Let’s get it out of the way so I don’t leave you hanging: I think plastic attacks do more harm than good for the zero waste movement. Making trash and over-consumption is a good thing, but these events tend to put the burden on individuals rather than corporations, whether that’s the intention or not.
I’m wary of an event that seems like something tailor-made to be a social media sensation, fun at the moment but quickly forgotten with no forward momentum. So let’s dive into what plastic attacks are, what my issues with them are, and ways to do one properly if you still think they’re a good idea.
What are plastic attacks?
Very simply, plastic attacks are when a group of consumers go into a store, buy groceries, and throw all the packaging into a cart at the store after they pay. It’s a way to bring awareness to just how much packaging there is in grocery stores.
They’ve happened all over the world (though they seem very popular in Britain) and the response has been… lukewarm. I haven’t seen many companies come back with much more than a canned ‘we’re already trying to reduce our waste’ response. Unsurprising, but more on why that is later.
The good news is that the people carrying out these plastic attacks have become more nuanced, going from seeming uncaring to being much more aware of positive interactions with staff and the public as they carry out these attacks.
What are the issues with plastic attacks?
Because they’ve got issues, my friends.
1. It puts the burden on people not responsible for waste
My biggest worry for these events is that it puts an undue burden on cashiers, stockists, and managers who have no real pull in this situation. I know if I were a random cashier or patron, this sort of event could become disruptive very quickly. From working a soul-crushing service job before, anything beyond the routine can become a real issue, especially if you have a sub-par manager.
2. These kind of attacks could breed resentment towards the movement
Activism is not always meant to be polite or good-willed, but when you’re trying to influence consumer habits you need to be much more positive. While most reports of plastic attacks claim the company was receptive, that’s just called good customer service. Plus, think of the shaming aspect of this – I worry people checking out and using plastic may become defensive rather than enlightened. Converting people who aren’t zero waste to the movement is a hard process and it takes more than one burst of activity.
3. The people who make stocking decisions likely aren’t in the store
I called several different chain stores in my area and all the managers confirmed that they made no purchasing decisions and didn’t have influence in the process. All that came from a corporate higher up. So while the story of the trash attack may get back to corporate, you’re not actually impacting anyone with real decision-making skills.
4. These plastic attacks tend to be short-sighted
I mean, I could be absolutely wrong, but I’ve never heard what comes after these attacks. Who’s following up? Who’s making sure the event is explained – with correct context – to those in power? What’s the next step for consumers? These plastic attacks are fun, one-time events that require much more later-on planning to have a real impact.
I still want to do it. What should I do?
Shockingly, I am not the be-all-end-all of zero waste advice so if you’re into this idea, I totally encourage you to give it a go. Here are a few thoughts I have to make the plastic attack a little more effective and palatable to all:
1. Remember your issue is with companies, not people
Remember that the workers may not be educated on the subject and absolutely do not make the decisions on what’s stocked. Keep the protest polite, impersonal, and respectful. If a cashier, stockist, or manager asks you to do something, do it. They are not the man.
2. Make sure you have a clear plan of how to dispose of the waste
My biggest issue with this is that there’s a large amount of waste left over. From what I’ve seen, most events have seen the store agreeing to properly deal with the waste. To be honest, most of these large stores do not have recycling capabilities. Take responsibility for your trash – all of it – and make sure it’s taken care of correctly.
3. Be more than anger – provide consumer education
It’s all well and good to lead a plastic attack, but your anger at the situation can make people feel like it’s a hopeless situation. So show them how to use cloth bags instead of plastic produce bags. Talk to them about the places in town with unpackaged options. Have a phone available with video showing the horrific impact of single-use plastics. Provide a ‘how to start going zero waste’ resource with 3 easy actions. Give people forward movement.
4. Reach out to people with actual power in conjunction with this
While there, get the name of a specific person to reach out to in the corporate area of that company and choose 2-3 other companies to email. Create a letter template and give some pictures of the event for each participant to send by email after the event. Make sure your big action is followed up with pressure to the right people.
To be honest, I’m still against plastic attacks. I think time could be better served supporting brands that come unpackaged or low-waste, creating viral anti-plastic campaigns aimed towards corporate, and providing greater educational opportunities to the public. What about you?