Case Study: Consumer Outreach NGOs

The list of NGOs working on consumer outreah to tackle the plastic pollution problem seems endless... but are some organisations more effective? And are others misleading?

This is one of the case studies we're creating on different companies that are working in the plastic pollution space. We're hoping to highlight the good and bad examples of what kind of work is effective in solving this massive problem, keeping in mind that there are a lot of subcategories in this issue!

This case study focuses on organisations working to rally consumers to take action on plastic pollution, whether it be via education, advocacy, volunteering, etc. When it comes to organisations working on plastic pollution, there are many many examples of charities working towards this goal including Plastic Oceans, Ocean Conservancy, and the Surfrider Foundation.

How it Works

Plastic Oceans’ work is pretty much what you’d expect for a non-profit organisation, although it’s skewed towards educating people.

One of the primary ways it does that is through filming doumentaries about different aspects of the plastic pollution problem, from educational films for kids to films summarising the problem to films showing the impact it’s having on rural communities. In addition to these films, Plastic Oceans also creates other educational content including infographics, hosts workshops to talk about the problem at schools, and sponsors events to attract media attention to the issue (Source).

Examples of Plastic Oceans' infographics and other resources (Source)

The approach at Ocean Conservancy and the Surfrider Foundation are a little more focused on advocating for policies and getting volunteers to take action.

Ocean Conservancy often sponsors research in different areas of marine conservation, advocates for sustainable government policies to protect the oceans, and organises volunteers for causes like beach cleanups (Source). As for the Surfrider Foundation, their efforts mainly focus on education through community groups as well as activism for government policy (Source).

What are the Benefits?

Some key advantages of this work are that they bring the plastic pollution problem from research papers with limited outreach to a major global problem in public perception. Additionally, this draws a lot more individuals to take action on the issue in some form or another, whether it be via volunteering, advocacy, or changing personal behaviour.

In regards to their advocacy campaigns, these organisations have had some impact in creating government policy change. For instance, the Surfrider Foundation and other organisations successfully supported a ban of plastic bags in California in 2016 (Source). Or Ocean Conservancy has an entire program dedicated to government lobbying (Source). This doesn’t necessarily mean all their advocacy is effective, but it does have an impact on government legislation.

Then, these nonprofits have contributed a lot to the educational resources available on this problem. These resources can range from high-level overviews that have large outreach (like Plastic Oceans’ documentaries) or be very in-depth and specific research on issues that we would not have data on otherwise (like several of Ocean Conservancy’s reports).

Finally, the volunteer efforts led by these organisations have certainly had a broad (although not necessarily effective/scalable) impact. For example, Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas program has led to 147,500 tonnes of trash being collected by 16,250,000 volunteers over the decades it’s been running (Source). This is a very large impact in contrast to other organisations working to clean marine plastic pollution (but very very small compared to the overall problem — Source)

Ocean Conservancy’s data on its most common collected items in 2017 (Source)(Source)

What are the Limitations?

Let’s start off by addressing the caveats I kept adding to the results these organisations have achieved. The first major limitation is that although several organisations have convinced consumers to pursue several courses of action when it comes to plastic pollution, a lot fewer actually pursue action that is effective (that effectively addresses the root causes of the plastic pollution problem to create lasting change).

For instance, when it comes to supporting policies like bans on plastic bags, these policies might inadvertently HARM the environment because reusable bags require a much larger energy/resource input than single-use bags (Source). Or when it comes to organising beach cleanups, they might not address a large portion of overall plastic waste or prevent more from entering the oceans (Source).

Although not all consumer outreach organisations target ineffective issues all the time, it’s surprising to see how many initiatives that receive the most attention don’t actually target the root causes of plastic pollution. We think there’s a lot of room for more effective action on the issue.

Another key limitation is that changing consumer behaviour is somewhat limited when it comes to ways to make a dent in overall plastic pollution. You can think of this anecdotally — one family starting to recycle doesn’t do as much as an entire factory switching their recycling policy.

Or to describe this with data, while there is lots of speculation about how much waste municipalities produce (and what percentage of municipal waste is from residential recycling vs. commercial recycling) vs. how much waste industrial sources produce (Source), it is 100% reasonable that industrial sources produce a LOT more.

But it does mean that effective forms of consumer outreach would engage consumers to work WITH commercial and industrial stakeholders to make large-scale changes. This is starting to occur, but is still a key gap in several organisations (Source).

Does this Area need More Attention?

Well, there are already a lot of organisations that do this work. While many of those organisations still have room to improve, we don’t think new effort is best allocated on this issue.

Ideally, we would see changes in the work of existing consumer outreach organisations to ensure their efforts have significant impact (via changes such as educating consumers on the root causes of the problem or funding initiatives that tackle these root causes) and to enable different stakeholders to come together to address this issue (via actions such as lobbying for extended producer responsibility).

Asides from that, there are also other aspects of the plastic pollution issue that need more attention (for those just starting to work on this). We think some of the most important causes to support include:

  1. Helping create more environmentally friendly standards for informal waste management (Source)
  2. Speeding up the cost-effective development of alternative plastics (Source)

We hope to inspire more research and action on areas such as these, as well as to support consumer outreach organisations in further improving the effectiveness of their work on this issue!

Further Reading: