Consumer concerns around single-use plastics in the food and grocery industries have eased slightly during the global pandemic, according to a new study from the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.
Compared with the first wave of the study, conducted in May 2019, the most recent study (conducted July 10-14) found that the percentage of respondents actively shopping for non-plastic packaged goods essentially remained the same during the pandemic, rising slightly from 58% to 60%.
But the new study also detected a “small but measurable” decline in concern about both the environmental impacts of plastics (which fell from 91% to 87%) and consumer motivation to avoid them (which fell from 89% to 85%). The declines were steeper among men, the study found.
More than one-quarter of respondents (29%) said they feel they are buying more plastic-packaged goods during the pandemic, with women more likely than men to purchase (34% versus 25%). Young people, too, are buying more, with 47% of respondents 18-25 and 34% of respondents 36-39 reporting more plastic consumption.
The study authors attribute the rise to younger consumers possibly ordering more restaurant foods and meal kits. Cost might also be a factor since environmentally friendly packaging could carry a higher price tag. Half of respondents indicated they are more price conscious during COVID, particularly those with lower incomes or receiving CERB.
In the pre-COVID study, 90% of respondents supported stronger regulations around plastics and 70% supported a total ban on single-use plastics. Those numbers have fallen by 11% and 12% respectively during the pandemic. The study also noted men and women have diverged on their thinking around single-use plastics, noting that support among men in particular is “down sharply.”
Robert Kitz, the lab’s research associate and the study’s lead author, said the pandemic has “clearly altered” consumer opinion of plastic packaging. “While tighter regulations and even bans had once looked like near-consensus policy options, that support is now eroded,” he said.
The study also found food safety has become a priority during the pandemic, with 55% of respondents saying they are more concerned about food safety. Women, urbanites and people living in B.C. and the Atlantic provinces are particularly sensitive to safety issues, the study concluded.
Forty per cent of respondents identified new safety concerns during COVID as either very or extremely important to their decision about purchasing plastic packaged goods, with concern rising among female, older and lower-income respondents.