I just completed my second Plastic-Free July! This is a worldwide event that draws attention to the enormous, and enormously damaging, place that single-use plastic holds in our daily life.
While a single person’s actions may not seem to make much impact on the 8,000,000 tons of plastic that enter the ocean each year, we’ve got to start somewhere! And, it is possible to draw some lessons from the month-long discipline to help us think about behavior change.
Don’t Let Perfect Be the Enemy of Good
As with any behavior change, it’s important not to punish yourself – or your target audience – if /when you fall off the wagon. I searched and searched for a non-plastic toothpaste tube, to no avail. I finally found a glass jar of toothpaste in a homeopathic shop. Yes, it had a plastic lid, but I decided the compromise was acceptable. And I got used to the taste!
In our campaigns, we avoid showing super heroes – because the behavior change we are after doesn’t require super powers to do the right thing. “Regular” people can make a big difference. We steer clear of messages like “Can you get all your waste for the year into a peanut butter jar? No? What’s wrong with you?” Instead, we try to make the desired behavior attractive and achievable.
Boundaries Bring Freedom
Supermarket shopping gets a whole lot faster when single-use plastics are off limits. Entire aisles of cookies, chips and crackers are forbidden to the plastic avoider. How relaxing! I can avoid temptation and adhere to good plastic-free consumption and nutrition habits at the same time.
Freedom is an important value in the American psyche, and is one that environmental campaigns may be able to take more advantage of. Taking a restriction (reducing use of plastic or pesticide or water, for example) and reframing it as freedom can be an effective behavior change message.
Think Before You…Do, Buy, Cook, Toss!
One of the most important benefits of going plastic-free is a growing awareness of how often we cruise through life on auto-pilot. Going plastic-free means remembering every time to say, “No straw, please,” “Please use my reusable cup,” or “Can I get that wrapped in paper, not plastic?”
In behavior change campaigns, we look for ways to ingrain a new behavior, to create a body memory out of increased mindfulness. Several of our campaigns here at Gigantic now emphasize the the intelligence of our community members. “You’re smart about other things in your life, why not be smart about recycling?”
While I have not been able to stay completely plastic free, the search for alternatives to plastic is starting to become a comfortable behavior, and is making me more aware of things I take for granted. Carrying my work into my life, and vice versa, is very rewarding.
Sunnyvale’s “FoodCycle” program is unique in the Bay Area. It truly “recycles” food into a new product—animal feed! The food scraps are collected using a split garbage/food scrap cart, and sent to a facility for processing. Using the garbage cart is a clear departure from nearby cities that collect food scraps in the yard trimmings cart to create compost. To address the many public concerns with this major change, the City needed clear and engaging marketing tools – including a video:
The Gigantic team structured the video around a behavioral process: How do people deal with food scraps? When do they make them? The information is broken down into clear steps:
1) Preparing the collection pail with accepted liners,
2) Showing when and how food waste is created,
3) Detailing what kinds of food scraps are accepted and
4) How to dispose of the kitchen waste in the new curbside cart.
This approach differs from other food scrap outreach that emphasizes what kinds of food are accepted. Instead, the model “FoodCycles” in situations when food waste is generated: cooking/prepping food, cleaning up after meals, and cleaning old leftovers out of the fridge.
We’re proud to say that the video won the Epic Award of Distinction in its category at the California Association of Public Information Officials (CAPIO) annual awards competition in April 2018.
Often in the course of our work we are lucky enough to run into local residents who embody the environmental attitudes that we cherish. Often those people are exemplary in other ways, as well. The Gigantic team met Gail Lillian on a photo shoot for recycling and composting in the food service industry. Her business—Liba Falafel in Uptown Oakland—was the perfect backdrop. Not only is her shop bright and beautifully decorated, it also models a lot of the best practices we wanted to show: reusable cups and silverware for “eat in” customers, color-coded bins in the kitchen and even custom-made signage with actual materials displayed above the restaurant’s self-bussing station.
