A marketing researcher says "plastic shaming" – where single-use plastics would be seen as offensive as blowing cigarette smoke in a baby's face – could help drive a green consumer shift.
The suggestion comes as a major new report highlights how a rubbish truck load of plastic waste has been dumped into the world's oceans every 38 seconds in the past decade.
Experts have also called for more consistent and clear labelling of plastics, waste infrastructure to support recycling efforts, and more innovative design to allow for greater recovery and reuse.
The Royal Society Te Apārangi's report, released today, sets out how plastics are made, used and disposed of, and how they are now accumulating in our oceans and threatening our health.
New Zealand has a high per-capita use of plastics and, like the rest of the world, large amounts of plastic pollution were being observed - even in remote places like Stewart Island's Mason Bay.
The amount of plastic produced each year had doubled over the last 20 years and was still growing rapidly, despite growing concerns about plastic pollution and climate change.
The report outlined how consumers had thrown away three quarters of the volume of plastics ever produced – and too much of that was entering our oceans.
"It has been estimated that the equivalent of a garbage truck-load of plastic waste has been dumped into the ocean every 38 seconds over the past decade," report co-author and University of Canterbury environmental chemist Associate Professor Sally Gaw said.
"Unless we do something, it is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.
"In addition to entrapping and killing animals, plastic waste in the ocean can provide rafts for invasive species to move around the world and plastic debris has also been associated with decreased health of coral species. However, most of the concern is now focused on microplastics."
The problem with most of today's plastic waste in the environment was the conditions didn't allow for the plastics to break down into their constituent materials - carbon dioxide and water - which could then be used as a food source or building blocks for organisms to grow.
"This means that the majority of waste plastic that enters the environment remains as waste plastic," Gaw said.
"Ocean waves, sunlight or abrasion from sand or rocks can break the plastic into smaller and smaller fragments that can then be ingested or breathed in by wildlife on land or in the sea. Humans are also consuming microplastics."
The limitations on the number of times that plastic could be recycled, along with the difficulties of recycling products made of different types of plastics, meant many were now calling for a radical shake up of how we design, produce, use and consider the end of life for plastics.
'A moral issue'
Auckland University of Technology marketing lecturer Dr Sommer Kapitan believed plastic use was becoming "a moral issue".
"Like cigarette smoking once was, using plastic is an addictive, unavoidable part of our consumer landscape," Kapitan said.
"Until our plastic dependency rises to the level of moral outrage that drives regulatory and social norm change, our fixation on the convenience of plastics will continue unabated."
She said the issue was twofold: consumers cared about the environment, but when they buy, they were still driven by habits, convenience, and the desire to look good.
"So first, we must tackle habits," she said.
The single best predictor of a future behaviour is a past behaviour. The more our behaviours shift, even subtlety, via regulation or social norm, the more habits change.
"That means that the Government's bold step to regulate single-use plastic bags begins to shift our habits. Now we carry reusable bags or purchase sturdy plastic or fibre reusable bags at the shops.
"Then, we must raise the appeal of shunning plastic. We need reusable goods to be sexy. Social recognition is a subtle but pervasive force in this battle."
She suggested loyalty programmes for those who disdain single-use plastic, earning discounts for every single-use container avoided, rewards for remembering non-single-use takeaway containers.
"Many cafes already reward folks who bring reusable coffee cups, and shops charge for takeaway containers. People proudly display metal and bamboo reusable straws at the office, in restaurants, in the park for picnics.
"Finally, these forces together should form a new social norm: plastic shaming. Carrying and using plastic should become as objectively gross as blowing smoke in a baby's face. We should all be outraged."
But she acknowledged that consumers faced a tough battle.
"It is hard to decide to forgo a coffee on a busy morning if we forget to bring a reusable cup. We are all busy, we are all juggling. But that's what got us into this plastic dependency in the first place."
Another marketing expert, Dr Joya Kemper of the University of Auckland, said that, along with a change in regulations and business practices, there also needed to be a shift in consumer behaviour.
"Stores in New Zealand, most notably, GoodFor Wholefoods Refillery, allow you to bring your own containers and fill them with everything from tea, to baking, to laundry needs," Kemper said.
"Even some New World stores allow you to refill your EcoStore bottles. This will be the new normal and changes the way we shop, and it will require us to be more conscious of what we need to bring to the supermarket."