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The Microplastics/Human Health Connection

Tru Earth’s Anita Spiller shares results from a survey assessing consumer awareness of the link between single-use plastics and negative impacts to human health.

Tru Earth’s line of concentrated laundry detergent strips is packaged in plastic-free paperboard envelopes.
Tru Earth’s line of concentrated laundry detergent strips is packaged in plastic-free paperboard envelopes.

Anita Spiller, director of ESG for Tru Earth, a maker of concentrated detergent strips packed in a paperboard envelope, parses results from a recent survey assessing consumer awareness of the link between single-use plastics and negative impacts to human health, specifically from microplastics.

Packaging World:

Tru Earth’s survey results indicate that a majority of U.S. adults are aware of the connection between single-use plastics and their negative impact on human health, although only 18% can explain why it occurs. What do you take from these results?

Anita Spiller:

In the first question, we looked at the difference between awareness and understanding. The survey shows that 67% of Americans recognize that plastics have a negative impact on health, but that doesn’t mean they truly understand what that impact is. It’s similar to saying, I know that cancer is bad, but I don’t know what impact it would have on me per se. And that’s the piece we’re trying to get to: From an individual perspective, is there understanding and awareness? Because only one in five can actually explain or articulate why these impacts matter, and we believe that understanding is the catalyst to changing behavior.

Survey 1

Results from a second question show that approximately half of U.S. adults are aware of how plastic pollution leads to health problems, including the breathing (49%) and ingestion (53%) of microplastics, as well as hazardous emissions in drinking water (49%). How does that align with the earlier results?

So question one assesses consumers’ existing knowledge, whereas question two is trying to help those who were surveyed draw the connection to themselves as an individual. So they might have this general knowledge about microplastics, but they haven’t yet made a connection to, “Oh gosh, that’s bad for my health.”

Survey 2

Were you surprised at the number of people who are aware of microplastics?

I think it’s a buzzword; many people are talking about it, and they hear it in the news. And I think that it doesn’t necessarily equate to fully comprehending the impact single-use plastics are having on human health. I was at an event this weekend that kind of brought it home for me. I was speaking to a number of young people, and after I spoke, a teenager came up and said, “I have this polar fleece sweater that I absolutely love, and I’ve been doing all of this reading about the amount of microplastics that are shed from my sweater. What am I going to do about it?”

And I was like, wow, she was maybe 13 years old. She was asking about microplastics. And it wasn’t enough for me to give the standard answers, which are to wash it less, spot clean it as opposed to putting it into a washing machine, or use Tru Earth detergent, because we’re going to shed fewer microplastics. That wasn’t enough for her. She really wanted to understand, “Can I capture my microplastic?” And so we had a great conversation about, yeah, you could put a filter on your laundry machine, and you could capture it, but we don’t yet have a solution for what we’re going to do with what you’re capturing. And so we had this great conversation about maybe you’re the person who’s going to innovate. And then it led to a beautiful conversation about what’s the next sweater she’s going to buy, because maybe she’ll buy a wool sweater.

It was amazing. It’s one of those things where I get the opportunity to go out and speak once in a while, and it just fills my cup because I get so excited, especially talking to young people who really do, I think, have higher level of knowledge and a higher connection to what matters for them. And understanding that this is going to take collective, unified, strategic action and education to better inform consumers and others. It’s that deep understanding we’re going for.

So it’s not some funky lifestyle trend. It’s actually trying to solve the issue. And the eradication of the production of microplastics is going to require a systems change. We’re not just going to be able to recycle our way out of this. We’re not going to be able to just go to a thrift store more often. We have to turn that plastic tap off.

What was Tru Earth’s goal with this study?

Surveys are a way for us to get the pulse on what consumers are aware of and whether they’re understanding the issues related to single-use plastics and what I love calling “short-lived plastics.” I do think many consumers understand single-use as in the case of, “I used this takeout container for less than 30 minutes, and now it’s going to exist on our planet for hundreds of years.” But I think it’s the short-lived plastic, like a household cleaning product container that you might use for a few weeks or a couple of months, that they don’t think of. So we’re trying to educate our consumers on all the different kinds of plastics.