What motivates her to be so mindful about waste? Gail doesn’t think it’s a big deal. “I just like things in their proper place. Isn’t what I do pretty standard nowadays? Also, restaurants have so much more compostable
waste than other industries—we should be models on how to separate it.”
When she sees the need, Gail also advocates for the community outside of work, be it as a certified mediator, or in her role on the City of Oakland’s task force for commercially sexually exploited children. Does it help to be a restaurateur? Gail thinks yes: “In my experience, chefs are seen as semi-celebrities. Sometimes that helps your voice get listened to, and we should use our voices for things we believe in.”
Thanks, Gail, for making Oakland such an inspiring place to be!
Here at Gigantic we often advocate to make public commitments or pledges a part of an environmental behavior change campaign. New Year’s resolutions are a great example of behavior change efforts (even though 80% of them are discarded by February!) The most effective resolutions are made publicly, have specific goals, and are realistic and simple. Going public means you are more likely to keep your resolutions, so, with that in mind, here are some of the Gigantic team’s 2018 resolutions:
Lisa will be trying a new approach to reducing the large amounts of food waste related to raising her 11-year old son, Jackson. On most days of the current school year, he returned home with an entire lunch uneaten. Applying barriers and benefits research, she talked to Jackson about why it was happening. Barriers included forgetting—he was playing with friends instead of eating—and not finding the food appetizing after it sat in his lunchbox for 3 hours. “Like all moms I worry if my child is eating enough. But the waste is troubling me. In 2018 I’m going to let Jackson choose to purchase the school lunch if he is hungry. We gave him a watch with an alarm to remind him to eat. And to address my worry, I’ll send along a non-perishable snack in case of emergency.” A pilot test run demonstrated that Jackson chose the school lunch every day, so the new year is already looking food-waste free!
Kas is back in the saddle this year – bike saddle that is. She starts training in January for the AIDS/LifeCycle; she will ride her bike from San Francisco to Los Angeles during the first week of June. Kas often spots litter and illegal dumping on her Bay Area training rides. Sometimes cyclists themselves are the cause of litter with items that fall out of their overstuffed jersey pockets or, worst of all, those cyclists who purposely discard wrappers along the way. Kas pledges to pick up what trash she can and/or report illegal dumping through the See Click Fix app on her phone… and if by chance she can catch up to someone who has littered, she will take a moment to “educate” them on the finer points of leaving nature better than when they found it.
Stef continues her efforts to create a backyard wildlife refuge, in spite of some setbacks in 2017, including relentless weeds and an infestation by some very hungry, non-native caterpillars that killed all 18 bush lupines. “After countless hours of weeding and hand cramps from spraying infested plants with soapy water, the promise of a quick fix with pesticides looked pretty darn tempting,” she admits. But fearing the pain of cognitive dissonance if she were to use chemicals in her all-eco yard, Stef pledged to apply more elbow grease instead. She’ll put down her third layer of sheet-mulching and is set to crowd out weeds with low-water, bee-feeding, bird-harboring California natives early this spring.
Nancy is keeping the same resolution that she has (more or less!) successfully kept for the last 3 years. She resolves to pick up and properly discard at least 1 piece of plastic trash on every dog walk. Moxie the Pugwiler likes her exercise, so Nancy takes her out around 500 times a year – that’s over 500 pieces of plastic removed from San Francisco’s Sunnyside neighborhood annually. Unfortunately, there is no problem with finding the trash. “I often try to pick up the trash in a place where others see me doing it,” says Nancy, “It’s my attempt to norm litter pickups, to help people see the problem as everyone’s problem and a solution that we all can own.”
Nicole feels inspired by her work on the StopFoodWaste.org campaign to try to waste less by using a shopping list based on the meals she plans to eat each week. Though it’s hard to plan ahead with a busy and spontaneous schedule, it will help her save food and money, and not feel so guilty when feeding that slimy kale to her backyard worms, though it’s better than the landfill. “Food waste is a big problem in America, but there are a lot of helpful tips and tools to plan, store and use up extra food and leftovers,” says Nicole, “It also helps to eat before going shopping!”
