With coronavirus and the presidential election dominating news headlines over the course of the summer and into the fall, it’s amazing that anyone has the mental space to think about anything else. But, as it turns out, over the past six months, concern about the environment has also been on people’s minds, and increasingly so.

In general, environmental consciousness has been trending upward over the last few years, but at the end of the first quarter (March) of 2020, it began a steady rise from 45% of people reporting being “very concerned,” to its current position at 49% (quarterly to date).

This may indeed imply that the coronavirus pandemic, and subsequent quarantines, has people spending a lot more time thinking about the world around them. During the same time that concern about the environment has gone up (from March to present, pictured above), the percentage of people at least somewhat concerned about the coronavirus pandemic has dropped.

But to figure out what concern for the environment actually means to people, CivicScience looked at one of the simplest ways to make a difference: recycling and thoughts on single-use plastics. 

A few weeks ago, we looked at the data to see whether people were using reusable water bottles less, and it turns out, usage had dropped. Whether this is a result of people going out less, commuting less, being more concerned about germs, or some other, non-coronavirus-related reason, is hard to say. However, when looking more broadly at single-use plastic over the course of the pandemic, we see similar effects:

Single-use plastic and disposables are being used at the same levels now as they were prior to the pandemic among over half of the population (55%), and more so among another 15%. 

Similar to reusable water bottle usage, this may be a result of the recent trend of people ordering more takeout, most of which is inevitably packaged in plastic wrap, styrofoam, or plastic containers, and often complete with plastic utensils, plastic straws, paper napkins, and the like. It could also be related to people making more online purchases, which usually include excess plastic filler (such as bubble wrap) in delivery boxes. 

A lot of this excess plastic is inevitable (and at least some is unavoidable), of course, but the data illustrates a lack of consideration among some.

Forty-two percent of U.S. adults are more likely to buy a product or service from a business that generally emphasizes low-waste products and recycled materials in their offerings. In addition to this, nearly three-fifths of consumers support municipal bans on plastic bags and single-use plastics.

This trend isn’t necessarily new. States like California and New York, and areas like the District of Columbia, Boston, and Chicago, have all established plastic bag bans of some sort over the last several years. And many businesses make it a point to advertise their eco-conscious mindset (Patagonia, Seventh Generation, and Dr. Bronner’s are a few examples) as well. Ultimately, businesses can bring in more customers by investing more in eco-conscious practices, and consumers are interested in more eco-conscious businesses. 

The Problem with Plastic

So people generally support using less plastic. And beyond a doubt, recycling is extremely popular in American households:

Eighty-eight percent of respondents list it as at least “somewhat important.” 

So what’s the problem?

Only 34% of the general adult population will adjust their lifestyle to help the environment. Meaning, just about two-thirds (66%) of respondents will only adjust their lifestyle if it’s “convenient,” or they wouldn’t adjust it at all. And if we look at that over time:

We see that while respondents report adjusting their lifestyle every chance they get is up from 27% two years ago to nearly 32% quarterly to date, that actually represents the beginning of a downward trend from a high of 35% starting in, you guessed it, April of 2020 — the beginning of pandemic quarantine measures. In that same time, respondents who answered that they never adjust their lifestyles to help the environment started its first upwards trend of the last two years, from 10% to 13%. 

This implies that while people generally support using less plastic, they have become less likely during the pandemic to want to adjust their lifestyle to help the environment. 

Another aspect to consider is that while the general population strongly supports recycling, they may not be familiar with the issue that only about 8.4% of US plastic waste is actually recycled each year. Recycling, while good, is not necessarily a panacea. 

In fact, 40% of the U.S. adult population report not trying to avoid single-use plastic when purchasing new products, groceries, or takeout. This may imply some kind of society-wide Dunning-Kruger effect, where everyone thinks they are much more conscious about the health of the environment than they may be in reality.

So what explains the apparent contradictions over the last few months, where respondents report increasing concern about the environment, yet less worry about plastic use?

While there may be a myriad of reasons, we have one theory:

Plastic pollution does not seem to be a large concern for people when they consider the overall health of the environment. Only 18% of respondents listed it as the biggest issue facing the environment, ranking it behind carbon emissions (38%) and over-development and deforestation (27%). 

Considering environmental news in 2019 and 2020 has been dominated by massive worldwide wildfires, hurricanes, and a pandemic, it may be that natural disasters have featured more significance in the mind of the general public. It’s hard to think your plastic use matters when half the country is threatened by wildfires, and much of the other half by unusually intense and frequent hurricanes. 

So what does this mean for businesses?

Like with many things, stated consumer demand does not always necessarily lead to behavioral or lifestyle changes. While concern about the environment has increased, the significance of extreme weather compounded with the pandemic may be dominating that collective consumer headspace. However, the good news is that even latching on to eco-conscious marketing efforts or simple changes in product material (such as using more recycled materials for packaging) may make a marked difference in new consumer adoption or continued customer loyalty.