“When in doubt, take it out” is a rule I apply as often as possible when editing my own writing and that of others. By removing words or seeking simpler vocabulary or constructions, writing often becomes more clear, comprehensible and even beautiful.
A new book by Leidy Klotz, professor at the University of Virginia, takes the idea of ‘taking away’ to a whole new level. Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less posits that humans are programmed to solve problems by adding stuff – elements, ideas or things – whereas subtracting them often clarifies and eases a problem. One of the book’s first examples is the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco. The project was opposed by a majority of citizens and politicians on a number of operational and economic grounds. Yet once the freeway, damaged in the Loma Prieta quake, was removed, the benefits became obvious – and huge. Klotz notes “The decade after removal saw a 50 percent increase in housing and a 15 percent increase in jobs around the waterfront. (p. 3) A beautiful space was created, businesses thrived, people flocked and … traffic became less snarled.
Are there environmental problems that can be addressed by removing rather than adding? Klotz addresses this possibility and gives some examples. He suggests applying subtraction to the 3Rs: “When the current situation exceeds planetary boundaries, we need to subtract first. Remove must become the first R.” (p.210)
Klotz’s research is introduced in the video below. While subtraction is not the answer to every problem, it’s another tool we can use when approaching environmental outreach…and everyday life.
In case you haven’t heard (!) – it’s election time. The season has been particularly intense this year. One approach for reaching voters and potential voters is through influencers – individuals who have built up a relationship with devoted fans who take cues from them. Observing how these powerful people affect behavior and outcomes can be very relevant for those of us working for environmental behavior change.
Our environmental campaigns often feature people who share likes, interests and world view and demonstrate the behavior we want to see. We may target occasional gardeners to get them to use less toxic pesticide, or campers to get them to use recyclable propane containers. These folks often take cues from someone they admire, who shares their interests and values – that is, from influencers.
This article in Behavioral Scientist notes that (in general) influencers don’t have universal influence; but, they have impact and authority with those in their group who identify with them.
The article suggests:
One way to strengthen a group identity is to help people understand the causal connections between that group and other important aspects that people use to define themselves. Peaceniks should be told how important belonging to the group is to fostering world peace; football fans need to associate their local club with achieving football glory.
A recent CNN article gave several examples of nonprofits working to encourage influencers to get young people to register to vote. Being a successful influencer means you identify with the population you are trying to reach, and you are comfortable with the channels (such as TikTok or Animal Crossing.)
Influencers don’t have to have millions of followers:
“We’ve found a way to build a program of influencers big and small; most have around 1,000 followers. Makeup bloggers, Greek life on campus, doggie Instagrams, drag queens and everyone in between have been really receptive to us sliding into their dm’s [direct messages] to save democracy. Our influencers are typically nonpolitical and have audiences who trust them, so when they are providing links to register or pledge to vote we see really great engagement levels,” said Heather Greven, communications director at NextGen America.
And then there are the questionable incentives that some influencers offer their millions of followers in return for an action. The YouTube star David Dobrik got 120,000 people to register to vote…by offering a sweepstakes to win a Tesla! David got the idea from a fan, who posted the idea on TikTok. Ironically, as a Dreamer immigrant from Slovakia, Dobrik cannot vote himself.
What does this have to do with those of us working for environmental behavior change? The advantage of engaging with influencers for waste reduction or energy savings are the same as those to encourage voting: find and work with influencers – not necessarily eco-people – who already have a relationship with a target group and help them (don’t tell them to) create behavior change. But maybe cool it with the extrinsic motivation – no promising folks an electric car if they give up single use bottles…!
Reducing food waste and diverting it and other organic materials from landfill is key to reducing methane emissions in the state. California’s SB 1383 establishes targets that many businesses are now working to meet. The implementation of SB 1383 was a major focus at this year’s California Resource Recovery Association (CRRA) Conference. As results come in, communicating about SB 1383 implementation and the efforts to reduce emissions will be important; but how much do Californians already know about food waste and its connection to climate change? We conducted a brief statewide survey of Californians to ask a few questions about their understanding of greenhouse gas emissions, landfill and food waste. Some responses were heartening, some were a bit depressing, but data emerged about how to communicate these concepts to different segments of the population.