We wish everyone a Happy New Year and pledge to work with you for a cleaner, greener 2018. Please let us know if we can help with your environmental behavior change campaigns.
As we work on environmental behavior change campaigns, we spend a lot of time crafting the perfect look and wording – to get the message right. Choosing the right messenger for that message is essential for its success. The Gigantic team’s presentation at the 2017 California Resource Recovery Association Conference covered several aspects of thinking about the best messenger.
Sometimes a public agency’s message can be strengthened and find traction when delivered in a different voice. The messenger’s “personality” can take several forms and can be delivered live, in print and digitally:
Mascots have the power to attract and engage people and make them care about issues such as recycling, waste or water quality. Creating and implementing a mascot messenger takes planning, patience and creativity. We presented examples of recent environmental mascots and talked about the process for creating, naming, scripting and distributing a mascot.
A message is easier to accept if the viewer identifies with the person delivering the message. Our presentation touched on how to evoke thoughts like “Well, if she can do it, so can I” or “I want to be more like that person” in an environmental campaign, by recruiting community members to deliver the message.
It’s easy to treat social media like another advertising channel for promoting your organization’s events and campaigns. But social media can be so much more than a digital bulletin board. We looked at ways to establish a personality on social media that doesn’t just tell folks what to do, but that interacts, observes, and participates in the broader online community. One excellent example is Baltimore’s Mr. Trash Wheel, who demonstrates best practices for tone and engagement.
Here is the CRRA presentation covering the above topics. Please let us know if you have questions or would like to talk about how the right messenger can work for you.
At Gigantic, we work hard to “get inside the heads” of the audiences we try to reach. How difficult is it to get someone to change behavior, even to be aware of that behavior? I experimented on myself last month, when I joined the #PlasticFreeJuly movement, and tried to avoid buying or accepting anything made of plastic for 31 days.
The first thing I noticed was anxiety, and a tendency to over-compensate. Should I stock up on plastic on June 30 so I could get through the month comfortably? What would I have to give up? Just how uncomfortable is this change going to be?
How can a behavior change specialist address her own fears of change and scarcity?
The Thrill of Failure
My first day was a failure, but also a tremendous success. I went out to lunch and ordered a cocktail (it’s OK, it was a Saturday!) The drink came with a straw – I had forgotten to ask for no straw. Disaster in the first few hours of the experiment! I posted about my personal failure to Facebook and Twitter, tagging the restaurant. I was amazed to see several supportive comments, even from “non-green” people with whom I had not interacted in years, saying they, too, were sick of plastic and that I should keep trying. Then, lo and behold, the restaurant responded to me via Facebook, saying that they, too, loved this particular cocktail and from now on would serve it without a straw. Victory! I took away from this experience that it can be more effective to post about one’s own weakness, to acknowledge error, rather than trying to be a brave and mighty eco-hero.
Challenges kept on coming throughout the month. In some cases there were joyous substitutions – I discovered that bread sliced at the bakery and wrapped in paper did just fine in the freezer, so breakfast was set.
Plastic = Convenience
As the month wore on, I realized that plastic equals convenience, and that I had to re-align my idea of what was convenient. Yes, it takes longer to bring your own containers and use the bulk bins of the market. It takes more effort to go to the cheese shop where the owner was happy to wrap my slices in paper – not an option at the supermarket. On the flip side, I had wonderful conversations with folks behind the counter; some were bemused by my requests, some were delighted. But this was an opportunity to connect with people in my neighborhood whom I had, frankly, barely noticed before. How to translate this greater feeling of community to our work?
When To Give Up
In some cases, going plastic-free meant going without. Tortillas and potato chips, indeed all salty junk food, were not an option, unless ordered in a restaurant. I had to cheat in a couple of instances, choosing less plastic over no plastic for things like toothpaste and olive oil. Luckily I don’t take a lot of medicines, but when I ran out of Vitamin D…I caved and bought more in a plastic bottle. I noticed the feeling of guilt and this time I did not share my “failure.”
