In June, non-profit Upstream (“make throw-away go away”) in partnership with the Food Packaging Forum, Zero Waste Europe and GAIA, presented the UNWRAPPED conference to explore the human health effects of plastics and other types of food packaging. The idea: make the problems associated with single-use packaging personal to help us move us away from it faster.
At Gigantic, our work often involves promoting sustainable alternatives to disposable products, so adding a compelling health angle sounded intriguing.
We’ve known for decades that bisphenols (BPA) and phthalates in everything from plastic bottles to rubber duckies are harmful, but UNWRAPPED took a much deeper dive into the issue, presenting the latest scientific research on packaging, and the health risks posed by ingredients that touch and then migrate into our food.
Half a day into the conference, it was clear that currently regulated additives are just the tip of the toxic iceberg. In plastic packaging alone, there are thousands of known chemicals, including monomers – the building blocks of plastics – but also fillers, plasticizers, flame retardants, colorants, stabilizers, lubricants, foaming agents and many more. Because most of these additives aren’t chemically bound to the plastic matrix, they easily leach out. Sure, quantities are tiny, but many of the chemicals mimic hormones, so even barely measurable amounts can wreak havoc in our bodies. An example are chemicals known as “obesigants” that sabotage stem cells to become fat cells and lead to obesity. Other substances of concern are linked to cancer, diabetes, reproductive problems, anxiety and more.
On day 2, as scientists presented emerging research on micro- and nano-plastics and I struggled to keep the details straight, I wondered “how will we turn this information into relevant, actionable messaging without overwhelming people?” Then somebody shared a factoid: “We each eat a credit card’s worth of plastic per year.” Vivid and attention-grabbing, it resonated with many attendees, but the scientists were cautious, citing the lack of conclusive evidence regarding microplastics in the human body. In the end there was consensus. As one of participant put it: “We may not have all the details, but we know enough to be concerned.”
When the conference closed, there was definitely concern among the 100+ participants—but also high energy and a commitment to leverage the learnings for positive change. We at Gigantic will certainly stay engaged in the topic.
To learn more about the UNWRAPPED conference and view recordings of the presentations, visit www.unwrappedconference.org.
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!
A very enjoyable aspect of our work here at Gigantic is that we often team up with artists who bring their creativity and skills to bear for environmental behavior change.
One such collaborator is Darrell Hunger, an industrial designer with a passion for applying his creativity to solve environmental problems. A hard-to-find hybrid of nuts-n-bolts pragmatism and artistic vision, Darrell has been instrumental to many of the interactive displays and games we’ve designed for our clients over the past years. For the City of Oakland’s “test your cart smarts” event booth, Darrell turned curbside carts into a life-size sort game, complete with fake moldy peaches and carefully sauce-smeared take-out containers as “game pieces.”
Most recently, Darrell helped us build a game for StopWaste to help people learn the best way to store fruits and veggies, so they stay fresher longer and there’s less food waste. Looking a bit like a doll’s kitchen, the game lets players open cabinets and a fridge and peek under empty bowls sitting on the counter to find images of the foods they’re tasked to “store.” From tiny hinges to mini door handles and a sturdy collapsible stand for the game, Darrell helped us think through the design and put it all together.
With such a unique skill set, it’s not a surprise Darrell is a regular at Burning Man, specifically a member of the Earth Guardians, Burning Man’s environmental crew. They are the ones in charge of enforcing the organization’s “Leave No Trace” (LNT) policy—essentially returning Black Rock Desert to its natural state each year, as if the weeklong, crazy circus of 70,000 revelers never happened. And it’s serious business, not an esoteric goal: LNT is a requirement written into the Special Event Permit and contract Burning Man has with Nevada’s Bureau of Land Management.
For the Earth Guardians, this means recruiting, training and overseeing an army of volunteers who check on camps to make sure no gray water or automotive fluids are leaking on the desert floor, keeping people out of the hot springs, and collecting MOOP—or “Matter Out Of Place” as defined by Burning Man. This truly means anything that wasn’t originally part of Black Rock Desert, no matter how small, including beads and feathers broken loose from costumes, tiny litter pieces, wood chips and even the ash from cigarettes. To make the tedious un-MOOPing at least a bit more pleasant, volunteers get “MOOP bags” to collect the debris, sewn out of old jeans and ties months before the event by Darrell and his crew. But the Earth Guardians may already face another challenge: “Micro MOOP” such as body glitter and other particles that even the most diligent unMOOPing can’t retrieve.