See the slideshow:
To summarize, we noted:
- Most Californians do acknowledge that climate change is happening, and that human activity is a major contributor.
- However, 40% of respondents do not connect food waste with the climate.
- Many people are unclear about what happens to food waste in a landfill.
- Messaging about “doing the right thing” may resonate with several different audience segments.
As with any outreach effort, it’s best to understand how much your audience knows and how they feel about a particular issue before designing a campaign. This survey is just a first step in thinking about how to message about food waste reduction efforts and their relationship to the climate crisis.
If you would like a copy of the survey report, please email Gigantic.
Members of the Gigantic team have been observing Plastic-Free July for some years now (see past blogs). Besides being the right thing to do, it lets us understand how it feels to set and strive for challenging environmental behavior goals. This year, going plastic-free has been harder than ever, as COVID-19 concerns have made plastic more common, even in places like the farmers’ market, where it was rare before.
Team member Dennis Uyat decided to keep a record of the plastic he could not avoid during July, despite his best efforts, and reflect on how it could be avoided.
To get a handle on this pile, Dennis sorted the waste into categories. Note the new arrivals this year: PPE masks and gloves, which are a huge, problematic addition to the waste stream.
Next, Dennis came up with a strategy for avoiding these items in the future. While “reduce use” is a common call-to-action, we also like the gentler, more encouraging “do your best.” No one likes to feel like a failure at waste reduction or anything else!
Plastic is a problematic material. Lightweight, flexible and adaptable, it is also, more importantly, a pervasive, harmful pollutant that has reached all corners of the planet and into our bodies. Efforts like Plastic-Free July can help raise awareness of the ever-present plastic in our lives and help us be more mindful about avoiding it as much as possible.
We are living in truly historic times, a potential turning point for race relations in this country. At Gigantic, we acknowledge our place of privilege, and are working to use the learnings from environmental behavior change to make our work and our company more effective change agents. Studies show that racial injustice and climate injustice are intimately intertwined — one cannot be addressed without addressing the other. We recognize that working for environmental justice must be at the center of our efforts moving forward.
Making solutions that work for all communities starts with listening to under-heard Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) voices now and from the past. We honor and learn from the work of those who have come before in striving for environmental justice, including Van Jones and DreamCorps/Green for All, the California Environmental Justice Alliance, the Greenlining Institute, Planting Justice and so many more activist and outreach organizers in the Bay Area, from the Black Panthers to Diablo Rising Tide.
We recognize that we have much more to learn, but also that actions must accompany words in pursuit of environmental justice.
As we know from our work, commitment, especially public commitment, is a key tool for behavior change. Therefore, we are making some initial public commitments:
- Gigantic will work with industry organizations (such as NCRA and CRRA) to create and support leadership pathways (e.g. scholarships and donations) for BIPOC interested in zero waste professions. Starting now, we are adopting a company policy to set a yearly goal for donated money and labor to support this important work. For 2020 we will donate up to $2,000 in financial support and $2,000 in Gigantic staff labor hours to fulfill this goal.
- We pledge to actively advocate for BIPOC-centered spaces in our industry at the discretion and leadership of BIPOC professionals/community members.
- We will continue to engage our clients in conversations around inclusive stakeholder engagement and true representations in all media, keeping environmental justice top of mind.
- Further, we recognize that this is a process that will require ongoing, sometimes difficult, work as a company to track and incorporate racial and environmental justice values in our practices, and we will consciously dedicate time to regularly evaluate our progress and set challenging goals.
Bolstered by heroic past examples and inspired by present actions and activists, we are hopeful these contributions, however small, will help progress toward a just and sustainable future.
Last week, the Gigantic team watched the documentary The Story of Plastic — separately of course, at home. Each team member then shared the one takeaway that struck them the most.
