Out of sight, out of mind? Do plastic waste exports encourage plastics consumption?

From turtles eating plastic bags to beaches covered in plastic waste – many of us have seen the shocking images of plastic pollution. Despite the known issues surrounding plastic waste, per capita consumption of plastic continues to rise all over the world, especially in high income countries. Recent research suggests that plastic consumption may be influenced by the export of plastic waste, as it plastic waste turns into a “out of sight, out of mind” problem.

Have you ever noticed that plastic is everywhere around us? From coffee-to-go cups, shrink-wrapped vegetables at the supermarket or a bottle of shampoo – plastic is a constant companion in most of our daily lives.

Some of our consumer goods, such as take out containers, have a lifespan of only a few minutes. Others, such as cars or furniture, are usually around for much longer. Nevertheless, most of these items end up needing to be disposed of at some point. Especially consumer items of short lifespan have come under increasing scrutiny, as the fast-moving-consumer-goods (FMCG) sector is among the biggest culprits for the current plastic waste problem.

Plastic waste beach

Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

Poor management of plastic waste can have detrimental effects on the environment and climate. Did you know that a staggering eight million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year? Trapped by currents, part of it ends up in floating gyres such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where it poses an immediate threat to marine animals. Furthermore, as plastic decomposes in salty water and on land, microplastics become a severe threat to both the environment and our health.

Why is it so difficult to use less plastic?

Despite increasing awareness of the problems caused by plastic waste, many people seemingly find it difficult to cut down on plastic in their daily lives. How about yourself? Have you ever tried to reduce your plastic waste? How did it go?

If cutting down on plastic waste comes easy to you, great! If you find it difficult, you are like most people – using less plastic is not easy! There are various reasons that contribute to the continued use of plastic. First and foremost, plastic is a cheap and convenient packaging material. Second, plastic-free alternatives are often either still lacking or a lot more expensive, which may discourage people from opting for those environmentally-friendlier options. Last, in many countries, we are used to well-established local recycling systems that free us consumers from our mental guilt of consumption. A recent study took a closer look at how waste management, more specifically plastic waste exports are related to our plastic consumption.

Plastic waste exports & plastic consumption

Oftentimes, plastic waste is exported from high-income to low-income countries, creating an artificially cleaner local environment in the country of export. This is where the problem lies. While the countries exporting their waste get to enjoy less polluted environments, the burden of mismanaged plastic waste is simply shifted to the countries importing the waste. Event though the import and recycling of plastic can be a lucrative industry, plastic waste will still end up polluting the environment if the destination country cannot manage the waste effectively, either due to poor policies or limited capacity. In the country of export on the other hand, plastic waste it is easily forgotten and dismissed once it is no longer visible: plastic waste turns into a “out of sight – out of mind” problem.

Plastic waste

Photo by Jasmin Sessler on Unsplash

Just imagine this for a moment. It’s a regular day and you are getting a coffee-to-go on your way to work. After taking your last sips of coffee, you throw away your cup in one of the bins at the side of the road. Do you every think about what happens to that coffee cup? Probably not.

Barnes, the author of the study, explains this with the help of construal level theory. The theory posits that the greater the “psychological distance” between the self and other instances such as objects, persons or events, the more likely people are to think of this instance in abstract terms. In the case of plastic waste, the less waste is visible, the less you will perceive it as a problem, even if you reside in one of the countries that actually create the majority of plastic waste. Believing that one’s plastic waste is well-managed, can thereby drive up plastic consumption as it does not seem to be an issue.


Where do we go from here?

As more and more countries reject plastic waste imports, it is becoming clear that simply shipping one’s waste to another country is not a sustainable and viable long-term solution. Instead, we need innovation in plastic alternatives, increase recycling rates of all materials (including those that are barely recycled so far) and shift our own mindset with regard to plastic. While plastic certainly has its place and use in today’s world (such as in the medical field), there are lots of times when we certainly can cut it out of our lives. Next time you put those kiwis in a plastic bag in the supermarket, just think about it for a second – do you really need that plastic bag?


Further reading & resources

  • Barnes, S. J. (2019). Out of sight, out of mind: Plastic waste exports, psychological distance and consumer plastic purchasing. Global Environmental Change58, 101943. [Link]

Leave a Reply