Plastic Packaging and Health: The UNWRAPPED Conference

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.

attendees group shot
In June 2019, Stef attended the UNWRAPPED conference that brought together over 100 attendees to share new findings about the human health impacts of food packaging.

For Environmental Challenges, We’re All in This Together

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. 

demonstrators with signs asking for systems change
Both individual and group actions matter in the face of environmental challenges.

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.

Riders Recycle: Messenger, Message and Materials for Behavior Change

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.

Tekla Balukas, our outreach manager and avid motorcyclist, at The Legendary Sacramento Mile.

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.

Language Matters

A Stanislaus County motorcyclist using our free oil change recycling materials at a Frank Raines OHV Park event.

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…

“Selling” No-Waste Holiday Gifts with Fun and Connection

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!

 

 

Plastic Free July, Take 2: Lessons for Behavior Change Campaigns

Plastic Free July turtle logo
The Plastic Free July campaign uses norming and pledges to encourage behavior change.

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.

Sunnyvale’s FoodCycle Branding and Video — A CAPIO Award Winner!

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.

 

Gail: Entrepreneur with Idealism

Gail at Liba FalafelOften 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.

Liba recycling and compost bins
Real-life items draw attention to what goes in which bin.

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!

Liba Falafel store front

 

 

Make Those Green New Year’s Resolutions Last

Here at Gigantic we often advocate to make public commitments or pledges a part of an environmental behavior change campaign. New Year’s resolutions are a great example of behavior change efforts (even though 80% of them are discarded by February!) The most effective resolutions are made publicly, have specific goals, and are realistic and simple. Going public means you are more likely to keep your resolutions, so, with that in mind, here are some of the Gigantic team’s 2018 resolutions:

Lisa and Jackson fighting food waste

Lisa will be trying a new approach to reducing the large amounts of food waste related to raising her 11-year old son, Jackson. On most days of the current school year, he returned home with an entire lunch uneaten. Applying barriers and benefits research, she talked to Jackson about why it was happening. Barriers included forgetting—he was playing with friends instead of eating—and not finding the food appetizing after it sat in his lunchbox for 3 hours. “Like all moms I worry if my child is eating enough. But the waste is troubling me. In 2018 I’m going to let Jackson choose to purchase the school lunch if he is hungry. We gave him a watch with an alarm to remind him to eat. And to address my worry, I’ll send along a non-perishable snack in case of emergency.” A pilot test run demonstrated that Jackson chose the school lunch every day, so the new year is already looking food-waste free!

Pedal on, Kas!

Kas is back in the saddle this year – bike saddle that is. She starts training in January for the AIDS/LifeCycle; she will ride her bike from San Francisco to Los Angeles during the first week of June. Kas often spots litter and illegal dumping on her Bay Area training rides. Sometimes cyclists themselves are the cause of litter with items that fall out of their overstuffed jersey pockets or, worst of all, those cyclists who purposely discard wrappers along the way. Kas pledges to pick up what trash she can and/or report illegal dumping through the See Click Fix app on her phone… and if by chance she can catch up to someone who has littered, she will take a moment to “educate” them on the finer points of leaving nature better than when they found it.

Stef laboring in her garden

Stef continues her efforts to create a backyard wildlife refuge, in spite of some setbacks in 2017, including relentless weeds and an infestation by some very hungry, non-native caterpillars that killed all 18 bush lupines. “After countless hours of weeding and hand cramps from spraying infested plants with soapy water, the promise of a quick fix with pesticides looked pretty darn tempting,” she admits. But fearing the pain of cognitive dissonance if she were to use chemicals in her all-eco yard, Stef pledged to apply more elbow grease instead. She’ll put down her third layer of sheet-mulching and is set to crowd out weeds with low-water, bee-feeding, bird-harboring California natives early this spring.

Plastics Patrol: Nancy & Moxie

Nancy is keeping the same resolution that she has (more or less!) successfully kept for the last 3 years. She resolves to pick up and properly discard at least 1 piece of plastic trash on every dog walk. Moxie the Pugwiler likes her exercise, so Nancy takes her out around 500 times a year – that’s over 500 pieces of plastic removed from San Francisco’s Sunnyside neighborhood annually. Unfortunately, there is no problem with finding the trash. “I often try to pick up the trash in a place where others see me doing it,” says Nancy, “It’s my attempt to norm litter pickups, to help people see the problem as everyone’s problem and a solution that we all can own.”

 

 

Nicole (left) the Kale Whisperer

Nicole feels inspired by her work on the StopFoodWaste.org campaign to try to waste less by using a shopping list based on the meals she plans to eat each week. Though it’s hard to plan ahead with a busy and spontaneous schedule, it will help her save food and money, and not feel so guilty when feeding that slimy kale to her backyard worms, though it’s better than the landfill. “Food waste is a big problem in America, but there are a lot of helpful tips and tools to plan, store and use up extra food and leftovers,” says Nicole, “It also helps to eat before going shopping!”