Having worked for positive change in the solid waste field, we all knew the film wouldn’t be very uplifting, as Lisa expresses. But she sees possible solutions:
As someone who has promoted public participation in recycling for 25 years, it was painful to watch the scenes showing plastic trash piling up on the streets and waterways in the Philippines and Indonesia. It is tempting to feel that recycling is futile. But upon further reflection, it is not that recycling is all bad, or doesn’t have a place in a sustainable future. Instead of trying to recycle whatever comes down the pipeline, society must move toward sustainable packaging solutions, such as limiting product packaging to a handful of easily recycled materials. We can build recycling infrastructure in the U.S. to meet our needs.
Peter wants to see a change in how plastics are used, and hopes that take-back programs and legislation will improve prevention and recycling of plastic waste:
While we are fortunate in the Bay Area to have progressive policies geared toward reducing single-use plastics, the Story of Plastic shines light on the global impact of this issue. When less than 1/10th of plastic produced in the last 40 years has been recycled, it’s time to rethink our plastic use – not just accept the fantasy that it will be recycled. Without a doubt, plastic is a valuable resource. However, there are exciting, viable solutions – such as extended producer responsibility (EPR) and single-use bans – that significantly reduce the environmental impact of plastic.
Nancy was more skeptical of bans and EPR:
The film’s solution of legislation is problematic in the U.S. Perhaps we are doomed to become the world’s laggards in zero waste adoption, and that may rub off on others.
“EPR” needs re-branding- it’s a dull, unattractive term with intimations of punitiveness and what I call “fussy mom-ness”. [This runs in a lot of environmental messaging. Instead of “stand up straight” and “clean your room,” we get “don’t put that there” and “stop doing this.”] How can we make Extended Producer Responsibility an exciting call to action?
Stef also commented on EPR, with a perspective on its use in her home country:
In Germany an EPR system for packaging was written into law in 1991, but almost 30 years later it has not solved the plastic crisis there. Companies pay license fees for the amount and type of the single-use packaging they bring to market. Those funds in turn pay for third-party businesses to collect and process the materials, in alignment with recycling goals set for different material categories. Although price structures favor non-plastic and more recyclable materials, they haven’t led to less plastic because the material itself is so cheap. This also means recycling is hardly lucrative. With incineration (waste to energy) counted as “recovery” in much of Europe, it is not a surprise that true plastic recycling in Germany is at only 16% and plastic packaging is everywhere, in spite of EPR.
Both Kas and Dennis were most struck by the injustice of how the plastic pollution crisis plays out around the world. Kas said:
This film brings to light the interconnectedness of the plastics problem we face on our planet and reminds me of another global pandemic we face right now — especially around the inequality of those who bear the brunt of the issue. Without a global, coordinated and transparent effort to right-size the issue this single-plastic genie will be tricky to get back into the (recyclable) bottle! Daunting, sure, and yet we have to try!
For Dennis, the environmental justice issues presented in the movie resonated on a personal level:
Many scenes in the documentary reminded me of growing up in east Los Angeles, where for decades Exide Battery Recycler in Vernon had spewed lead into the surrounding communities of Boyle Heights and Huntington Park. My childhood home was less than half a mile from a roofing chemical plant that also emitted pollutants. I didn’t need to go to the Philippines, India or Indonesia to experience environmental injustice—it was a given in my own Latinx community. In the same way that Houston lacks a planning code, which enables heavy industry to be sited next to communities of color, so too was my community vulnerable to being on the frontlines of pollution. Perhaps my own lifespan has been cut short by 10-20 years as a result of this proximity. What would happen if a refinery were put in places like Beverly Hills? If we want to solve the plastic waste crisis, environmental justice and social equity must be part of it.
Inequity was also what stood out most for Nicole. But she sees hope in the type of community organizing featured in the film:
What really stuck with me is the extraordinary power of movements joining together across cultures to fight back against the decisions made primarily by a privileged few in the West. The film does an amazing job of highlighting the inequitable distribution of the negative impacts of single-use plastics, primarily felt by frontline communities around the world, but also sharing the stories of community leaders that have organized to demand producer responsibility and create local, regenerative systems. It gives me hope that during this unprecedented time people who were not aware are waking up to these stark inequities and starting to listen to and join frontline communities in demanding systems that support rights for all life, not just the privileged few.