It’s August now, and I have relented a bit, but the plastic-free exercise has stuck with me. The main thing I took away from July was a heightened awareness of plastic’s never ending presence in our lives. Entire aisles of the supermarket were off limits – which after a while felt quite restful. Connecting this ubiquity with the fact that of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic ever made, 6.3 billion metric tons have become plastic waste, with no end in sight. After this experiment, I am reminded as we plan campaigns that in many cases we are asking people to change, to give up something, to be inconvenienced. These are big asks. While these changes seem essential and even joyful to those of us in the environmental field, I believe it is essential to integrate humility and understanding into our campaigns, so that people feel understood and supported as we travel together on this journey to more sustainable living.
Effective environmental behavior change—like any behavior change—relies on meeting people where they are. This can mean communicating at the point of action, right where and when the behavior is happening. For instance, a recycling flyer sent to a resident’s home is a fine first touch to raise awareness, but placing recycling information directly on the bins or in the area where trash is being disposed of is an important prompt that is likely to get the best results.
What is the most effective way to display recycling/composting information? While each case is different, there are some general rules that will help increase recycling/composting while reducing contamination:
Use consistent language.
Do you say Carts or Bins? Compost or Organics? Make sure the terms you’ve chosen are used consistently in all your print pieces, including posters and bin labels, and also match the content on your website.
Use pictures and words.
Different people learn and remember differently – some people recall words, others, images. Using both will increase your chances of being clear and memorable. Remember that posters are typically viewed from a some distance away, so make sure images and text are sized large enough.
You probably don’t want to list EVERY single item that can go into the recycling or compost. Choose most common items or those often placed incorrectly. The selection of items also depends on where the poster will be used—items recycled in an office are likely different from those recycled in a restaurant kitchen.
Keep it neat.
A clean and simple layout is most likely to keep the focus on proper sorting. If a poster has too much information it may be perceived as too much effort to understand and get ignored. If you’d like to point to details, include your website URL prominently.
Stay up to date!
Did bin colors change with the new hauler contract, or are you now accepting some items for recycling that you weren’t before? Make sure your print and online collateral match your current program.
For further tips on displaying recycling information, see
A constant challenge in environmental outreach is how to portray an issue in a way that reaches people with varied worldviews. Neuroscientist George Lakoff and the concept of framing has been much in the political news lately, as opposing sides try to create impressions (also known as bias) in their listeners’ minds. Lakoff notes that all communication has frames:
“The elements of the Communication Frame include: A message, an audience, a messenger, a medium, images, a context, and especially, higher-level moral and conceptual frames.”
We know that facts alone don’t change behavior; to succeed, a message needs that emotional element that reaches the deeper parts of our brain. How can environmental outreach frame important issues in a way that reaches, convinces, and persists to make long-term positive change in behavior?
Lakoff gives one example in his blog, suggesting that instead of talking about environmental regulations, we reframe laws as environmental protections.
Framing a concept like food waste should be simple – no one likes “waste,” right?
The message of buying only what you need, using leftovers, and composting what is left is quite straightforward, but we have a long way to go to tackle the huge amount of food that is wasted. Two recent examples show how framing the issue, while acknowledging the facts, can show success.
Activist Selina Juul has worked for years on a multi-touch approach to reducing food waste in her adopted country of Denmark. She recognized that change had to come from all sides: business, government and, most of all, consumers. In this video, she reframes food waste as disrespectful to nature, farmers and to the individual’s own time and money.
Ugly? No, Beautiful!
A more local success story focuses on our friend and colleague Jordan Figueiredo. Jordan’s Ugly Fruit and Veg campaign aims to reframe frequently wasted, less than perfect produce with humor and heart, in order to make what had been rejected, acceptable and even coveted.
