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!
With the effects of COVID-19 spreading across the globe and the entire state of California required to stay at home as much as possible, we are living in a truly challenging and unprecedented situation. What does this mean for Gigantic’s clients, mostly local government agencies and non-profits involved in environmental behavior change? Business as usual seems a little unrealistic. How can we live into the needs of our audiences to provide information and encouragement while still living our mission?
Local Government has a particular opportunity to choose a friendly and positive tone with messaging:
- “We do real, important stuff.” Emphasize essential services like waste collection that are ongoing, rain or shine. Point to specific workers who are getting it done.
- “We are your neighbors.” We live here, too, and want the best for the community.
- “We’re In This Together.” Has never been more true. While this message does not move everyone (no message does), now is the time to stress universal cooperation, as no one is immune or untouched by COVID-19’s effects.
Communicating with the public via websites, email or social media posts is still a possibility and an opportunity. Of course, the tone of the messages is important and may need to be adjusted during this period. We all know this is a high-stress, challenging time. This is no time for playing the blame game (e.g., asking people to avoid excess packaging by ordering online). We need to put aside some of our favorite themes (such as promoting the use of reusable cups).
Messaging is more important than ever, and already we are seeing how poor messaging can have consequences. For example, we hear a lot about “social distancing” — an accepted term in epidemiological circles — that is not immediately understandable or resonant with the general public. Social what? One could assume it means “staying off social media” rather than “staying six feet apart.” Perhaps “physical distancing” would be more appropriate. In these times we want to encourage stronger social bonds – checking on neighbors and families online, for example – while maintaining a physical distance. The group March for Science recently summarized tips in a Facebook post:
The communication best practices of clarity, specificity and simple language apply now more than ever. The WHO’s recent ad on Google’s home page does a good job:
One thing we know is that people are turning to social media as an alternative to chatting by the office coffee maker. It is still a good time to converse with our constituents! Topics for posts revolve around our “new normal” here in California:
What AREN’T people doing?
- Going out to bars, clubs and restaurants
- Spending time at the office
- Planning trips/parties/picnics
What ARE people doing?
- Working from home
- Home schooling the kids
- Spring Cleaning
- Shopping online
- Using products, such as wipes and gloves, that they may not have used before (see image below.)
There are plenty of ideas for messages now:
- Yard waste goes in the green cart
- Avoid garden chemicals – hand weeding can be very soothing
- Planning meals (so many meals!) to avoid food waste
- Wipes belong in the trash
- Take time to sort
- Appreciation for waste haulers and others working during this crisis
- Calming pictures of local landmarks and nature
Of course, if COVID-19 becomes even more dire, there may come a time when cheerful posts about recycling gin bottles strike a false note. As always, those of us who communicate with the public need to live into what our audiences are experiencing and choose when or if it’s appropriate to communicate about particular topics.
From the whole team at Gigantic Idea Studio: Be well!
As we move full speed into 2020, I finally took a moment to reflect on the past 10 years (of my 18 years as founding partner!) here at Gigantic Idea Studio. I noticed that our portfolio of projects from the last decade reflects the evolution of recycling and pollution prevention programs locally and worldwide.
Feeding Food Scraps to Compost
In the early to mid 2010s the focus of residential outreach turned to food scraps. Many of our projects assisted local agencies with promoting participation in food scrap recycling programs—getting food and food-soiled paper into green carts so they can be composted instead of landfilled. These programs reduce waste and greenhouse gases—a win-win. Binny the Green Organics cart, a mascot we created for Livermore Recycles in 2014, has worked tirelessly to win the hearts and minds of residents to help them overcome the “ick factor” and compost their organics. We have watched Binny become a local star with many adoring fans!
The City of Palo Alto started a food scraps collection program in 2015. Gigantic helped promote this new practice through a character named Zak Zero, and by featuring local residents as peer messengers. Palo Alto now composts 2,300 tons of food scraps a year, saving 670 metric tons of GHG. And 80% of households participate, at least partially!
Sorting Out Recycling
As California ramped up recycling and composting requirements, the last few years of the decade saw the recycling world turn upside down. China’s National Sword policy impacted markets and affected recycling programs. In response, much of our recent work has included ads, bill inserts, articles, and videos to promote the message that sorting recycling properly is a serious matter—and that recyclables should be empty, clean and dry. Our most comprehensive campaign on this topic, Recycle Ready, was done for Palo Alto, and you can see it here.
In the past few years, we’ve helped StopWaste develop content to address the hot topic of food waste—a potent greenhouse gas contributor in Alameda County. Our work with StopWaste over the last decade also supported the implementation of a mandatory recycling and composting ordinance—also a trend of the last decade—as local and state agencies flexed the power of public policy to help reach waste reduction goals. As we enter 2020, we are proud to be part of the team working on food waste reduction in Santa Clara County.
Cutting Single Use Items
Another trend in waste reduction—the reduction of single-use disposables— is another pressing issue gaining traction in the media, as coverage of marine debris and coastal litter has gone mainstream. Cities in the Bay Area and beyond are responding with foodware ordinances, plastic straw bans and produce bag requirements. We’ve worked to help promote efforts to reduce use of disposable foodware with StopWaste, County of Santa Clara and most recently, supporting the new foodware ordinances in the City of Palo Alto.
