Have you eaten a bag of chips today? Ordered takeaway? Bought your favourite shampoo? All of these tasks have one thing in common – plastic. Plastic is embedded in our everyday life from cleaning the house to the food we eat. We produce 368 million tonnes of plastic waste every year. That’s more than the weight of the entire human population. If current trends continue, by 2050, our oceans could contain more plastic than fish. Plastic is the human health crisis no one is talking about. It causes long-lasting and irreversible harm at every step of its production.

Chemicals used to produce plastic contain toxins that impair the immune system among other effects to the skin, eyes and brain. Once plastics – and their smaller form – microplastics  and nanoplastics – reach the environment, it contaminates humans and food chains. Microplastics accumulate in soil, water supplies and aquatic life, exposing humans to inhale or ingest the harmful product. As plastic particles degrade, its toxins leach into surrounding areas while burning plastic releases hydrochloric acid that causes respiratory problems. To top it all off 90% of plastics are not recycled.

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the life cycle of plastic and health

In the last decade, climate campaigns have alerted people to the danger of plastic and human health.  Global campaigns, such as Rethink Plastic and Stop Plastic Pollution!, spearheaded initiatives from plastic bans to local clean-ups. Media stories of fish dying from plastic consumption and the campaign Beat the Microbead by Plastic Soup Foundation about microplastics in cosmetics have raised public concern. In order to drive people to action – reducing plastic use or disposing responsibly – campaigns must target communication based on their perceptions and levels of awareness and interest.

The Use of Big Data For More Understanding

Quilt.AI and the Plastic Soup Foundation collaborated on using digital insights to understand people’s perceptions and interest in plastic and human health. We examined 173 keywords and 1,500 searches from the Netherlands and the U.K. to answer – what are growing interests in plastic and human health? What do people already know? How can we garner further action or interest?

plastic & health diagram

This is what we found:

1. People are aware – but they want to know more. 

In both countries, people are searching for advanced knowledge on the effects of plastic and human health. This is evident in the type of keywords that grew and refer to specific types of plastic. Overall, there is an increase in searches for “ill effects of polythene”  and “polypropylene health hazards” by 191% and 177%, respectively.

A deeper dive in each country shows different trends.

In The Netherlands:

In the United Kingdom, searches are more specific to types of plastic, potentially demonstrating that the population is seeking more detailed information:

2. Interest tripled in the last year 

Overall, searches related to plastic and human health tripled from 19% in 2018-2019 to 68% in 2019-2020. Interest related searches had the highest average that grew between 2018 to 2020. Keywords went from an average of 1160 searches in 2018 to 1419 in 2019 and then 1994 in 2020. Awareness related searches followed a similar growth with 285 in 2018 to 395 in 2019 and 1146 in 2020.

growth of searches for plastic and human health graph

Beat the Microbead: The Most Popular Campaign in the Netherlands

The Netherlands had search patterns that reflected interest about plastics and human health are more dominant. In fact searches grew from 22% in 2018-2019 to 73% in 2019-2020. This is potentially due to ongoing advocacy efforts.

We studied search trends for several hashtags and identified the highest trending ones as #nomoreplastic#plasticdiet and #beatthemicrobead. Based on our analysis, the most popular hashtags differed between the two countries.

In the case of the Netherlands, Plastic Soup Foundation’s #beatthemicrobead campaign was the most popular, followed by the #nomoreplastic. The former had an average search volume of 199 from April 2020 to March 2021 while the latter had 77. The #beatthemicrobead campaign also increased by 482% during the 1-year period.

hashtags trends netherlands

In the UK, More and More People Demand Action From Industry & Government

In the U.K. searches for plastic and human health increased by 41% in the last year. On social media, hashtags such as #plasticfree and #beachclean were common with many sharing pictures of plastic on beaches. Compared to the Netherlands, it was also common for people to advertise local businesses that made plastic-free products such as coasters or jewellery. Furthermore, people called out companies for a lack of plastic-free packaging and the government for inaction on a plastic ban.

In the top three hashtags we studied, #nomoreplastic was the most popular in the U.K. The hashtag had an average search volume of 112 from April 2020 to March 2021. It grew by 31% during the 1-year period. This also suggests that the type of content and messaging that resonated with them the most are on the reduction of plastic usage and need to live a sustainable lifestyle.

hashtags trends uk

3. What’s next?

In The Netherlands and the U.K., campaigns around plastic pollution have established a level of awareness among the population about its harm. Search behaviour shows growing interest in the specific types of plastic and how to reduce plastic use. These digital insights can inform next steps and actions:

Power to the People

Plastic pollution is a global health crisis that requires urgent attention. Though countries like the U.K. and Netherlands have made progress in raising awareness and initiatives to tackle plastic pollution – more can be done. People are turning to the Internet for information and advice on how they can make a difference.

Climate campaigns are also leveraging the Internet to disseminate information at scale and mobilise people. Organisations and climate allies can use digital insights from search behaviour to decipher growing interests and how to capitalise those so governments are held accountable and people are driven to act. In order to prevent plastic pollution from overwhelming the Earth and its resources, now is the time for people to take one step further towards a greener future.

Featured image by: EO Photographer Vincent Kneefel 

This article was originally published on Plastic Soup Foundation, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org.