We wish everyone a Happy New Year and pledge to work with you for a cleaner, greener 2018. Please let us know if we can help with your environmental behavior change campaigns.

 

Sez Who? Picking the Right Messenger for Environmental Outreach

As we work on environmental behavior change campaigns, we spend a lot of time crafting the perfect look and wording – to get the message right. Choosing the right messenger for that message is essential for its success. The Gigantic team’s presentation at the 2017 California Resource Recovery Association Conference covered several aspects of thinking about the best messenger.

Sometimes a public agency’s message can be strengthened and find traction when delivered in a different voice. The messenger’s “personality” can take several forms and can be delivered live, in print and digitally:

Mascots

Mascots have the power to attract and engage people and make them care about issues such as recycling, waste or water quality. Creating and implementing a mascot messenger takes planning, patience and creativity. We presented examples of recent environmental mascots and talked about the process for creating, naming, scripting and distributing a mascot.

Peers

A message is easier to accept if the viewer identifies with the person delivering the message. Our presentation touched on how to evoke thoughts like “Well, if she can do it, so can I” or “I want to be more like that person” in an environmental campaign, by recruiting community members to deliver the message.

Social Media

It’s easy to treat social media like another advertising channel for promoting your organization’s events and campaigns. But social media can be so much more than a digital bulletin board. We looked at ways to establish a personality on social media that doesn’t just tell folks what to do, but that interacts, observes, and participates in the broader online community. One excellent example is Baltimore’s Mr. Trash Wheel, who demonstrates best practices for tone and engagement.

Here is the CRRA presentation covering the above topics. Please let us know if you have questions or would like to talk about how the right messenger can work for you.

 

Observations from a Plastic-Free July

Expressing gratitude for change is important.

At Gigantic, we work hard to “get inside the heads” of the audiences we try to reach. How difficult is it to get someone to change behavior, even to be aware of that behavior? I experimented on myself last month, when I joined the #PlasticFreeJuly movement, and tried to avoid buying or accepting anything made of plastic for 31 days.

The first thing I noticed was anxiety, and a tendency to over-compensate. Should I stock up on plastic on June 30 so I could get through the month comfortably? What would I have to give up? Just how uncomfortable is this change going to be?

How can a behavior change specialist address her own fears of change and scarcity?

The Thrill of Failure

My first day was a failure, but also a tremendous success. I went out to lunch and ordered a cocktail (it’s OK, it was a Saturday!) The drink came with a straw – I had forgotten to ask for no straw. Disaster in the first few hours of the experiment! I posted about my personal failure to Facebook and Twitter, tagging the restaurant. I was amazed to see several supportive comments, even from “non-green” people with whom I had not interacted in years, saying they, too, were sick of plastic and that I should keep trying. Then, lo and behold, the restaurant responded to me via Facebook, saying that they, too, loved this particular cocktail and from now on would serve it without a straw. Victory! I took away from this experience that it can be more effective to post about one’s own weakness, to acknowledge error, rather than trying to be a brave and mighty eco-hero.

Challenges kept on coming throughout the month. In some cases there were joyous substitutions – I discovered that bread sliced at the bakery and wrapped in paper did just fine in the freezer, so breakfast was set.

Plastic = Convenience

As the month wore on, I realized that plastic equals convenience, and that I had to re-align my idea of what was convenient. Yes, it takes longer to bring your own containers and use the bulk bins of the market. It takes more effort to go to the cheese shop where the owner was happy to wrap my slices in paper – not an option at the supermarket. On the flip side, I had wonderful conversations with folks behind the counter; some were bemused by my requests, some were delighted. But this was an opportunity to connect with people in my neighborhood whom I had, frankly, barely noticed before. How to translate this greater feeling of community to our work?

When To Give Up

In some cases, going plastic-free meant going without. Tortillas and potato chips, indeed all salty junk food, were not an option, unless ordered in a restaurant. I had to cheat in a couple of instances, choosing less plastic over no plastic for things like toothpaste and olive oil. Luckily I don’t take a lot of medicines, but when I ran out of Vitamin D…I caved and bought more in a plastic bottle. I noticed the feeling of guilt and this time I did not share my “failure.”

It’s August now, and I have relented a bit, but the plastic-free exercise has stuck with me. The main thing I took away from July was a heightened awareness of plastic’s never ending presence in our lives. Entire aisles of the supermarket were off limits – which after a while felt quite restful. Connecting this ubiquity with the fact that of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic ever made, 6.3 billion metric tons have become plastic waste, with no end in sight. After this experiment, I am reminded as we plan campaigns that in many cases we are asking people to change, to give up something, to be inconvenienced. These are big asks. While these changes seem essential and even joyful to those of us in the environmental field, I believe it is essential to integrate humility and understanding into our campaigns, so that people feel understood and supported as we travel together on this journey to more sustainable living.

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