Connecting Behavior Change to Clean Water
Lastly, we look back fondly on the decade that saw our relationship with Clean Water Program Alameda County grow. In the early 2010s we focused on general stormwater education as well as integrated pest management topics related to gardening. But with the explosion of awareness of the Pacific Garbage patch and wildlife harmed by marine debris, the severity of the issues facing our oceans gave birth to our beloved mascots Fred and Izzy. With three video campaigns under our belt, we look forward to creating a new video on gardening in 2020. We were happy to expand work on these topics with “YardSmart Marin,” a new organization aiming to reduce pesticide use, and with City of San Rafael to reduce illegal dumping. In 2020, we look forward to piloting a litter reduction campaign as well.
Here’s to the next decade of engaging the public in programs for a healthier world!
At Gigantic, we understand that facts and figures are important for advancing science and for communicating about issues such as the impact of climate change. But plainly presented facts are not always ideal for inspiring action and behavior change. Visual and performing arts can be very useful for helping people see the larger picture, grasp relationships through story and create an emotional response that will reinforce action. Two Bay Area examples show the way.
In downtown San Francisco, a 60-foot-high mural of climate activist – and TIME Person of the Year – Greta Thunberg fixes passersby in Union Square with an implacable look. The mural is a project of the nonprofit One Atmosphere and Argentine artist Cobre. Ms. Thunberg is an icon of climate resistance and the single-minded passion of young climate activists all over the world. This 16 year old has become a heroic and still very human and vulnerable face of the climate movement; the mural’s unavoidable stare serves as a prominent reminder of the need to raise climate awareness.
Also in San Francisco, the Climate Music Project seeks to “ tell the urgent story of climate change to broad and diverse audiences in a way that resonates, educates, and motivates.” A collaboration of world-class scientists and musicians, the Project supports science-guided music and visual experiences to inspire people to engage actively on the issue of climate change.
I recently saw a concert of pieces inspired by climate change data by San Francisco Conservatory of Music composition students and was impressed by the different creative approaches the students took to portray the grim statistics.
Artists around the world are grappling with how to express the enormity of the emergencies of climate and biodiversity loss. Their work can inform and enhance our outreach efforts and remind us of the importance of vivid communication in all our environmental work.
While we often work on projects that make composting cool, more and more of Gigantic’s clients are moving up the food recovery hierarchy and asking for outreach about reducing food waste at the source. The goal of cutting food waste in America in half by 2030 was central to the 2019 Food Waste Summit, hosted by ReFED in San Francisco.
The theme was “moving from awareness to action”, with speakers sharing strategies to cut food waste while increasing food security, spurring economic growth and combating climate change. They “set the table” with the cascading impacts of wasting food, gave a “toast to progress” with examples of success at food businesses, and shared innovative approaches to preventing food waste throughout the food system. There was even a cooking demo from one of America’s top chefs, Tiffany Derry, who encouraged attendees to partner with chefs to engage more communities with approachable stories about the value of food.
With 40% of food wasted in this country while 40 million Americans are food insecure, there was a big emphasis on how to close the hunger gap with food recovery. ReFED highlighted their Nonprofit Food Recovery Accelerator program with the goal to double the number of rescued meals in America. Nonprofits like Replate, Seeds That Feed, Plentiful, and Brighter Bites shared how they’re exploring innovative earned revenue, technology and human-centered design solutions to scale healthy food access with dignity for the millions facing food insecurity. While these solutions provide real relief, the question came up of whether they go far enough to address the core causes of hunger or food waste in America.
The Summit showcased several technology solutions for better food storage and transport, waste tracking, and end of life management, including Seal the Seasons, Goodr, Leanpath, Winnow, and Mobius. The “Mobile Blast Chiller” van, pictured at right, was developed by MGM Resorts International, Peravan, and Three Square in Las Vegas, to rapidly cool prepared food as it drives, improving food transport safety and efficiency. Apeel Sciences shared how they’re challenging the notion that we need single-use plastic packaging to solve the food waste problem with a peel-inspired produce coating that keeps produce fresher, longer.
ReFED emphasized the need for more public-private partnerships to create demand for waste reduction like the Pacific Coast Collaborative (PCC) and the Federal Winning on Reducing Food Waste Strategy. Government has a key role to play in improving donation liability protection and awareness, standardizing date labeling (e.g. “best if used by” date), and incentivizing organics from the landfill and edible food recovery with bills like SB 1383. The Summit wrapped up with a panel on turning waste into value where they emphasized the need for strong government regulations to ramp up organics recycling capacity given the current economic conditions.
When I reflect on the Summit and the amazing conversations during and afterwards, I’m left wondering who was not in the room and how that might have changed the dynamic. How we don’t have all the answers, as Ami McReynolds, Chief Equity and Programs Officer at Feeding America observed, and that we need to create a more inclusive environment to bring new voices to the conversation. “How can we build and earn trust with communities?” McReynolds asked at the end of her presentation, “What will it take to be bold and courageous collaborators with communities?” We’re grateful for our incredible clients who are working closely with communities to co-create solutions that address the real needs and root causes of these complex challenges.
