The 3 Cs of Plastic Bag Bans Around the World: Culture, Convenience & Cost



This month, Alameda County joins dozens of California cities and counties to ban plastic bags in most retail establishments. As part of outreach to prepare the public, events like reusable bag giveaways were conducted, right. Plastic bag bans have picked up steam around the world. Entire countries, from Rwanda to Ireland, have implemented bans to reduce the environmental scourge of those oh-so-convenient plastic bags.

Outreach (beyond enforcement of penalties) needs to play a key role in bag ban success. Is there an optimal scope for the ban, the best time frame for phasing in, the most effective messaging to gain acceptance? It looks as if bag bans, like so many other measures aimed at changing behavior, are affected by the 3 Cs: Culture, Convenience and Cost, as well as the big T: Time. As is so often the case, it takes way longer than might be expected for a simple behavior change to take root and become second nature … but it can be done.

Lessons from the Developing World?

Interestingly, the “developed world” was not a leader in banning plastic bags.  The first country to ban plastic bags was Bangladesh, back in 2002. The impetus for the ban was the dangers of increased flooding and sewage problems as plastic bags clogged the sewer infrastructure. Outreach seems to have consisted of threats:

“After the ban, the government, environmental groups and NGOs carried out awareness programmes on TV and in mass information campaigns, warning offenders that they could be fined up to the equivalent of US$71 and six months of imprisonment for using polythene bags.”

The ban encountered problems due to lax enforcement and a lack of affordable alternatives to plastic for all uses, though jute bags were encouraged. Ten years later, plastic bags are still surreptitiously handed out by some vendors, but plastic is much less of a problem today for the country’s drainage system,  a huge issue for the low-lying nation.

Culture’s Role
Enacting policy takes time: a nationwide ban on plastic bags in Rwanda was proposed in 2005, and passed in 2008 (some plastic bags have been made into soccer balls, right). The ban has been quite effective, as an accepted cultural event was incorporated from the beginning: gathering up plastic bags was incorporated into the nation’s monthly mandatory community clean-ups. Plastic-Free Times reports, “Once the ban passed, locals were encouraged to use the monthly obligatory communal work session, known locally as umuganda to collect all the plastic bags lying around or buried.”

The Burden of Cost

Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and still recovering from the massive earthquake of three years ago this month, banned both plastic bags and foam containers last fall. As of October 1, the import, manufacture or marketing of the bags and containers is forbidden. Besides fighting the pollution issues, it is hoped that the ban will spur the local economy to create alternatives: “Importing, manufacturing bio-degradable items will benefit Haiti’s short, mid- and long-term environmental interest,” noted Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe. Just as here in California, the ban will disproportionately affect the poorest sectors the hardest, as affordable alternatives to the lightweight and ubiquitous plastic bags are not yet widely available. Regressive effects are a factor in the U.S. as well: in an attempt to correct for this, the Alameda County ordinance on plastic bags exempts those paying with WIC (food stamps) from the ten cent charge for reusable bags.

Making the New Behavior Convenient

Far from the streets of Oakland, the citizens of Delhi, India are struggling with massive environmental challenges, including plastic bag pollution. The city government banned bags in 2009, but the ban did not take, particularly at smaller retail stores, and manufacture and use continued. Last November, a new ban on the manufacture, import, sale, storage and use of all plastic bags, sheets, films or tubs (except for those for biomedical waste) went into effect, with enforcement and penalties to be doled out under the Environmental Protection Act. The New York Times reports that outreach efforts are being incorporated from the beginning: “Government officials are also planning to start an awareness campaign about the separation and recycling of waste, using social networking sites, and will hand out a limited number of jute and cloth shopping bags to select Resident Welfare Associations.”

Different cultures around the world have to approach the issue of pollution differently, taking into account local customs, government structure, and available alternatives. Some days it seems like achieving Zero Waste is a losing battle, but each step toward raising awareness of pollution and its consequences is an advance that will pay off in planetary spades.

For more on bag bans around the world, see Drop the Plastic Bag.


The Business Case for Outreach – and Faith in Human Beings

at work in a MRFAre public agencies charged with waste diversion giving up on people too easily?

As an environmental outreach firm working in the solid waste realm, mostly for public agencies, Gigantic Idea Studio has a unique vantage point. We
have long observed a marked underinvestment in outreach by the majority of public agencies. Now these same agencies appear to be giving up on the public when it comes to full compliance and participation in curbside recycling and other resource recovery programs. “It just isn’t working,” or “This is just a community that is never going to cooperate,” are phrases we hear commonly these days. The presumed answer? Technology … such as dirty MRFs, for example.

Will Dirty MRFs Help Us Get to Zero Waste?

