The role of microplastics in business: Perception and actions

Rylander, David
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Association of Collegiate Marketing Educators (ACME)

Humans have produced over eight billion tons of plastic, and an estimated 14 million tons of plastic enter our oceans each year (Woodward 2019). Businesses and consumers are largely aware of the pollution problems from plastic, but they are just recently learning more about the danger of microplastics. Microplastics are particles of plastic .5 – 5 mm in length and have been found in everything from water to air to animals and human excrement. Microplastics are used in all types of products, including cosmetics and clothing, and they are also generated from regular plastic packaging and products (Stephenson 2018). Studies have examined attitudes and behaviors regarding plastic bags (Ari and Yilmaz 2017) and impact of reusable bags on purchase behavior (Karmarkar and Bollinger 2015), but there is little or no research on business actions and consumer attitudes toward microplastics. Several businesses are trying to reduce plastic use, and some are even addressing the microplastic problem, but awareness is low in comparison to other environmental hazards (Ahlstrȍm 2018). This is a significant topic due to so many packaging and product components containing microplastics or capable of producing microplastics (Pontes and Nemeshanyi 2019). As consumers become more concerned about pollution and health, microplastic management could be a high-impact way for businesses to improve their environmental sustainability and appeal to the desires of consumers. Manufacturers are also becoming more liable for end-of-life management/disposal through extended producer responsibility actions (Turaga et al. 2019). Given the paucity of knowledge about microplastics and their potential effects (Stephenson 2018), this research study seeks to discover consumer awareness and attitudes regarding microplastics, along with possible business responses to reduce microplastic waste and develop messages to appeal to consumers. Research questions include: (1) What are consumers’ levels of awareness and responses to microplastic issues? (2) How are businesses responding to the growing problem of microplastic waste? (3) What actions and messages regarding microplastics will appeal to consumers? The first research question will be addressed with a survey of consumers to detect levels of awareness of microplastics, where microplastics can be found, and harmful effects of microplastics. This part of the study will be an exploratory look using scale items borrowed from similar research on consumer attitudes and behaviors toward environmental issues (e.g., Arli et al. 2017; Pawaskar et al. 2018; Robinot and Giannelloni 2009; Vasiljevic-Shikaleska et al. 2018). The second research question will be addressed with a case-based look at companies that are actively attacking the problem (e.g., SC Johnson), including their actions to reduce microplastics and their messaging to consumers. This will include some alternative solutions to reducing microplastics (e.g., Foschi and Bonoli 2019; Nguyen and Billen 2017; Paletta et al. 2019). The third research question will be addressed with the previously mentioned survey of consumers. Consumers will be asked to react to various actions and messages from businesses. Findings from this exploratory study will offer evidence of consumer awareness and attitudes toward microplastics, and businesses will have some better ideas for how to address microplastic problems in their supply chains and how to communicate most effectively to consumers about microplastics.

Article originally published in Academy of Collegiate Marketing Educators. English. Published online 2020.
Plastics pollution, Plastic particles, Environmental hazards
This is the abstract for a presentation that is available at Recommended citation: Rylander, D. (2020). The role of microplastics in business: Perception and actions. In Academy of Collegiate Marketing Educators. This item has been deposited in accordance with publisher copyright and licensing terms and with the author’s permission.