In the last episode of Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II series, the iconic environmentalist turned his attention to the growing problem of plastic waste.
The episode showed baby birds feeding on bits of plastic, coastlines covered in pollution, and marine environments around the world teeming with plastic waste.
Throughout it all, Attenborough urged viewers to become more sustainable — and his efforts seem to have paid off. A new report by GlobalWebIndex shows that 53% of people surveyed in the US and UK reduced their single-use plastic over the last 12 months.
The authors attribute the steep decline to the “Attenborough effect.”
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“This is one area where the power of celebrity can really be used for good,” Bill Levey, CEO of Naeco, a company that makes sustainable plastic alternatives, told Global Citizen. “On the case of Attenborough, he has been reporting on scientific issues for decades, he’s won the respect of scientists, and at this age now has that kind of fatherly, stately aura.
“I really do think that this is an issue that can only benefit from having a loud and powerful voice,” he added.
GlobalWebIndex surveyed 3,833 people in the US and UK and found that 82% prefer sustainable packaging for the products they buy in everyday life and 66% are more likely to trust brands that make a pledge to be more sustainable.
People have also been inspired by Attenborough’s tendency to live out his own advice. During the filming of Blue Planet II, his team picked up every bit of litter they found in the ocean.
Over the past year, the fight against plastic pollution has gained momentum around the world. More than 60 countries have take action to restrict plastic production and consumption, major multinational companies have invested in alternatives, and ordinary people have spearheaded ocean clean-ups.
But celebrities could be key to making the movement mainstream, according to Levey.
“Anyone with a large following can use their platform to help raise awareness of the effects of our plastic use on the environment,” Levey said.
“In today’s world, there are a lot of celebrities who have a very targeted following and have the ability to reach people who otherwise may not be able to hear about these issues,” he added.
Various celebrities have become advocates for the cause in recent years. The actress Emma Watson wore a gown made of recycled plastic water bottles to the 2016 Met Gala, the R&B singer SZA created a clothing line that repurposes plastic waste in the oceans, and the actor Adrian Grenier has become one of the leading advocates against single-use plastic straws.
For more than a decade, Attenborough has shown people the splendor of the Earth and warned about its possible decline. It’s no wonder that when he gave people a tangible thing they could do to help the planet — reduce plastic — they embraced it.
And now the movement he helped to grow is driving fundamental change at the legislative level. The UK government is currently consulting with plastic experts to develop policies to improve recycling rates and reduce plastic production, according to Geoff Brighty, the technical director of Plastic Oceans.
“It has really crystallized in the government’s mind that the public consciousness has moved to a place where we don’t want this to happen anymore, it’s affecting our lives, we don’t want it to affect our ecosystems,” Brighty said.