We regularly talk to our customers and our partners about our ecosystem, but the survey is one way for us to get the data and to understand which avenues we need to be entering into in terms of education, because it’s critical, I think, for all of us to provide education around the topic.

The third question measures consumers’ willingness to make changes in the products they use. Fifty-two percent said they’d be willing to change their household products packaged in plastic in favor of plastic-free alternatives, while 59% said they’d be willing to actively try to avoid all single-use/short-lived plastics where possible. If they are aware of the negative health impacts of single-use plastics, why haven’t they made changes already?

The biggest takeaway for me is that change is hard. When it comes to laundry detergent specifically, the vast majority of people use the laundry detergent that was used in their family-of-origin home. It’s mom that’s sending children out into the world—whether that’s off to college or to their first job or into their first apartment—and so they buy what mom bought. And so it’s hard for them to make a change because this is what mom uses.

Survey 3

It’s also an issue of education, and that’s why we prioritize educating young people, mostly between grades four to eight, because they take that education back into the home, and they can make that change in their home environment.

And then there’s cost, right? Environmentally friendly products generally have a higher price point. Oftentimes, those who are most impacted by the climate crisis are the least able to make decisions by using their purchasing power. Whereas those of us with privilege, we can make that choice, we can refuse the plastic.

I’m excited to say that Tru Earth has not increased their prices since we launched in this great inflationary period, and we’re about to release our first decrease. We’re going to respond to what’s happening in the market. We’re going to say, “Clean clothes are a human right, and we want to make sure that we’re participating in that and we’re helping people be able to make that choice.” When you’re looking at a website or you’re standing at a retailer, we want folks to be able to choose the product that is better for the planet, and they can’t do that if we’re at a higher price point all the time.

How is Tru Earth helping those at a lower income or education level to better understand the plastic/human health connection and to say no to plastic packaging?

We have an in-school program that talks about ocean plastics, and why it’s important for us to turn the plastic tap off. And we’ve educated about 2,500 students in our Ocean Heroes program.

We also have a huge donation program. It’s really critical for us that we are providing laundry products to food banks and shelters, women’s programs, indigenous communities, and refugee centers, and in crisis situations like wars across the globe. It’s the number-two item requested by food banks across the nation. We also have a partnership with Feeding America. We just did quite a large deal with them, and we will have a recurring program with them. And so for certain parts of the country, when clients come in, we will have laundry detergent on their shelves all the time.

We just hit the 30-million loads mark. We’ve given 30 million loads of laundry away since the pandemic began in the early part March of 2020. It’s an amazing number, and it’s first-quality product. We’re not giving our damaged goods away. We’re not giving what is ripped or torn or broken. We are giving first-quality product, which is important. If you are suffering from poverty, you have every right to make sure that your family has clean clothes. That’s a key part of our strategy.

    See related article, “Tru Earth’s Detergent Strips Eliminate the Weight of Water.”

We recently did a survey with some of our donation partners asking them, “What is it that you need?” They responded that they need more environmentally friendly products because customers get a taste of this with the laundry detergent, and they come back and say, “What else have you got?”

Donations also include an education piece, because we’re providing education for the folks that are running these programs, especially when it’s ending up in a food hamper. When it comes to our product, without the education around it, it’s hard for folks to recognize that it’s laundry detergent. So we’re very thankful to all the people who are operating these food banks and shelters and programs, because they’re on board, and they understand, and they are helping to educate consumers that there really is a better way.

I also found it interesting that women seemed more willing to actively try to avoid all single-use and short-lived plastics than men (63% vs. 54%). Why do you think that is?

I think it’s because the mass majority of purchase decisions that are made in the home are still made by women. They’re not always doing the purchasing. I, for one, make the grocery list, and my husband goes out and does the grocery shopping, but I’m very specific. But I think it’s true, right? Women are still making the purchase decisions. So women are still our target demographic. We know that they are the ones who are going to make those changes in the home.

I don’t think it’s that men are unwilling, I think they’re just not in that position to make that choice. So I wouldn’t want to skew that result to say that men don’t care, or men care less, or men aren’t willing to make that change. I do think they are willing.

