Research suggests remote working could be the solution to single-use plastic pollution after people cut down on unsustainable choices while away from the office.
The expected rise in remote working following the coronavirus pandemic could lead to people binning unsustainable behaviours like reliance on single-use plastic bottles or a disposable coffee cup habit, according to a new YouGov survey showing that amongst people working remotely, furloughed or made redundant during lockdown, consumption of bottled water has almost halved, going from 58% buying on-the-go to 30% (down 48%).
With 61% of those in employment pre-lockdown expecting to work remotely at least part time even after the pandemic, and half (48%) of all adults now more conscious of making sustainable choices day-to-day, positive habits picked up at home during lockdown could be the cultural shift needed to help tackle plastic pollution, reduce litter and protect marine life. The findings have prompted calls for businesses and Government to support increased flexible and remote working even after the pandemic.
The survey, commissioned by BRITA UK, highlights a new willingness to accept drastic change to day-to-day life when required. Almost seven in ten people said they were willing to alter their behaviour to manage a global crisis or existential threat, and 71% now believe people should be more willing to change their behaviour if necessary, mirroring how well the public responded to lockdown rules when the coronavirus risk became evident. This suggests that changing the way we talk about environmental threats such as plastic pollution or climate change could have a big impact, and help the UK meet the Government’s Net Zero ambition and desire for a Green Recovery. Two thirds (65%) of people said if the Government told them to change their behaviour to manage a global crisis or existential threat they would now be more willing to do so.
The data reveals that, since lockdown began, there has been a 45% decrease in the number of people overall buying bottled water on-the-go. Before lockdown, the most common point of purchasing bottled water was on-the-go or at work, with 59% of millennials[i] and 55% of the wider working population[ii] doing so, contributing to high levels of litter and single-use plastic waste in public places[iii]. Yet the research, carried out while Government advice was still to work at home if possible, found that since coronavirus only a quarter (25%) of millennials and less than a third (32%) of the wider working population have been picking up bottled water this way. Instead, consumers have been switching from disposable bottles to tap or filtered water, with 50% of those choosing to do so citing reasons including not going to work or the supermarket as often.
In 2018[iv] BRITA and its partner Keep Britain Tidy found convenience was a pivotal factor behind low uptake of refillable bottles, with travelling and meal deals revealed as key drivers of purchase of bottled water. This raises the suggestion that a move towards more flexible, remote working – with lunch eaten at home – could have significant positive consequences for the fight against plastic pollution.
Whereas just 7% of Britons always worked from home pre-lockdown, nearly two thirds (61%) of those in employment pre-lockdown expect to continue doing so with some flexibility in future. In addition, 30% of people expect to be visiting coffee shops and restaurants less frequently going forward, while a quarter expect to have to cut back on food and drink spending, and more than a third (36%) expect to cook more rather than buy on-the-go or pre-prepared options. Already, 22% of millennials are reusing food containers more frequently because they can wash them up at home.
The research suggests that positive habits picked up during lockdown could stick afterwards, with 22% of us expecting to use fewer disposable plastic bottles on-the-go, and almost a third (31%) now intending to carry a reusable bottle. A third (32%) of people plan to ensure they separate recyclable waste – perhaps reflecting that people are more conscious of plastic rubbish piling up at home than in an office environment – and 22% expect to think more about the packaging of the food and drink they buy.
The damage that single-use plastic is doing to our marine environment and wildlife, in addition to our wider natural environment, has been well documented. But we also know that many people are committed to tackling this, and it is encouraging to see from this research that even more people have adopted more sustainable behaviours during lockdown in place of less sustainable habits borne out of convenience.
Before the crisis, 42% of people purchased bottled water for consumption at home despite having easy access to tap or filtered water; that fell to 32% during lockdown, with reasons given including a desire to reduce plastic consumption in the home (59%) as well as factors such as saving money (29%), not being able to access it in stores (10%), or not wanting to transport heavy bottles (20%).
According to Whale & Dolphin Conservation, who BRITA has worked with since 2017, up to 12.7m tonnes of plastic leak into oceans every year. Yet despite growing fears of increased single-use plastic pollution during the pandemic, particularly from PPE[v], the research suggests people were actually thinking more about their plastic footprint during lockdown. Whilst not addressing the rise in plastic waste from PPE, it is encouraging to see that almost a fifth (18%) of people are avoiding plastic packaging as much as possible. And despite decisions by large coffee shop chains and train operators in early March to stop taking reusable coffee cups and bottles[vi], only 5% of consumers think single use items are safer than reusables and only one in 10 require reassurance that reusable containers are safe to use.
In fact, despite concerns environmental action would be on hold during the pandemic, the figures indicate some have embraced new habits that help the planet and their bank balances. With more time on their hands, 30% of respondents are doing more meal planning, increasing to 38% of millennials, while 34% are more conscious of reducing food waste by using up everything in the fridge. Britons are also exploring more sustainable hobbies, with almost a fifth (18%) trying to grow their own vegetables and a third (32%) cooking meals from scratch rather than buying on-the-go or pre-prepared/ready meal options. These habits appear to be here to stay, with 32% saying they expect to be doing more meal planning even after lockdown.
Notably, in spite of the influx of images of litter-strewn beaches and parks and the heightened risk of more plastic pollution being washed into oceans and waterways, almost two thirds of respondents (63%) and 70% of those at home due to their working situation, say they appreciate their local natural environment more than before lockdown, and almost half (42%) are now more conscious of maintaining their local natural environment and not littering in parks and green spaces.
Sarah Taylor, Managing Director of BRITA UK, said: “The damage that single-use plastic is doing to our marine environment and wildlife, in addition to our wider natural environment, has been well documented. But we also know that many people are committed to tackling this, and it is encouraging to see from this research that even more people have adopted more sustainable behaviours during lockdown in place of less sustainable habits borne out of convenience. What’s clear is that in order to maintain this shift, Government, business and the wider public need to come together to support a more flexible working culture that enables those who can to work remotely at least part of the week, to give people the time and space to integrate sustainability into their lives.”
Richard McIlwain, Deputy Chief Executive of Keep Britain Tidy, said: “Since Blue Planet II aired, we are perhaps more aware of the damage we’re doing to the planet, but there is a massive gap between awareness and changing behaviour. However, these findings clearly show how during lockdown, when many people had a little more time to pause and take stock, they were able to adopt simple but effective pro-environmental behaviours. We really need to make sure that in the dash to restart the economy, we don’t lose these changes but preserve and build on them.”
Mary Creagh, former Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, said: “Cutting down on single-use plastics is as important as ever, whether that is using fewer disposable coffee cups or avoiding throwaway water bottles. This research shows that remote working and daily walks have helped people make the switch to environmentally-friendly practices which is encouraging. It’s important that businesses and the Government continue to support those who choose to work from home. With so many people willing to alter their behaviour to respond to a global crisis, now is the time to rise to the environmental challenge and support people to make small changes that make a big difference.”
Chris Butler-Stroud, Chief Executive at Whale and Dolphin Conservation said: “The last few months have shown that the public really does value nature as being central to their health and the health of the wider environment. Governments often feel they have to tread carefully in nurturing consumer behaviour; not wanting to feel like they are forcing change on the public. But Covid has changed all that. We are now faced with a window of opportunity for government and the business sector to seize the opportunity to help a willing public to make the critical choices to end the use of single use plastics and make the necessary changes to meet the existential threat represented by the climate crisis.”