Through the analysis of social media and traditional media’s messages on plastic in 2017 and 2018, we were able to provide an understanding of the stigmatisation processes at play. Stigmatisation, what the industry has named “plastic bashing”, has focused intensively on end-consumer visible symbolic products such as bottles, straws and single-use food packaging. Moreover, the name-shaming has also been concentrated on popular consumer brands such as Coca-Cola.
However, whether stigmatisation strategies have triggered the necessary action to curb the plastic problem is open to question. Plastic production keeps on increasing and industry players are focused on recycling, not on switching to other materials or reducing plastic use. Governments have implemented bans of symbolic targeted objects and legislated on circular economy packages, but recent concerns about Covid-19 have given rise to promotion of single-use plastics as a healthcare solution rather than a problem. Indeed, plastic lobbies have asked the European Commission to delay implementation of limits on single-use plastic.
Concentrated and coordinated stigmatisation can result in the ban of a limited range of products. However, research indicates that without education or environmental programmes, bans can have limited benefits for the environment. Because stigmatisation focuses on downstream visual and symbolic items and known brands, the reaction is itself visible for the general public and the stigmatisers, but without visibility of the upstream production and supply side, flow of plastic entering our society continues.
Stigmatisation could also be detrimental by causing distraction from the wider landscape of plastic production and the pollution that it creates, which is vast compared to the pollution created by the stigmatised (and now banned) items. While changes in plastic use by consumer brands is a welcome step forward, it will not significantly impact the curve of plastic production and pollution.