A woman is holding a Starbucks drink, unaware of its contribution to plastic pollution.

The Psychology of Plastic Pollution – Why We Love Convenience

If 9 out of 10 consumers are concerned about the global plastic pollution crisis, why is global plastic production growing so relentlessly? Why do we continue to use and dispose of plastic products so carelessly, even though we know the negative impact it has on our environment? One of the answers lies in the very roots of how our brain works, and the finesse of businesses exploiting it.

How our Brain Works

In his 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winning Psychologist Daniel Kahnemann explains that two systems drive the way we make decisions in our daily lives.

System 1 is a fast, intuitive, and automatic system that operates quickly and without conscious effort. It is responsible for generating immediate responses to sensory stimuli and helps us make quick decisions based on heuristics and mental shortcuts. System 1 is also the system that is responsible for many of our cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias (favoring existing beliefs over new information) and attentional bias (making irrational decisions because we’re overwhelmed).

System 2, on the other hand, is a slower, more deliberate, and conscious system that is used for more complex mental tasks. It involves focused attention and deliberate effort, and is used for tasks that require careful analysis, planning, and problem-solving. System 2 is involved in tasks such as learning a new skill, solving a math problem, or evaluating evidence.

We are Always Stressed

Modern humans are busier and more stressed out than ever before. Many use their energy to balance family life and work. Workplaces often have a culture of overwork and long hours, with employees expected to be always available and productive, which can contribute to stress and burnout. Additionally, financial pressures such as the high cost of living and student loan debt can create anxiety or even force us to work longer hours or multiple jobs to make ends meet.

Pair this with the stellar rise of social media and a culture of comparison and FOMO, and you have a modern culture of constant sense of anxiety and pressure to do more and achieve more. All these factors contribute to a sense of busyness, stress, and information overload for our brain.

That’s why we tend to rely heavily on System 1 in everyday life. System 1 is efficient and automatic, allowing us to quickly navigate our environment and make snap judgments. Or should I say convenient judgements?

Consumers might not always be aware of the importance of convenience throughout their day, but global marketers have been ingenious in exploiting your System 1 for many years. They’ve built whole industries around the concept of making consumer lives as convenient as possible, appealing to the quick and intuitive purchasing decisions. While just a few decades ago it was the norm to go to the produce market and the local butcher to then cook a meal at home, services like uber eats, amazon prime, and take away restaurants have conquered the convenient lives of many. The global online food delivery market revenue more than tripled to $ 0.7 trillion between 2017 and 2022 and is expected to double again by 2027.

Even if you make it to the grocery store, you’ll be confronted with convenience in countless shapes and colors. Smoothies, cooked meals, frozen meals, chopped frozen produce, an endless choice of sweet and savory snacks, or even sliced packaged fruits (because some days it might even be too inconvenient to bite into an apple or slice it yourself). The modern grocery store has limitless convenient supplies that appeal to the stressed out consumer.

Convenience Comes at a Cost for the Environment

The problem is that this convenience comes at a big price for our planet. Prepackaged foods often come with excess plastic packaging, such as plastic wrap, bags, and containers, which are frequently not recyclable or are difficult to recycle. Similarly, take away containers, such as plastic food containers, cups, and cutlery, are often designed for single-use and contribute to plastic waste.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, globally, we produce about 400 million tons of plastic waste every year, which is more than the weight of the entire human population. Much of this plastic waste ends up in the environment, where plastic can take hundreds of years to break down, harming wildlife and ecosystems. It is estimated that 11 million tons of plastic waste enter our oceans each year and a recent study found that 44% of all trash found in the ocean is caused by plastic bags, plastic bottles, food containers, and food wrappers.

It is evident that the convenience of plastic products comes at a high cost. The plastic that pollutes our environment takes hundreds of years to degrade, and when it does, it breaks down into smaller and smaller particles, eventually becoming microplastics that can enter the food chain and harm wildlife.

Our desire for quick and easy solutions has led to the widespread use and disposal of single-use plastic products, which have a significant negative impact on our environment. By prioritizing awareness and making conscious choices, we can break this cycle and work towards a more sustainable future.

We Need to Break the Cycle of Convenience

To break the cycle of convenience and avoid plastic pollution, we need to engage our System 2 thinking and make deliberate, thoughtful choices. The first step to make that happen is awareness. By recognizing how we think and how we are influenced by convenience, we can work on making more sustainable choices.

One way to do this is to make sustainability a habit. Habits are automatic behaviors that we do without thinking, and they can be developed through repetition and reinforcement. By making sustainable choices a habit, we can override our System 1 thinking and make choices that align with our long-term goals.

Developing sustainable habits is an effective way to break the cycle of convenience and avoid plastic pollution. By repeating sustainable actions until they become automatic, we can make conscious choices without relying on our System 1 thinking. For example, we can develop the habit of bringing reusable shopping bags to the store, using a refillable water bottle instead of a single-use plastic bottle, or choosing products made from sustainable materials. To reinforce these habits, we can also create environmental cues that remind us to make sustainable choices, such as leaving reusable bags by the door or keeping a refillable bottle on our desk.

Reframing the way, we think about convenience can also help us break the cycle of convenience. Instead of seeing sustainable choices as inconvenient, we can focus on the positive outcomes they bring. For example, choosing to cook a meal at home can save money and improve our health. Similarly, using a refillable water bottle or coffee cup is equally good for your budget and reduces waste. By emphasizing the benefits of sustainable choices, we can increase our motivation to make them and overcome the allure of convenience.

In conclusion, breaking the cycle of convenience requires engaging our System 2 thinking and making deliberate, thoughtful choices. By developing sustainable habits and reframing the way we think about convenience, we can make choices that align with our long-term goals and reduce the amount of plastic pollution in the environment. The next time you’re thinking about ordering out or grabbing a coffee to go, just ask yourself: Do you really want it, or is it just convenient?

Author: Lars is the co-owner of SWOP – shop without plastic, a zero-waste online shop and blog. He is passionate about protecting the environment and educating about plastic pollution.