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!
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.
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 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.