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.
For over a decade, Gigantic Senior Associate Stefanie Pruegel wrote articles, ads and other content to promote something she always wanted to do: create a “Bay Friendly Garden.” But living in a small urban condo made that impossible. Fast forward to 2016: Stefanie bought a property with front and rear yards in need of some serious TLC, giving her the chance to live her values and use her knowledge to create something awe-inspiring.
Bay Friendly Gardens prioritize drought-tolerant and native plants, use integrated pest management (IPM) instead of pesticides and herbicides and reduce water use. Stef began right away by converting the lawn to a native plant garden, using information on sheet mulching and planting that she learned from our client, StopWaste.org. From there, she added native plants and trees, with over 100 species represented.
“Honestly, it was a lot of work, but rewarding to restore the property to add wildlife habitat. For a while, my satisfaction was all about the transformation and techniques. But now I love to just sit and enjoy the flowers and watch the butterflies, birds, bees and hummingbirds that weren’t there before.”
Stefanie also thinks it’s important to share what she has done to inspire others. Not only did a neighbor replace his lawn because he was motivated by her work, but the garden is being featured at the annual “Bringing Back the Natives” Garden tour on Sunday May 5, 2019. Stef says the best way to help people understand possibilities is to “show, don’t tell.”
In addition to the lush plantings, Stefanie installed three 1,000 gallon rainwater collection cisterns, which she hopes will keep the garden going without any additional water throughout the summer season.
Used motor oil, like other household hazardous waste (HHW), can have a lasting negative impact on the environment. Used motor oil from just one oil change can contaminate a million gallons of fresh water – a year’s supply for 50 people. It’s insoluble, persistent, and contains toxic chemicals and heavy metals. Luckily, used oil can be recycled over and over again and saves energy and other resources every time. Used oil filters can also be recycled for the oil that remains inside as well as the steel.
But why target motorcyclists? It turns out they are more likely to change their own oil than the average car owner and will often change the oil on their other vehicles as well. Riders Recycle’s goal is to increase awareness and improve used motor oil and filter recycling among Do-It-Yourself (DIY) motorcyclists. You will find our in-person outreach team at many events throughout the year (especially in the spring and summer). We also get the message out through our Riders Recycle website, social media channels and geo-targeted digital ads. Along the way we’ve learned some important lessons.
The Messenger is Key
Credibility is an important factor in any community, but it’s critical with motorcylists. From cruisers with Harleys to dual-sport adventure riders to dirt bikers and more, motorcylists are quick to notice if you’re not one of them. With several long-time motorcyclists on the Riders Recycle team, they know the right language and tone to use with each of the diverse motorcycle groups. As our team develops better relationships with event promoters, motorcycle retail businesses, race organizers, and off-road-vehicle organizations, we’re able to connect with new motorcycle communities. No matter the audience, it’s important to choose messengers who look like, sound like and ideally come from the communities that you’re trying to reach.
Because our team “speaks the language” of motorcyclists, they’re able to build trust and encounter more receptive attitudes towards the oil and filter recycling message. Even with the aversion to “environmentalist” and “government” messages in some of the motorcycle communities, when our outreach staff take the time to listen to concerns and emphasize common values, most DIYers open up to change, no matter their initial stance. With off-roaders, the message works best when recycling is positioned as a responsibility to the land, community and access for future generations. Efficiency-motivated riders are excited to learn about the technicalities of the oil re-refining and filter recycling processes. It’s wort it to take the time to understand your audience and test language to make sure it resonates with them.
In-person Outreach Works Well for Complex Behaviors
More complex behaviors like oil and filter recycling can benefit from in-person outreach that allows for longer conversations. While social media and digital ads help to reinforce the message, they aren’t always enough for behaviors with several barriers like recycling used oil and filters, reducing food waste or stopping illegal dumping. With in-person outreach, you can communicate why, how and where to do the behavior, give out tools to make it easy, and encourage community ambassadors.
While there are many more lessons we’ve learned in working with this diverse audience and in the HHW world, we’ll leave those for the next blog, including a filter-specific campaign we’re planning based on our research in San Mateo County in 2018. Until then…
Gigantic Idea Studio is proud to introduce our newest Associate, Peter Mach. Originally from Pennsylvania, Peter lived in the Bay Area for four years. Prior to joining the Gigantic team, Peter worked for Code REDD, an environmental nonprofit based in Mill Valley, focused on preserving forests, protect wildlife, empowering people and reducing emissions. As Assistant Director, Peter led the organization’s flagship program, Stand For Trees, an innovative grassroots campaign that empowers individuals to take action against forest loss, the number one cause of species extinction and a contributor to climate change.