As the Gigantic team continues our work for positive environmental behavior change, we encourage our network of clients, partners and allies to watch the documentary and join us in doing the necessary work to stem the tide of plastic pollution.
In early March, when the coronavirus still seemed like an obscure disease, the Gigantic team was in full swing, preparing for Earth Month. For Clean Water Program Alameda County, we had created outreach event kits and were about to promote countless litter cleanups. For Santa Clara County, we had partnered with dozens of coffee shops to launch a “bring your own cup” campaign. My own calendar was full of gatherings, including the big climate march in honor of Earth Day’s 50th anniversary. Then stay-at-home orders hit the Bay Area, and everything involving a group of people in person was canceled. How could Earth Day turn 50 without a celebration?!
After the first shock, many Earth Day organizers started to take activities online. After all, if everything from staff meetings to Quarantini Happy Hours can happen remotely, why not Earth Day too? In the beginning I was skeptical, wondering if honoring this important date in physical isolation could instill the same sense of community as a march for the Earth or a creek restoration event with likeminded people. But as our team kicked into action to reimagine campaigns and retool outreach materials, like we did for Clean Water Program, I started to see countless new opportunities to build awareness
and change behavior. “Earth Day at Home” can open our eyes to many powerful actions that we’d usually be too distracted and busy to take. This may be the time to do a 10-minute fridge reality check and learn new habits to prevent food waste. Try one of many delicious plant-based dishes, good for our own heath and that of the planet. Stroll around the backyard and discover how even a modest patch of native plants can support a little universe of insect diversity. The team of Oakland’s Earth Day 2020 has compiled many more such actions—in fact, over 50!
Looking beyond our homes, I’m heartened to see so many creative approaches aimed at bringing people together while keeping everyone safe. The Smithsonian’s virtual Earth Optimism 2020 Summit offers four full days of webinar workshops, films and conservation success stories from around the world. An online event by the Climate Music project and National Academy of Science explores the intersection of music, climate science, and community action. The California Coastal Commission is sharing highlights of their work (and awe-inspiring photos) from wetlands to coastal wildlife all #EarthMonth long. The list of events goes on, with many compiled on a searchable global map by the Earth Day Network.
As I now ponder Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, I feel hopeful about the event’s power to bring the environment back into focus, connect people who care about the Earth on a larger scale, and maybe ring in a new era of activism once restrictions lift again. To all our clients, allies and fellow environmentalists, Happy Earth Day!
With the effects of COVID-19 spreading across the globe and the entire state of California required to stay at home as much as possible, we are living in a truly challenging and unprecedented situation. What does this mean for Gigantic’s clients, mostly local government agencies and non-profits involved in environmental behavior change? Business as usual seems a little unrealistic. How can we live into the needs of our audiences to provide information and encouragement while still living our mission?
Local Government has a particular opportunity to choose a friendly and positive tone with messaging:
- “We do real, important stuff.” Emphasize essential services like waste collection that are ongoing, rain or shine. Point to specific workers who are getting it done.
- “We are your neighbors.” We live here, too, and want the best for the community.
- “We’re In This Together.” Has never been more true. While this message does not move everyone (no message does), now is the time to stress universal cooperation, as no one is immune or untouched by COVID-19’s effects.
Communicating with the public via websites, email or social media posts is still a possibility and an opportunity. Of course, the tone of the messages is important and may need to be adjusted during this period. We all know this is a high-stress, challenging time. This is no time for playing the blame game (e.g., asking people to avoid excess packaging by ordering online). We need to put aside some of our favorite themes (such as promoting the use of reusable cups).
