Look outside. It's too dark inside

Why addressing the plastic pollution crisis requires us to focus on ourselves

May 23, 2023
Picking plastic bottles

If plastic pollution is caused by human activity, we must invest more time and effort to understand human behaviours and how to change them.

Once, Wayne Dyer told a story. A person lost his car key in his living room. At that time, the power went off and the house turn pitch-dark. He fumbled and rummaged to look for his key in the darkness but failed. He looked out of the window and found the streetlights were still on. He thought to himself: I will never find the car key; it’s too dark inside here, and I should go out and search there in the light. So he ran out to search for his car key around his car on the street. His neighbour saw him and asked if he needed help. He said he lost his car key, and they searched together and failed. His neighbour then asked him where he could have possibly lost it. He said it’s in the living room. The neighbour said why search here; he answered “because it’s too dark to search inside”.

This story captures the biggest concern that I have about plastic pollution: if we have focused our effort in the wrong place, can we ever find solutions to address plastic pollution?

Plastic crisis: Looking outside
"As the world was molded to meet the needs of Homo Sapiens, habitats were destroyed, and species went extinct. Our once green and blue planet is becoming a concrete and plastic shopping centre."
Yuval Noah Harari in ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’

Plastic was once touted as one of the greatest inventions in materials. Since its introduction to the world in the 1960s, plastic has now become a pollution crisis. The plastic waste tide is rising in front of our eyes, and no one can deny it. According to an Economist survey, plastic pollution ranks as the number one threat to ocean sustainability by the public. 

We have done a lot of work assessing the status of plastic pollution, in terms of projecting the trends, including production, use and disposal. There has been an increasing number of scientific studies to show plastic in water, food, human blood and even placenta. Meticulous research has been conducted on microplastics and nanoplastics, and how car tire wear is a major source of microplastics. Numerous documentaries and awareness raising materials have been produced focusing on the havoc wreaked by human activities on our ocean and marine life.

Such hard science focus on understanding plastics pollution is important to provide evidence-based development support and to inform policy making. However, if plastic pollution is caused by human behaviours, we should invest more time and effort to understand and improve human behaviours and societal actions by experiment, analysis and design.

Turning our mind’s eyes inward
"Our tendency is to believe that while things are not going well outside of us, everything is fine within ourselves. We have accumulations of suffering and conflict within us. We have a war going on inside."
Thich Nhat Han in ‘You Are Here’

Thales said “the most difficult thing in life is to know yourself.” Unfortunately, our environment and development work has predominantly focused on issues external to analysis of human nature, behaviour and consciousness. Probably just in Wayne Dyer’s story, we have not really focused on understanding human behaviours and human consciousness, because it is too difficult. However, if human development is our ultimate goal, shouldn’t our effort be focused on analysing, experimenting and evolving our behaviours and collective consciousness? It is hard, but we must start.

Planet Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years, way before human existence, and will continue long after human beings become extinct. Nature has tremendous ability to restore and regenerate without human interventions. The environmental crisis we are facing is ultimately a humanity crisis. We must focus on how human mind operates, what drives our behaviours and group actions, and how to foster benign relationships between human beings and nature. The international development community can lead such a change of focus with some small steps.

Develop and implement behaviour change initiatives

Behaviour scientists have long noted that awareness of a problem does not lead to behaviour change. Harvard health experts did an experiment that found getting people to drink one extra glass of water per day takes two months of constant reminders and techniques to change behaviours. Habits are at the root of behaviours and are extremely difficult change. We must engage psychologists, sociologists and neuroscientists in designing and implementing behaviour change initiatives to better understand human mind, behaviours and consciousness.

Understand and incorporate the analysis of hierarchy of human needs in environment and development work.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a theory of motivation which states that five categories of human needs dictate an individual's behaviour. Those needs are physiological needs, safety needs, love and belonging needs, esteem needs and self-actualization needs. In countries and communities where basic physiological needs including food and shelters are not met, attempts to reduce plastic pollution must include economic livelihoods activities. That is why using traditional local materials to replace plastics from mass production can be an effective means to achieve reduction plastic pollution while addressing local livelihoods concerns.

Human development should be about happiness and collective consciousness evolution.

International development work was in the past focusing only on economic development, and development practitioners are often trained in economics. Sustainable development was introduced as a new concept to encompass environmental and social aspects of development, in addition to economic development. As technology develops and productivity increases, human society has become wealthier than ever, but we have not become happier. Once basic physiological needs are met, human happiness is not correlated to material abundance. It is time to rethink what we mean by human development, which can help evolve human consciousness towards more balance in managing life and relationships between humans and nature. Our environment and development work should lead humanity towards mindfulness, self-understanding and self-awareness to cultivate inner balance, peace and happiness. 

Starting with a small win: Plastics and behaviour change lab
"A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step."
Lao Tsu, Ancient Chinese Philosopher

To support such a journey of self-understanding and self-management, UNDP is launching a plastics and behaviour change lab initiative in 10 countries. This initiative is informed by social behaviour theory, the broken windows theory. This theory argues that no matter how rich or poor a neighbourhood, one broken window would soon lead to many more windows being broken. Repair the broken windows quickly, in a day or a week, and vandals are much less likely to break more windows or do further damage. Similarly, clean up the sidewalk every day, and the tendency is that the rate of littering to be much less. A clean environment encourages good behaviours and human consciousness. It argues that physical environment influences human behaviours and can have a spill-over effects on other aspects of community life.

This initiative is designed to effect a small concrete change at community level, foster good behaviours to manage environmental surroundings and monitor changes over time. The initiative will conduct an experiment with the following measures:

  • Monthly clean-up day. Undertake a monthly clean-up day with the whole-of-society participation from community to cabinet. Unlike awareness-raising one-off clean-up campaigns, this clean-up initiative aims to shift littering behaviours and enhance human consciousness by implementing regular clean-up with strong government, business and civil society participation.
  • Improved collection system, community volunteering and patrolling to eliminate littering. After clean-up, it is important to conduct regular maintenance activities to preserve cleanness and reinforce collective behaviours towards clean environment.
  • Awareness campaign to eliminate non-essential single use plastics. Advocate for government to ban non-essential single-use plastics (starting with easy items such as shopping bags).
  • Support local ecological alternatives to plastics, and reuse and refill systems.
  • Policy dialogues organized by UNDP country offices and governments with private sectors, academia and civil society to improve plastics policies and regulations to stop pollution at its source.
  • Training, guidance and scientific monitoring of behaviour change over time.

Shifting human behaviours is extremely difficult. That is why we are starting with a simple experiment. We avoid complicated jargons and terminologies, and start with a behaviour that everyone can understand and participate in: cleaning up one’s own surroundings. 

We hope this initiative will help to shed light on our way forward.

A pile of old keys

As in the story of the lost key, environment and development work has predominantly focused on external factors. We have focused less on human behaviour and consciousness, because looking inside is difficult.

Photo: Unsplash/Samantha Lam