Reducing plastic waste is often proposed as an action item when it comes to sustainability. Since product packaging makes up almost the largest category of plastic waste (41%) in the United States, it makes sense that looking at alternative packaging materials or the use of warning labels may be one way to improve sustainability for agribusinesses.
Food & Resource Economics (FRE) graduate students and faculty published a new research study showing how consumer perception of plastic packaging may impact willingness to pay for food products.
For the newly published research, scientists studied consumer perception of eggs, egg cartons, and warning labels about the dangers of plastic waste.
The Impact of Single-Use Plastics
Plastic waste poses many threats to human, animal, and environmental health. For example, it can become a choking hazard for wildlife when not disposed of properly. In addition, as plastics break down into smaller microplastics, they can also pollute water supplies impacting human and animal health alike.
In 2019, 24% of United States citizens said they purchased products packaged in alternative materials to avoid buying single-use plastics.
The researchers hope this study can determine how packaging changes to include warning labels can benefit the environment by decreasing plastic use in the United States.
“There is a growing awareness among policymakers of the need to focus on the reduction in single-use plastics,” said Joanna van Asselt, lead author on the research paper. “Since there is no comprehensive U.S. federal legislation that governs single-use plastics, states and local jurisdictions are in charge of adopting laws and regulations. This has resulted in a contradictory patchwork of legislation across the U.S.”
Since 2014, eight states have enacted state-wide bans on single-use plastic bags (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2021). Vermont and Virginia have also banned polystyrene containers packed in the state. At the same time, however, 17 states have made it illegal for municipalities to place bans or fees on plastics (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2021).
“Given this regulatory environment, policymakers will have to find ways other than bans and fees to stem the flow of plastic waste,” van Asselt said. “Labels may be one way of doing this. Warning labels may successfully inform consumers about the potential hazards of a product or packaging and alter consumers’ preference for the product. If they can do this, they should be able to decrease plastic use in the long-term in the food and beverage sector. This is key to making the sector more sustainable.”
Does Packaging Matter?
For this choice experiment, researchers presented study participants with images of different egg cartons, one clear plastic, one foam, and one pulp-based.
“Eggs are one of the few foods that are sold in three package options: plastic, foam, and pulp,” van Asselt said. “While the three crates have different levels of recyclability, they are similar in functionality. We felt that the different crate materials have little effect on the quality, lifespan, or breakability of the eggs.”
Respondents looked at a picture of the different options alongside a price and then responded either yes or no as to if they would buy the eggs at that price point. Researchers then compared that price point to see how it changed after being shown the warning label.
When deciding on how to get their product to consumers, egg producers and sellers must take many things into consideration, including the price of materials and how the looks of a product may appeal to the customer and make their product stand out from the rest when people are making their choices at the store.
Customer preference for the clear plastic packaging was clear when they were given no other information or warning labels. However, some consumers preferred the foam, believing it was more protective of the eggs.
Egg purchases did not prefer foam to pulp packaging, suggesting that egg sellers currently using foam packaging could switch to pulp-based packaging without significantly reducing demand.
How do warning labels impact price?
Warning labels are an effective way of influencing a customer’s willingness to purchase, changing their preference away from plastic towards alternative materials that are more eco-conscious.
In this study, participants read one of three randomly assigned warning labels. One label focused on the health impacts of plastics, one on the environmental impacts, and one on safety which mentioned both.
Results clearly showed that the information in the warning labels was effective at shifting customer preference toward sustainable packaging, with an apparent decrease in willingness to purchase both plastic and foam egg cartons.
However, it differed by messaging used, with the most drastic decrease in willingness to purchase when participants read a health-focused product label.
Clear plastic decreased by $1.02 on average with a health warning label and foam by 51 cents.
In contrast, there was no decrease in willingness to purchase the foam packaging when shown the environmental-only message, suggesting that messaging informing consumers of their direct, personal risks may be more effective in changing purchasing behavior.
“Our results indicate that warning labels may be considered as a part of a broader policy toolkit to reduce plastic use in the U.S.,” van Asselt said. “For example, the FDA could require plastic packaging to carry plastic warning labels. They can educate consumers of the potential harm of plastic consumption, nudge consumers away from purchasing single-use plastic, and in turn incentivize lower plastic production and use across the agro-food supply chain. We hope to conduct more research in this area to confirm our findings and to help propose a strategy to reduce plastic waste in the U.S.”
FRE graduate students Joanna van Asselt, Moonwon Soh, and Yefan Nian conducted this study alongside FRE professor Zhifeng Gao and USDA economist Steven Morgan.
Download and read the full research article at ScienceDirect.