Last week, the Gigantic team watched the documentary The Story of Plastic — separately of course, at home. Each team member then shared the one takeaway that struck them the most.
Having worked for positive change in the solid waste field, we all knew the film wouldn’t be very uplifting, as Lisa expresses. But she sees possible solutions:
As someone who has promoted public participation in recycling for 25 years, it was painful to watch the scenes showing plastic trash piling up on the streets and waterways in the Philippines and Indonesia. It is tempting to feel that recycling is futile. But upon further reflection, it is not that recycling is all bad, or doesn’t have a place in a sustainable future. Instead of trying to recycle whatever comes down the pipeline, society must move toward sustainable packaging solutions, such as limiting product packaging to a handful of easily recycled materials. We can build recycling infrastructure in the U.S. to meet our needs.
Peter wants to see a change in how plastics are used, and hopes that take-back programs and legislation will improve prevention and recycling of plastic waste:
While we are fortunate in the Bay Area to have progressive policies geared toward reducing single-use plastics, the Story of Plastic shines light on the global impact of this issue. When less than 1/10th of plastic produced in the last 40 years has been recycled, it’s time to rethink our plastic use – not just accept the fantasy that it will be recycled. Without a doubt, plastic is a valuable resource. However, there are exciting, viable solutions – such as extended producer responsibility (EPR) and single-use bans – that significantly reduce the environmental impact of plastic.
Nancy was more skeptical of bans and EPR:
The film’s solution of legislation is problematic in the U.S. Perhaps we are doomed to become the world’s laggards in zero waste adoption, and that may rub off on others.
“EPR” needs re-branding- it’s a dull, unattractive term with intimations of punitiveness and what I call “fussy mom-ness”. [This runs in a lot of environmental messaging. Instead of “stand up straight” and “clean your room,” we get “don’t put that there” and “stop doing this.”] How can we make Extended Producer Responsibility an exciting call to action?
Stef also commented on EPR, with a perspective on its use in her home country:
In Germany an EPR system for packaging was written into law in 1991, but almost 30 years later it has not solved the plastic crisis there. Companies pay license fees for the amount and type of the single-use packaging they bring to market. Those funds in turn pay for third-party businesses to collect and process the materials, in alignment with recycling goals set for different material categories. Although price structures favor non-plastic and more recyclable materials, they haven’t led to less plastic because the material itself is so cheap. This also means recycling is hardly lucrative. With incineration (waste to energy) counted as “recovery” in much of Europe, it is not a surprise that true plastic recycling in Germany is at only 16% and plastic packaging is everywhere, in spite of EPR.
Both Kas and Dennis were most struck by the injustice of how the plastic pollution crisis plays out around the world. Kas said:
This film brings to light the interconnectedness of the plastics problem we face on our planet and reminds me of another global pandemic we face right now — especially around the inequality of those who bear the brunt of the issue. Without a global, coordinated and transparent effort to right-size the issue this single-plastic genie will be tricky to get back into the (recyclable) bottle! Daunting, sure, and yet we have to try!
For Dennis, the environmental justice issues presented in the movie resonated on a personal level:
Many scenes in the documentary reminded me of growing up in east Los Angeles, where for decades Exide Battery Recycler in Vernon had spewed lead into the surrounding communities of Boyle Heights and Huntington Park. My childhood home was less than half a mile from a roofing chemical plant that also emitted pollutants. I didn’t need to go to the Philippines, India or Indonesia to experience environmental injustice—it was a given in my own Latinx community. In the same way that Houston lacks a planning code, which enables heavy industry to be sited next to communities of color, so too was my community vulnerable to being on the frontlines of pollution. Perhaps my own lifespan has been cut short by 10-20 years as a result of this proximity. What would happen if a refinery were put in places like Beverly Hills? If we want to solve the plastic waste crisis, environmental justice and social equity must be part of it.
Inequity was also what stood out most for Nicole. But she sees hope in the type of community organizing featured in the film:
What really stuck with me is the extraordinary power of movements joining together across cultures to fight back against the decisions made primarily by a privileged few in the West. The film does an amazing job of highlighting the inequitable distribution of the negative impacts of single-use plastics, primarily felt by frontline communities around the world, but also sharing the stories of community leaders that have organized to demand producer responsibility and create local, regenerative systems. It gives me hope that during this unprecedented time people who were not aware are waking up to these stark inequities and starting to listen to and join frontline communities in demanding systems that support rights for all life, not just the privileged few.
As the Gigantic team continues our work for positive environmental behavior change, we encourage our network of clients, partners and allies to watch the documentary and join us in doing the necessary work to stem the tide of plastic pollution.
In early March, when the coronavirus still seemed like an obscure disease, the Gigantic team was in full swing, preparing for Earth Month. For Clean Water Program Alameda County, we had created outreach event kits and were about to promote countless litter cleanups. For Santa Clara County, we had partnered with dozens of coffee shops to launch a “bring your own cup” campaign. My own calendar was full of gatherings, including the big climate march in honor of Earth Day’s 50th anniversary. Then stay-at-home orders hit the Bay Area, and everything involving a group of people in person was canceled. How could Earth Day turn 50 without a celebration?!
After the first shock, many Earth Day organizers started to take activities online. After all, if everything from staff meetings to Quarantini Happy Hours can happen remotely, why not Earth Day too? In the beginning I was skeptical, wondering if honoring this important date in physical isolation could instill the same sense of community as a march for the Earth or a creek restoration event with likeminded people. But as our team kicked into action to reimagine campaigns and retool outreach materials, like we did for Clean Water Program, I started to see countless new opportunities to build awareness
and change behavior. “Earth Day at Home” can open our eyes to many powerful actions that we’d usually be too distracted and busy to take. This may be the time to do a 10-minute fridge reality check and learn new habits to prevent food waste. Try one of many delicious plant-based dishes, good for our own heath and that of the planet. Stroll around the backyard and discover how even a modest patch of native plants can support a little universe of insect diversity. The team of Oakland’s Earth Day 2020 has compiled many more such actions—in fact, over 50!
Looking beyond our homes, I’m heartened to see so many creative approaches aimed at bringing people together while keeping everyone safe. The Smithsonian’s virtual Earth Optimism 2020 Summit offers four full days of webinar workshops, films and conservation success stories from around the world. An online event by the Climate Music project and National Academy of Science explores the intersection of music, climate science, and community action. The California Coastal Commission is sharing highlights of their work (and awe-inspiring photos) from wetlands to coastal wildlife all #EarthMonth long. The list of events goes on, with many compiled on a searchable global map by the Earth Day Network.
As I now ponder Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, I feel hopeful about the event’s power to bring the environment back into focus, connect people who care about the Earth on a larger scale, and maybe ring in a new era of activism once restrictions lift again. To all our clients, allies and fellow environmentalists, Happy Earth Day!
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.”