Lucky for Burners (and the rest of the world) Darrell is a master of reuse and waste prevention, and shares his skills and knowledge widely. At this year’s Burning Man, his repair workshop “Glue, screw, patch: How to fix things that break, are worn or want to be repurposed” was a huge hit. In his typical hands-on style, Darrell showed participants the best uses of glues, screws, splints and other repair tools, and fixed broken objects brought to the class. Way to go Darrell!
This post is the second in a three-part series summarizing our presentation on messaging at this year’s California Resource Recovery Association (CRRA) conference: “Not Just the Facts, Ma’am: Getting Your Message to Matter.”
Which is more powerful: presenting environmental facts and a call to action in a bullet-point list, or embedding them in a narrative? As you may have guessed, the latter! Stories help us understand cause and effect and how things fit together. They also let us access emotions, making the message more memorable.
Storytelling has been part of the human experience for a very long time—just think of the narratives depicted in prehistoric cave paintings. The human brain has evolved to work in narrative structures; it’s how we make sense of the world.
To understand what makes storytelling so effective, let’s look at what happens in the brain. When we absorb facts, the brain gets activated in the areas responsible for language recognition and decoding words into meaning. However, when we listen to a narrative, additional areas in the brain show activity: those responsible for directing physical motion and tracking sensations. For example, when we hear metaphors like “he had leathery hands,” the brain’s sensory cortex — which perceives texture through touch — is stimulated. And the more parts of our brains are engaged, the better our attention and recall.
How can we use these insights in environmental outreach work? There are many ways to weave in narratives. For example, use positive stories about real people to promote a behavior. It may take a bit of research to find the right “hero” for your story, but you can’t beat the persuasive value (and norming effect!) of a local couple sharing their enthusiasm about, say, cooking with leftovers, along with tips in their own words and a photo showing them having fun in the kitchen while reducing waste.
If you’re dealing with frequent barriers to practices you’re trying to promote, try a “success story” of somebody who has overcome these challenges. Their authentic voice and the emotional connection their story can make with your audience will be more effective than any list of facts.
Every so often we run into people doing important environmental work who deserve some recognition. This inspired us to launch a Gigantic blog series highlighting local citizens making a difference. Here, Gigantic’s Stefanie Pruegel speaks with Jamie Facciola, a Bay Area native with background in corporate sustainability consulting and verification of greenhouse gas emissions.
On May 17, Uptown Body & Fender in Oakland hosted the Repair Fair, an event single-handedly organized by volunteer Jamie Facciola, Community Engagement Planner with the Sustainable Business Alliance. For three hours, about a dozen Oakland businesses took turns demonstrating repairs on everything from shoes, amps and furniture to jewelry and vacuum cleaners. Meanwhile, on the far end of the spacious venue, a handful of volunteer “fixers” guided visitors in the disassembly and—in many cases—successful repair of broken stuff they had brought, including toasters, radios, hair dryers and even a doll.
Jamie had spent months pulling it all together. Her motivation? “After years of helping nudge big companies towards more ‘sustainable’ choices, I wanted to get involved in something tangible, something that has impact in my neighborhood.” Repair appeals to her because “it is an industry where growth doesn’t also mean growing resource depletion and waste, but actually means doing more good for the environment.”
The point of the event was to promote local repair businesses, an industry that seems to be in danger of going extinct. Not that stuff breaks less—quite the opposite—but even items covered under warranty are no longer repaired because “it is the least incentivized option; typically a company will just send you a new one.”
The decline of repair seems ironic in a culture where the Maker Movement is thriving and DIY is hip, at least in the Bay Area. But there’s a difference. The appeal of the hugely popular Maker Faire, for example, is all about empowerment and creative self-expression in a world of cookie-cutter products. Repurposing definitely has its place there, but good old repair? Jamie speculates that maybe it’s just not sexy enough.
One of her biggest worries is that pretty soon repair services will only be available at Fixit Clinics where no money changes hands. “Don’t get me wrong—these pop-up events where volunteers gather to fix things for free are hugely popular and address a real need,” she asserts. “But I do wonder about the impact on the local economy.” At the event, she made a point of checking first if a visitor’s broken item could be handled by one of the repair businesses on hand before sending the owner over to the “fixer” corner.
The event feedback from shops and attendees was overwhelmingly positive. Did they score new customers? Definitely, but more importantly, they met each other and networked, even referring visitors where their services weren’t quite the right match “Maybe they need to come together as a group, and market themselves as an industry,” muses Jamie. She is starting work on a business plan for a “Repair Salon”—a physical space shared by businesses offering one-stop shopping for repairs. “Oakland could be the perfect place for that.”