• Angad Chowdhry

What do people really know and want to know about plastic and health?

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

Image by Nareeta Martin from Unsplash

Have you eaten a bag of chips today? Ordered takeaway? Bought your favorite shampoo?

All of these tasks have one thing in common - plastic.

Plastic is embedded in our everyday life from cleaning the house to the food we eat. We produce 368 million tonnes of plastic waste every year. That's more than the weight of the entire human population. If current trends continue, by 2050, our oceans could contain more plastic than fish. Plastic is the human health crisis no one is talking about. It causes long-lasting and irreversible harm at every step of its production.

Chemicals used to produce plastic contain toxins that impair the immune system among other effects on the skin, eyes, and brain. Once plastics - and their smaller form - microplastics, and nanoplastics - reach the environment, it contaminates humans and food chains. Microplastics accumulate in the soil, water supplies, and aquatic life, exposing humans to inhale or ingest the harmful product. As plastic particles degrade, their toxins leach into surrounding areas while burning plastic releases hydrochloric acid that causes respiratory problems. To top it all off 90% of plastics are not recycled.

In the last decade, climate campaigns have alerted people to the danger of plastic and human health. Global campaigns, such as Rethink Plastic and Stop Plastic Pollution!, spearheaded initiatives from plastic bans to local clean-ups. Media stories of fish dying from plastic consumption and the campaign Beat the Microbead by Plastic Soup Foundation about microplastics in cosmetics have raised public concern. In order to drive people to action - reducing plastic use or disposing of responsibly - campaigns must target communication based on their perceptions and levels of awareness and interest.

Quilt.AI and the Plastic Soup Foundation collaborated on using digital insights to understand people’s perceptions and interests in plastic and human health. We examined 173 keywords and 1,500 searches from the Netherlands and the U.K. to answer - what are growing interests in plastic and human health? What do people already know? How can we garner further action or interest?

This is what we found:

1. People are aware - but they want to know more

In both countries, people are searching for advanced knowledge on the effects of plastic and human health. This is evident in the type of keywords that grew and refer to specific types of plastic. Overall, there is an increase in searches for "ill effects of polythene" and "polypropylene health hazards" by 191% and 177%, respectively.

A deeper dive into each country shows different trends.

In the Netherlands:

  • Dominant knowledge on the effects of plastic on human health are keywords such as "burning rubbish" which went from 332 average searches in 2019 to 509 in 2020. Another keyword is “burning plastic” from 538 average searches in 2018 to 660 in 2019. Finally, related to human health searches for “eating plastic” went from 130 in 2018 to 156 in 2019 then dropped to 136 in 2020.

  • A keyword that has experienced the highest increase is "polypropylene dangerous for health" (238%). This growing search could be attributed to COVID-19 as polypropylene is in single-use face masks.

  • Keywords that emerged - or seeing more interest in by 100% each - are "plastic smoke inhalation”, "plastic pollution on human health", and "plastic pollution and human health".

In the United Kingdom, searches are more specific to types of plastic, potentially demonstrating that the population is seeking more detailed information:

  • In 2019, searches for “ill effects of polythene” decreased by 25% but in the last year, it has surged by 191%. Along with this, "polypropylene health hazards" grew the most by 254%.

  • Search keywords that are trending in relation to plastics and human health are "ill effects of plastic" (25%), "pvc risks" (18%), and "effects of eating plastic” (9%). In 2019, these keywords had decreased by 0%, 3%, and 8%, respectively, but grew again in 2020.

  • In 2020, people’s awareness increased with keywords around basic knowledge of plastic and human health. In particular, “plastic in your body”, “plastic human health” and “plastic harmful to human health” grew by 100% each.

2. Interest tripled in the last year

Overall, searches related to plastic and human health tripled from 19% in 2018-2019 to 68% in 2019-2020. Interest-related searches had the highest average that grew between 2018 to 2020. Keywords went from an average of 1160 searches in 2018 to 1419 in 2019 and then 1994 in 2020. Awareness-related searches followed a similar growth with 285 in 2018 to 395 in 2019 and 1146 in 2020.

The Netherlands had search patterns that reflected an interest in plastics and human health are more dominant In fact searches grew from 22% in 2018-2019 to 73% in 2019-2020. This is potentially due to ongoing advocacy efforts.

We studied search trends for several hashtags and identified the highest trending ones as #nomoreplastic, #plasticdiet, and #beatthemicrobead. Based on our analysis, the most popular hashtags differed between the two countries.

In the case of the Netherlands, Plastic Soup Foundation’s #beatthemicrobead campaign was the most popular, followed by the #nomoreplastic. The former had an average search volume of 199 from April 2020 to March 2021 while the latter had 77. The #beatthemicrobead campaign also increased by 482% during the 1-year period.

In the U.K. searches for plastic and human health increased by 41% in the last year. On social media, hashtags such as #plasticfree and #beachclean were common with many sharing pictures of plastic on beaches. Compared to the Netherlands, it was also common for people to advertise local businesses that made plastic-free products such as coasters or jewelry. Furthermore, people called out companies for a lack of plastic-free packaging and the government for inaction on a plastic ban.

In the top three hashtags we studied, #nomoreplastic was the most popular in the U.K. The hashtag had an average search volume of 112 from April 2020 to March 2021. It grew by 31% during the 1-year period. This also suggests that the type of content and messaging that resonated with them the most are on the reduction of plastic usage and the need to live a sustainable lifestyle.

3. What’s Next?

In the Netherlands and the U.K., campaigns around plastic pollution have established a level of awareness among the population about its harm. Search behavior shows growing interest in the specific types of plastic and how to reduce plastic use. These digital insights can inform the next steps and actions:

  • Information on specific plastics - Campaigns can share information on the effects of specific types of plastic. In particular, COVID-19 may have sparked interest in plastics used in single-use masks. Campaigns can focus on how plastic pollution is affected during COVID-19 and what lifestyle changes can be made (e.g. use cloth masks).

  • In the UK, partner with local sustainable businesses - Create a coalition or partner campaigns with local businesses that use sustainable practices. This will continue to raise awareness of plastic pollution but also give people alternate choices that are locally supported. Along with local, also shedding light on international brands that are purpose-driven and advocate for a sustainable supply chain. These businesses can use the search keywords that grew (e.g. plastic in your body)

  • In the Netherlands, focus on keywords that spiked - In the last year, keywords like "polypropylene dangerous for health" and “plastic smoke inhalation” have grown significantly. Organizations and climate allies should harness this by redirecting people to the right information and action-oriented advice.

Plastic pollution is a global health crisis that requires urgent attention. Though countries like the U.K. and Netherlands have made progress in raising awareness and initiatives to tackle plastic pollution - more can be done. People are turning to the Internet for information and advice on how they can make a difference. Climate campaigns are also leveraging the Internet to disseminate information at scale and mobilize people. Organizations and climate allies can use digital insights from search behavior to decipher growing interests and how to capitalize those so governments are held accountable and people are driven to act. In order to prevent plastic pollution from overwhelming the Earth and its resources, now is the time for people to take one step further towards a greener future.

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