Before moving to the Bay Area, Peter lived in Washington, DC, and worked at the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) on forestry policy and legality issues. EIA is a pioneer in undercover investigations to expose environmental crime around the world. Peter contributed to these efforts and promoted the Forest Legality Initiative, a multi-stakeholder initiative working to reduce illegal logging by increasing awareness and supporting legally sourced timber and forest products. This work took Peter to five continents in just two years.
Peter holds a dual graduate degree from Colorado State University, where he studied how industry, non-profits and government agencies can collaborate to find solutions to environmental challenges. As part of his thesis, he examined responsible fishing policies in Chiapas, Mexico. He also served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic and domestically as an AmeriCorps Team Leader in Alaska.
Peter first became passionate about the natural world growing up in central Pennsylvania, where he earned his B.A. in Media Studies from Pennsylvania State University. Building on all his experiences and learnings to date, Peter is interested in—and good at—finding solutions at the nexus of conservation and livelihoods, in particular around the complexities of climate change. He looks forward to bringing his skills to the Gigantic team. Outside of his time at Gigantic, Peter can be found riding his bicycle in the Marin Headlands, on his kayak or otherwise enjoying life in the Bay Area.
I’ve got a guilty secret to share. To retreat from the past year’s stressful news cycle, I’ve been watching Christmas movies on the weekends, on a cable channel that is running them marathon-style, non-stop until Christmas. Last Sunday, while watching Return to Christmas Creek, I was heartened to see that a prominent theme was the rejection of material gift giving during the holidays. The story’s main character, a busy professional named Amelia, is told by her boss that her shopping app, designed to easily buy gifts online, is missing the true spirit of Christmas: personal connection. He rejects funding it and Amelia is devastated.
We were thinking of this very theme as we developed a video ad to promote waste-free gift giving with Santa Clara County Recycling and Waste Reduction Division. Our video also celebrates experience and connection over things. Gifts that provide experiences create memories—and while stuff ends up in the landfill, memories last a lifetime:
At the end of her journey of self-reflection, Amelia revamps her shopping app to include ways to help those in need, and because this is happening in movie-land, it is celebrated and funded and everyone gets their happy ending! (Oh, and she reunites her family and finds true love in the process of course!).
In order to help people give Zero Waste gifts of experience, we created a list of great gift ideas on SCC’s website. For a real-life version of Amelia’s app, or if you’re thinking of starting or promoting a registry, try out SoKind. The site allows anyone to collect non-material, homemade and charitable gift ideas in one place to share with friends and family.
Best wishes for a fun-filled, waste-free holiday season from the entire Gigantic team!
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.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were a magic brochure template? Something that we could just pour your content into and, voila! outreach campaign launched. Just stick it in the mail and all will be well. We wish effective environmental behavior change worked like that, but, unfortunately, one “size” of outreach plan, not matter how magical, does not work for all. Each situation is different and requires a custom approach that takes into account the problem, the environment (cultural, social, political, and yes, natural) and the desired and feasible solution.
The Gigantic team’s presentation at the 2018 California Resource Recovery Association Conference gave examples of outreach campaigns that provided tailored approaches to the challenge at hand. Outreach aimed at “everyone” will effectively reach no one. If you want to maximize impact, do your research and start with the best “low hanging fruit” — this will provide immediate results and data for future phases.
Choosing the Right Style for THAT Guy
Kas described our work with a concerned citizens’ coalition in Marin County with a mission of reducing the use of environmental toxins – pesticides – by county residents. The group’s call to action was to encourage the uptake of Integrated Pest Management practices (IPM) to replace toxic chemicals. IPM requires knowledge, planning, special tools, and yes, awareness to become a workable solution. Our survey indicated that the people most likely to use chemical pesticides were males who valued speed and effectiveness over safety. See the presentation below to see how we targeted THAT guy to raise awareness of this smart, if challenging, alternative.
Butting in on Cigarette Butt Litter
Meghan presented two litter-reduction case studies that highlighted the challenge when the desired environmental solution – providing a safe and easy way to dispose properly of cigarette butts – clashes with the public health solution – discouraging smoking by not providing ashtrays at transit shelters. No easy answers there!
Finding A Well-Cut Solution
Nancy presented on Gigantic’s ongoing work with the City of San Rafael to understand and address the very specific needs of a district of the city where illegal dumping had become a big and expensive problem. What at first seemed like a simple brochure need turned into a research project to understand the real barriers that this low-income, high-density community experienced when faced with what to do with a bulky item that was no longer needed.
Here is the CRRA presentation covering the above topics. Please let us know if you have questions or would like to talk about how we can custom-tailor an outreach campaign for you.
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!