Jordan couches his multi-touch campaign work as Funactivism, which counters the view some hold of activists as overly serious or shrill. Jordan successfully uses many of the tools of activism and behavior change: touting simple individual steps, assurance that individual actions make a difference, use of pledges and norming, combined with a top-down approach to companies. He has used charming photos spread via social media to challenge people to change their attitudes about what is “ugly,” reframing ugly fruit and vegetables, and by extension, reframing our view of what is beautiful.
Choosing the most effective way to frame an issue takes research, patience and testing. Most of all, it takes creativity and always remembering that change comes from within, and people act because of what they feel even more than because of what they think.
How will you frame your next campaign?
Are you planning an environmental outreach campaign that includes social media? I hope so! As you probably know, social media is a great way to spread the word about your organization’s activities and to encourage public participation. But “social media” is not a single, uniform bucket. Just as you would plan a different print ad for a publication that reaches high school students than for one that focuses on businesses, so your posts in social media should be guided by who you are trying to reach and why.
How to get started with a channel-specific strategy?
To start, try creating a mission statement for each channel. The mission statements should be based on your organizational goals and the audience you are most likely to reach with each channel. For example, are you trying to reach young people? Snapchat (60% of Snapchat users are under 25) is a good channel to consider. If you’re trying to reach Baby Boomers or businesses, not so much.
Here are some sample mission statements by channel:
We will use Twitter to raise our profile with influencers in the U.S. and beyond.
We will use Facebook to keep our fans updated and informed about our organization’s activities and to provide calls to action to the public.
We will use Instagram to promote the joy of a waste-free lifestyle with the local community.
Our blog provides detail and a personal voice on our organization’s issues and activities for those who already know about us.
Next, tailor your content by channel. Some organizations, looking to save time, make all of their Facebook posts automatically post to Twitter. This may undermine your efforts when your audience and mission are different for each channel.
This doesn’t mean you should not cross-post the same topic in different channels. But it is a good idea to structure the content for your target audience: customize the language and images to achieve your mission.
Measure, Measure, Measure
How do you know if your channel strategy is working? Measure the results and compare your progress to your goals. For instance, your Twitter feed may be focused on reaching influencers. You can then evaluate your Twitter efforts by the number of key influencers who follow or retweet you. (In other words, it may be that the quality of your followers is more important than the number of them.) If your goal is to raise awareness of an issue, then the metric of reach/impressions is key. If your goal is to have users respond to a call to action, you will want to look at both click-through rate and number of clicks.
There is so much more to say about social media strategy, but starting with a channel mission statement is a useful guide when you are creating and customizing your communications. Happy posting!
It’s easy to fall into a rut with environmental outreach tools (websites, brochures, bill inserts, how-to-recycle guides, etc.) But even the smallest touch-up can really help make a piece become more effective. In preparation for the recent California Resource Recovery Association (CRRA) annual conference, the Gigantic team put out a call to our email list, asking for samples of outreach materials that were ready for a makeover. We selected two submissions – the City of Fremont’s multi-family recycling guide and the Conservation Corps North Bay’s services flyer, and got to work.
See the results in the presentation below. In doing these makeovers, a few key takeaways emerged that we’d like to share:
1) Tailor by Audience – Often agencies and organizations don’t have the resources to make separate pieces for each audience (for example, multi-family building residents and property managers), but you can use visual cues and wording to clarify to whom you are speaking within a piece.
2) Give a Clear Call to Action – Laundry lists of do’s and don’t’s can make people’s eyes glaze over. Single, clear action steps are more likely to get results.
3) Use Clear Instructions – There are some best practices for information such as waste sorting guides: use color coding, group images by type, and don’t overlap images – the brain takes in the shape of an uncluttered image and retains it better.
4) Tell Your Story – Stories stick. Make your messages come alive with vivid words and images, and beware of jargon and “internal speak.” Investing in custom photography with “real” community members pays off, as people see themselves in your outreach and are more likely to respond.
5) Be Consistent and Multi-Touch – No single brochure, no matter how well designed, can do all the work. Your message will go farther when all communication pieces work together visually and verbally, reinforcing your message across channels.
If your organization needs an outreach makeover, feel free to contact us and let’s see what we can do together!