Charities and NGOs

As was previously stated, this is the era of peak plastic.

With this ubiquity comes a swath of organizations – either backed by governments or otherwise – who are all attempting to remedy plastic waste problems.

We looked for mentions of more than 30 charities and organizations dedicated to cleaning up the planet’s plastic and, of those, Greenpeace was by far the most mentioned. There were more than 103,000 mentions of Greenpeace in the plastic waste conversation for the entire time frame. Those mentions account for 21% of all the charity/NGO mentions we looked at.

Following Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and the Plastic Pollution Coalition both have around 50,000 mentions each.

It’s impressive to see how much conversation these many and varied charities and NGOs can generate online, and mapping conversation relating to them against the conversation generally, we can see that they’re helping to drive awareness and get involved when interest in plastic is highest.

Public mentions of plastic waste across social media in relation to charities and NGOs

Brandwatch image
Source: Brandwatch Analytics

Public mentions of plastic waste across social media

Brandwatch image
Source: Brandwatch Analytics

What they’re not great at doing is activating conversations during the winter months, when plastic is still harming the environment (it’s just less visible to consumers).

Online activism

Individuals talk about plastic waste in order to bring attention to the issue and use simple hashtags like #plastic and #recycle frequently. Specific activist hashtags are used much less, but are present within the conversation still.

Here are some of the top examples:

  • #BeatPlasticPollution – over 152 million impressions
  • #CleanSeas – more than 91 million impressions
  • #BreakFreeFromPlastic – over 77 million impressions
  • #ZeroWaste – more than 52 million impressions
  • #WarOnPlastic – over 47 million impressions

Aligning the causes

Bringing together the scattered conversation around hashtags and charity/NGO mentions, along with the knowledge that people are not looking to social influencers or to non-profit/specialist organizations to lead on the plastic waste conversation, one thing is clear.

There is a dire need for alignment if these efforts are to be successful in creating action.

Opportunities in the data

Opportunities for brands:

  • Consumers are looking to brands and industry for solutions. Meanwhile, conversation around plastic waste and its ill effects are reaching their peak. Now is the time for brands to act, and make a difference within their organization.
  • Consumers are keen to take responsibility for reducing plastic’s harm. Brands can help consumers by clearly signposting how to recycle their product packaging, and contributing to wider education initiatives.
  • There’s help out there – our guide to understanding your audience to create better CSR initiatives is a good start.

Opportunities for charities, NGOs, and online activists:

  • Education is clearly needed, firstly for those who have not even considered adopting new behaviors, and secondly for those who have. While consumers are keen to contribute, their focus is well intentioned but not always on the actions that can cause the most good for the planet.
  • Alignment and clear messaging will help unite a scattered online conversation to pack a more powerful punch on the trending list and in wider public consciousness. This includes bringing in the voices of online influencers and celebrities, but traditional media, scientists, and elected officials shouldn’t be ignored – consumers want to get their information on plastic from these sources.
  • Sustained focus on plastic-related campaigns throughout the year will help to keep the issue top of mind, even when it’s out of sight in the summer months. Winter is always coming, and this is when awareness drops.


This report examines six million public social media posts (gathered using Brandwatch Analytics between Jan 2017 – Aug 2019, in English) and survey responses from 4,000 people (gathered using Qriously across the UK and US in August 2019) surrounding plastic waste and pollution.


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