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.

What do you think about plastic attacks_ - Green Indy Blog

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?


Polly

An online resource here to help you break down the complex issue of zero waste into simple, actionable steps.

13 Comments

litterless · July 11, 2018 at 12:40 pm

Yessss. It it so deeply unkind to make service workers’ jobs harder when they’re not the ones able to make decisions about what their employer does.

    Polly · July 12, 2018 at 7:20 am

    Absolutely! There are much more productive ways of making a statement.

Christine Jaquess · July 11, 2018 at 6:30 pm

I don’t feel like plastic attacks help move us in the direction of progress for the overall zero waste movement. I feel like they just make us look crazy and make our trash someone else’s problem. As a retail worker from the age of 14, I can tell you that you’re just going to ruin that person’s day and nothing will come of it except more resistance. It would probably be a much better choice to schedule a sit down with a manager or someone who makes those decisions. Also, I feel like paying for brands packaged in plastic just to make some kind of statement seems to defeat the purpose.

    Polly · July 12, 2018 at 7:22 am

    I’ve never worked retail, but worked forever as a waitress – I can only imagine how frustrated I’d have been if something similar happened! I agree that reaching out to those in charge directly probably makes the most sense!

Gabriela · July 22, 2018 at 2:01 pm

I would compare these plastic extremist to an extremist vegan group (Some PETA members) the root of what they are trying to do comes from a good place, a place of passion for what they believe. However, the execution is often misplaced. I don’t think it’s right for a Vegan activist to pour red paint on someone wearing a fur coat, I also don’t think its okay for a plastic attack group to distrupt a store. In order for ones belief to shine through, you have to just live your life and educate people appropriately. It’s a greater benefit for the cause to inspire people to join a positive movement. Get a petition started for a specific corporation that you would like to change, gather signatures, increase your voice in politics, try and change a state legislation or city or just your neighborhood.

    Polly · July 25, 2018 at 4:07 pm

    Absolutely agree with the comparison and you have some great alternatives, Gabriela!

byliil · July 28, 2018 at 5:40 am

You’ve talked about excellent points here! Even though I’ve had frustrations with all the unnecessary packaging, I’ve never felt like burdening the cashier with such a problem. The decisions what to stock in a store are made much higher and a lot of packaging is done by the brands that have sold the products to be sold in the store. The influence is stronger if those products weren’t bought or if you contact the brand or the higher management in the store about all the packaging.

    Polly · July 28, 2018 at 10:44 am

    Your last comment is key. The purchasing of plastic-wrapped items just to discard them is mind-boggling to me and there are better ways to advocate.

Plastic Attack · August 26, 2018 at 6:55 pm

Thanks for your interest in the movement, we are disappointed that you feel these events do more harm than good. We and it appears Greenpeace, the World Clean Up Day organisers and thousands of other people around the world seem to disagree with you somewhat on this point. The P/attack Global Facebook page now has nearly 8000 followers not to mention the support given to all the other P/attack Facebook groups across the world.

We would like the opportunity to clear up a few of the points you raised in your post.

1. It puts the burden on people not responsible for waste:
We are ALL responsible for our waste (hence the creation and content of your blog?) We believe supermarkets and food producers should take much more responsibility in the way food is packaged and sold to us. By bringing this directly to their attention and also by raising the awareness consumers and the media at the same time, we believe they will begin to listen to their customers and also consider the impact their companies are having on the environment. The concept of the event fulfils all the above objectives, supermarkets and customers are beginning to listen and are starting to change.
We have also found staff at shops where events have been staged have been very supportive of the events.

2. These kind of attacks could breed resentment towards the movement.
The events are completely peaceful and civilised, shopping is unwrapped and the plastic collected OUTSIDE the store so as not to cause disruption at the checkout. There is no ‘shaming or making other shoppers feel guilty’! The blood is on all of our hands, s/use plastic has become an inescapable part of modern society. The focus is on simply highlighting the overuse of plastic packaging and at the same time educating people on the problems it is causing.

3. The people who make stocking decisions likely aren’t in the store. & 4. Reach out to people with actual power in conjunction with this

No they probably aren’t at the store, however we’re guessing that when an event makes headline news, which they have done, and global news networks such the bbc and cnn start to cover the stories, which they have, the people in charge just may pay attention? Not to mention the petitions signed by their customers being sent to head office, and the exposure and discussion provoked on social media.

Finally Your point in the comments was: The purchasing of plastic-wrapped items just to discard them is mind-boggling to me and there are better ways to advocate.
No one is buying products just to then take off the packaging! You are missing the point here, People carrying out their weekly shop are encouraged to remove the packaging in a form of protest, they are buying the food they need as normal and taking this home with them.

For more information on or to clear up any other questions regarding the movement please visit
Many Thanks

    Polly · August 26, 2018 at 7:20 pm

    Thanks for the information; my opinion is still very much the same.

    The great thing about zero waste and activism is people can have different opinions and still work effectively toward a similar goal.

Plastic Attack · August 26, 2018 at 8:22 pm

Thanks for your reply, and we respect your opinion. It would be great if could you please help anyone interested in learning more about the P/Attack movement and events by reincluding our url which has been removed from our original comment. Many thanks!

Susan Crawford · October 3, 2018 at 8:17 pm

I 100% agree with everything you said in this blog Polly! It’s not the cashiers fault that they use plastic bags. If you want to make a change, you need to speak to the higher ups. The Cashiers can’t do anything to change it, and most of the time neither can the manager.

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