What’s a dirty MRF, you ask? Well, a MRF is a Materials Recovery Facility—traditionally an operation in which a combination of people and machines handle the sorting and other processing not taken care of prior to the recyclable materials being placed in curbside carts (or recycling dumpsters, in the case of businesses). At a dirty MRF, unsorted trash—containing all kinds of recyclable material is separated, mostly mechanically, at great expense. And now there are “wet MRFs,” that use water to separate and clean recyclables, and dissolve organic material. These systems require no sorting on the part of residents or businesses, who can throw anything and everything into their cart or dumpster. To many working tirelessly to increase diversion and even reach Zero Waste, this appears to be a wish come true. No more reliance on those pesky humans to do what you want them to, and no more mucking around in the messy business of communication. Or so it would seem.

Giving Up On People Too Soon?

But here’s the thing: wouldn’t it be more beneficial in the long run to change the public’s behavior around recycling? It seems to us that outreach hasn’t been given a proper chance, given the tactics, messaging, design and other communications components that have been used by agencies and haulers thus far. True public outreach is conducted strategically, methodically and unrelentingly—not just when a new program rolls out, but before, during and long after. Effective outreach, resulting in maximum participation by the majority of the public, takes an unceasing drum beat of consistent messaging, compelling professional design and tactics that meet people where they are: out in their communities, not just in their garbage bills. All of this takes resources: budgets of $20,000-60,000 a year in a community of 150,000 just isn’t going to cut it, especially when you remember that public agencies are competing with everyone else’s messaging for “mindshare,” including large corporations with multi-million dollar marketing budgets.

Weighing the Price of Investment: Technology Or Outreach

We can hear the cries of protest already: “If we spent $2.00 a person on outreach, we’d hear from our constituents, and it wouldn’t be pretty.” In a climate of economic downturn and diminishing support for government, we understand that spending on things like websites, recycling guides or exhibit booths can make an agency vulnerable to criticism, and we’re sensitive to that. But consider this: The price tag for building and running a typical dirty MRF runs into the many millions of dollars. If we were sitting in the walnut seats of the venerable City Council chambers around the State, we’d be more worried about the potential outcry about that! Beyond the financial bottom line is the ultimate goal of environmental outreach and a healthier planet And we believe that’s worth working and spending for.

Avoiding the Hero Trap in Environmental Public Outreach

Recycling Man Superhero
He’s super, but is he effective?

If you want to promote a behavior like recycling, appeal to your audience’s aspirations and call those who do the right thing “heroes.” Makes sense, right? We actually don’t think so. After some strategic musings, based on findings from a range of behavior experts, here’s why we think this common approach won’t work.

  1. According to the dictionary, a hero is “a person of superhuman qualities and often semi-divine origin …” In other words, a hero is someone who is special—by nature, outside the norm.
  2. Norming has been proven time and time again to be the most powerful strategy in changing behaviors. To norm a behavior, you want to give the impression that it is literally the normal thing to do. As sophisticated and independent as we like to think we are, the “everyone’s doing it” argument works best with us humans.
  3. So if heroes aren’t normal, and we all want to be normal, it follows that we don’t want to be heroes. Another way to put it is that heroes are anti-norming. (They wear tights in public, after all. Ack!)

But whom to put forth as a model of your target behavior, if not a hero? Why, Clark Kent, of course! Or, if you prefer, Joe Blow, the girl next door, Everyman. Clark will be your best influencer precisely because he is not special.

We recommend featuring a person who appears to be just like the average member of your priority group—in every way but one: the desired behavior. Clark lives in your neighborhood, dresses like you, has the same level of education and makes about the same amount of money as you do. The only difference is he recycles his food scraps, and you don’t. Better yet: Clark and all the rest of your neighbors recycle their food scraps. Sadly, you’re the last one on your block who doesn’t.

The message is two-fold: one, if you aren’t currently practicing a certain behavior (recycling food scraps, for example), you’re standing conspicuously outside your peer group; and two, if you do begin practicing the behavior, we promise you won’t stand out.

Contests Can’t Compete in the Race for Real Behavior Change

Contests are everywhere—particularly in our field of behavior change—so we know the argument we’re about to make will be unpopular with a lot of people. Here it is: while competition is exciting in Olympic events, we believe contests are not the hands-down outreach winner so many assume them to be.

The “spirit of competition” is often touted as an effective motivator, with vast resources being poured into contests that pit neighbor against neighbor, for example. We believe there are two problems with contests like these:

  1. The pleasure of winning is not a universal emotion, and
  2. Prizes place the motivation outside the individual and so only create temporary behavior change, at best.