And also, the question was, “actively try to avoid,” right? If I have the choice between one or two, I’m actively going to say no to the product in the plastic container and yes to the glass container, for example. So I think that “actively try to avoid” is key in that interview question.

I’m kind of surprised the number isn’t higher, actually, because in many surveys, the number of people who say, “Yes, I would buy a particular product if I knew that it was in more environmentally friendly packaging,” is really high, but that doesn’t actually show up in the store environment because of the cost. But people seem to be willing, if cost wasn’t a factor.

I also think it’s a complicated and busy aisle. If you haven’t been in a laundry or household cleaning products aisle in a while, it’s really hard to find the environmentally friendly products. Many times they’re in a specialty section, which we actually know doesn’t work. People don’t actively go to that section. They’re choosing amongst what we’re calling “big laundry.” So if we’re not at least in the offering with big laundry, we’re never going to have a chance at the game.

   Read about a new online platform from A Plastic Planet that educates designers on plastic-free solutions.

What that means for us, again, is education at point of purchase. But it’s tricky. We have a really small product size, so if you put this on the shelf, versus plastic, plastic, plastic, plastic, plastic, it’s really hard to see. And so, we’re negotiating. We’re having conversations with retailers such as, “What would it mean to put the environmentally friendly packaging at eye level?” What would it mean to offer us seven SKUs, so there’s a section within big laundry for it actually to be able to stand out, as opposed to just one SKU, which might get dwarfed by the rest of the plastic?”

Were there other things in addition to what we’ve already discussed that really surprised you in terms of the responses?

I might’ve been slightly surprised, and maybe even encouraged, that the gap between the different regions across the country was not more significant. I really expected the West Coast to be way ahead of the Central part when it came to being aware of the connection between plastic and human health (74% vs. 66%). I really thought that the West Coast might’ve been more like 90%. And so, there weren’t the discrepancies across the country that I would have expected.

So I’m super happy about that, that it isn’t just one particular state that is raising the flag for being environmentally friendly, or really driving this movement forward. I think especially in the Midwest. I thought the Midwest would be far less, and it wasn’t.

So what do you plan to do with this information now that you have it, in terms of your strategy moving forward?

For us, it validated some of the things that we did know that we are going to lean into. And I think what we know to be true now is that folks really are concerned about the connection between single-use plastic and human health, and that, while there is some understanding about microplastics and the effect on people’s lives, there isn’t enough. And so, we need to amp up our education, we need to amp up our messaging, and we need to continue to amp up our donations program.

We also have to continue to educate our customers, our #TruChangeMakers, because we know they’re already willing, and we can offer them more products to do their part. It’s tool we’re going to be able to use to continue to tell the story and help people understand the impact this is having on their lives and help people make that choice.

For me, it’s at that point when the product is empty. So, when you’re standing in your kitchen, or in your bathroom, or in your laundry room and say, “I’m out of this product, maybe now I can make the change.” Because we don’t want folks throwing product out. We want them at the point of empty to be able to begin to make that change. And how do we give them the tools to educate that this particular change will not have the impact that a plastic would have on your own personal human health? I believe that’s how we’re going to break through to folks.

We’ve been trying and talking about eradicating plastics from oceans, and our partnership with Ocean Wise is doing some really good work in cleaning up shorelines across the country. But that’s not enough for folks, until we’re able to bring it home. And the thing that most folks are worried about right now is our health, the health of their families.

Anita Spiller, Director of ESG for Tru EarthAnita Spiller, Director of ESG for Tru EarthI think the other thing the survey might help us do is to continue to innovate our products. It will help us keep our nose to the grindstone about ensuring that our ingredients are healthy for the planet and good for people’s human health. We have always thought that, but as we try to transition away from all of the things that are bad for us, it will keep us on the straight and narrow, keep us on the path we know is important for consumers. And I believe one small step for a lot of people can have a really big impact, and that’s all we’re trying to do, is just one small choice, one small step. We’ve got a long way to go, but we need everyone to work together.  PW

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