As attention spans get shorter and shorter, it’s necessary to repeat a message many times over just to be remembered, let alone shift a behavior. For our Riders Recycle program that aims to increase used motor oil and filter recycling among Do-It-Yourself (DIY) motorcyclists, our strategy is to provide multiple placements of consistent messaging about motorcycle oil and filter recycling, including in-person outreach at events; a comprehensive website; consistent social media posts; and targeted online advertising. Through a recent survey, we found a quarter of DIYers (people who change their own oil and filters) across our 10 client jurisdictions did NOT recycle their used oil filters, so we knew we had to bring awareness to used oil filter recycling.
Local motorcycle events are an ideal venue for reaching the target audience of gear heads. We bought oil filter recycling drainer containers for give-aways to make it easier for DIYers to drain and then recycle their filters. We asked questions at events to understand what people were doing with their used oil filters and some of the key barriers to recycling. (Learn more about the importance of the messenger, message and materials for in-person outreach in our March blog post.) Half of DIYers who weren’t recycling their oil filters were stockpiling them, so we focused on this behavior to develop an online social media and ad campaign.
Our online presence helps us reach more people more often throughout the year. The Riders Recycle website has information about how to dispose of used oil and filters, drop-off locations, a calendar of events for DIYers to get free oil and filter recycling materials, and a DIY oil and filter change blog. From the website analytics, we could see that Riders Recycle blog posts were some of the most popular pages on the site. Our most recent blog post includes easy-to-read content, pictures of how to prepare oil filters for recycling and an embedded map of drop-off locations, addressing several of the barriers and questions we receive in one place.
Riders Recycle has a growing social media presence, supported by targeted advertising. Facebook is great for maintaining a relationship with your community, sharing events and gaining new followers with geo- and interest-targeted ads. For Facebook, Google, and Bay Area Riders Forum, we created simple filter-focused GIF/video ads that encourage DIYers to seal up their stockpiled oil filters and drop them off at a local collection center. We targeted motorcycle enthusiasts during the beginning of the high motorcycle riding season, garnering thousands of clicks and views and hundreds of thousands of impressions. Online advertising brought in more than a quarter of all California-based visitors to the website this year. The ad results and analytics help us learn more about key demographics of people who engaged with the content, which can inform future content and ad development.
While there isn’t a “one size fits all” approach to effective marketing, using research to develop appropriate content for in-person outreach, website, social media channels and targeted advertising can help you reach your audience enough times and, in enough places, to increase the likelihood of action.
There has been a lot of media coverage lately about the problems and challenges of recycling, including the rejection of the tons of recyclables that we used to ship to China. Because of the news, many community members are aware that something bad is going on with recycling.
In our presentation at California Resource Recovery Association (CRRA) on August 12 in Rancho Mirage, California, I presented some notable examples of anti-contamination recycling messages by haulers, as well as our own work tackling these issues in Palo Alto and Livermore.
We based our work on actual recycling realities in each city. In Palo Alto, the contamination was focused on food and liquid in recycling. In Livermore, sorting issues (“Wishcycling”) as well as organics cart contamination were affecting the quality of the recycling stream. These findings informed our social media, newsletter content and campaign concept development.
Clearly presented information, using clear calls to action (Wipe, Pour, Scrape, etc.) and good visuals is a start to tackling the problem. Reaching residents using a multi-channel approach, and repeating the message regularly will help get the word out.
View the presentation below:
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.
We face a lot of challenges in our work at Gigantic, as we encourage, cajole and persuade folks to recycle, reduce waste, use less water or reject chemical products. The problems of pollution, waste and climate change are so immense that the actions of one individual seem unimportant, even useless. Recently we are seeing this message amplified even by those on the “right side” – environmental activists.
A recent article getting a lot of attention was headlined: “I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle.” The article itself was a balanced call to action, outlining that while individual actions matter, change must also be initiated at the government, policy and corporate levels in order to avoid catastrophe. But the headline really bothered me. I worried for the huge percent of readers who might see the headline (it spread through social media) and absorb its message without reading the article. The last thing we need at this point is for individuals to give up, thinking they can’t make a difference. The intertwined threats of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss need technological fixes and legal intervention, but they also need the understanding, support and commitment of every individual, be they an inventor, a lawyer, a CEO, a mother and/or an artist.
Social change can only come with individual change. Major positive change throughout history — abolition, civil rights, workers’ rights — came through a combination of channels, including popular entertainment, lobbying, advertising, media, organizing, protesting, boycotts and, all of the one-on-one conversations and commitments initiated by people who care.
Technological fixes, viral memes, policy change – there is a panoply of responses to immense environmental challenges. There is no single solution; every step must be a “yes, and” – we need this AND that. In our work with public agencies, we always encourage a multi-touch, multi-directional approach – top-down and bottom-up – for the most effective campaigns.
I’m an environmental activist. I want systemic change at every level. I want government and business to step up and take steps that are not going to be easy or pain free. I want everyone to consider the consequences of their actions. AND…I care if you recycle.