Questionable Assumptions and Labeling Losers

It’s often assumed that winning a competition evokes happiness, pride in achievement and satisfaction in everyone. These are core human emotions identified by psychologists as being universal. However, we know from copious cross-cultural research that winning does not always bring happiness, pride and satisfaction. In many cultures, collaboration is valued more highly than competition. While winning a game might make one person feel proud, another might feel ashamed because of his/her particular background and values. So it is vitally important to put on cross-cultural “goggles” when we design outreach campaigns.

Another consequence of contests is all of the “losers,” who don’t win a prize and are therefore disappointed. This is typically the majority of participants, so why alienate most of your audience by dooming them to the label of loser?

Is Competition Now a Religion?

It is incorrect to assume that the desire to win will always motivate and change behavior. According to Alfie Kohn, author of No Contest: The Case Against Competition, “The race to be Number One has been described as America’s state religion. We have been trained … to believe in the value of beating people … Research and experience, however, demonstrate that competition is actually destructive … and counterproductive …” In another Kohn book entitled Punished by Rewards, he argues persuasively that holding out a potential reward (extrinsic motivation) is highly ineffective at changing behavior long-term.

A carefully designed contest can be an effective tactic for a target group that is more competitively oriented, if it is part of a larger, integrated campaign. In general we suggest using more constructive tactics that are more likely to result in long-term behavior change. We think that’s a winning idea.


Image by skynesher via iStockphoto

3 Rules for a Flourishing Website Redesign

Flower Growing in a garden

The Gigantic team is delighted that our newly designed website has gone live. The process of redesign, including a new identity, is something we take clients through all the time. Going through it ourselves reminded us of three ways a website is like a garden.

1. From seed to sprout, it always takes longer than you think. Redesigning and freshening content for a few web pages —- how hard can it be? Pretty challenging, actually. The website needs to reflect who you are, where you are going, and what you do..AND it’s got to do it in clearly organized, attractive and memorable chunks. Inevitably, internal differences are revealed as the organization re-examines its mission, values and direction— good discussions ensue, but they need time to be resolved. We typically allow six to eight months for a full re-design.

2. Choose easy maintenance over a gardening service. Websites can have so many cool features these days, but time and again we see organizations that have to rely on outside technical assistance to change a comma or upload a new photo. It’s important to:

  • Be realistic about internal capacities and get training on site upkeep as needed;
  • Have enough staff who understand and can use the content management system;
  • Document, document, document your procedures.

3. A living thing needs careful tending. Remember when when we overprinted time-limited brochures, or someone missed an error in a key headline or messed up the date of the newsletter? The advantage, but sometime headache, of websites is that they are living entities. On the upside, that means you don’t have to live with errors and can make changes anytime you like. However, it also means you need to supply new content nourishment and occasionally prune what’s there. So the launch of a site is just the beginning and needs to be accompanied by a manual of procedures and style. The manual should include guidelines on updating content, maintaining SEO, organizational tone, evaluating traffic and staff responsibilities. Otherwise, that healthy new site can wilt very quickly.

The new came to fruition with the help of our partners at Jiva Creative. We look forward to helping our next client with their rebranded website. We know we’ll approach the project with renewed enthusiasm, not to mention a bit more humility, now that we’ve walked in their shoes!

Ten Years of Gigantic History

Remember 2002?

  • The Mars Odyssey found signs of huge water ice deposits on the planet Mars.
  • The Rolling Stones’ LICKS world tour was underway.
  • A gallon of gas cost $1.61.
  • File-swapping site Napster was closed down.
  • Earth Summit 2002 was held in August in Johannesburg, South Africa; the U.S. did not send an official delegation.

Also in 2002: Shana Levy (now McCracken) and Lisa Duba joined up to form a new kind of marketing agency, focused on integrated, behavior-change-focused outreach campaigns for environmental programs. Gigantic Idea Studio was born. Ten years is a milestone for any business, and we feel proud as we look back at the past decade and recall the victories as well as the learning opportunities.

In 2001, Shana and Lisa were working on projects together as they had since 1995, when it dawned on them: Why not join forces and create a more powerful team?

Shana recalls: “Lisa and I already had dozens of projects under our belts, working together at a small marketing agency and then again on and off as sole proprietors. We knew our skills complemented each other, and we had a feeling that formalizing the alliance would be beneficial—not just to us but to our clients.”

“Looking back, it’s easy to see we’ve always been on an upward trajectory,” Lisa reflects, “but as entrepreneurs trying to make it in a very new field, every day has been a challenge. I guess the old saying is right. It really does take 10 years to be an ‘overnight success’!”

In the coming months we’ll be celebrating our 10th anniversary year in various ways, online and face-to-face. Watch this space to see what’s coming up! We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished in 10 years and envision great things for Gigantic and our clients for years to come.