Messaging is more important than ever, and already we are seeing how poor messaging can have consequences. For example, we hear a lot about “social distancing” — an accepted term in epidemiological circles — that is not immediately understandable or resonant with the general public. Social what? One could assume it means “staying off social media” rather than “staying six feet apart.” Perhaps “physical distancing” would be more appropriate. In these times we want to encourage stronger social bonds – checking on neighbors and families online, for example – while maintaining a physical distance. The group March for Science recently summarized tips in a Facebook post:
The communication best practices of clarity, specificity and simple language apply now more than ever. The WHO’s recent ad on Google’s home page does a good job:
One thing we know is that people are turning to social media as an alternative to chatting by the office coffee maker. It is still a good time to converse with our constituents! Topics for posts revolve around our “new normal” here in California:
What AREN’T people doing?
- Going out to bars, clubs and restaurants
- Spending time at the office
- Planning trips/parties/picnics
What ARE people doing?
- Working from home
- Home schooling the kids
- Spring Cleaning
- Shopping online
- Using products, such as wipes and gloves, that they may not have used before (see image below.)
There are plenty of ideas for messages now:
- Yard waste goes in the green cart
- Avoid garden chemicals – hand weeding can be very soothing
- Planning meals (so many meals!) to avoid food waste
- Wipes belong in the trash
- Take time to sort
- Appreciation for waste haulers and others working during this crisis
- Calming pictures of local landmarks and nature
Of course, if COVID-19 becomes even more dire, there may come a time when cheerful posts about recycling gin bottles strike a false note. As always, those of us who communicate with the public need to live into what our audiences are experiencing and choose when or if it’s appropriate to communicate about particular topics.
From the whole team at Gigantic Idea Studio: Be well!
As we move full speed into 2020, I finally took a moment to reflect on the past 10 years (of my 18 years as founding partner!) here at Gigantic Idea Studio. I noticed that our portfolio of projects from the last decade reflects the evolution of recycling and pollution prevention programs locally and worldwide.
Feeding Food Scraps to Compost
In the early to mid 2010s the focus of residential outreach turned to food scraps. Many of our projects assisted local agencies with promoting participation in food scrap recycling programs—getting food and food-soiled paper into green carts so they can be composted instead of landfilled. These programs reduce waste and greenhouse gases—a win-win. Binny the Green Organics cart, a mascot we created for Livermore Recycles in 2014, has worked tirelessly to win the hearts and minds of residents to help them overcome the “ick factor” and compost their organics. We have watched Binny become a local star with many adoring fans!
The City of Palo Alto started a food scraps collection program in 2015. Gigantic helped promote this new practice through a character named Zak Zero, and by featuring local residents as peer messengers. Palo Alto now composts 2,300 tons of food scraps a year, saving 670 metric tons of GHG. And 80% of households participate, at least partially!
Sorting Out Recycling
As California ramped up recycling and composting requirements, the last few years of the decade saw the recycling world turn upside down. China’s National Sword policy impacted markets and affected recycling programs. In response, much of our recent work has included ads, bill inserts, articles, and videos to promote the message that sorting recycling properly is a serious matter—and that recyclables should be empty, clean and dry. Our most comprehensive campaign on this topic, Recycle Ready, was done for Palo Alto, and you can see it here.
In the past few years, we’ve helped StopWaste develop content to address the hot topic of food waste—a potent greenhouse gas contributor in Alameda County. Our work with StopWaste over the last decade also supported the implementation of a mandatory recycling and composting ordinance—also a trend of the last decade—as local and state agencies flexed the power of public policy to help reach waste reduction goals. As we enter 2020, we are proud to be part of the team working on food waste reduction in Santa Clara County.
Cutting Single Use Items
Another trend in waste reduction—the reduction of single-use disposables— is another pressing issue gaining traction in the media, as coverage of marine debris and coastal litter has gone mainstream. Cities in the Bay Area and beyond are responding with foodware ordinances, plastic straw bans and produce bag requirements. We’ve worked to help promote efforts to reduce use of disposable foodware with StopWaste, County of Santa Clara and most recently, supporting the new foodware ordinances in the City of Palo Alto.
Connecting Behavior Change to Clean Water
Lastly, we look back fondly on the decade that saw our relationship with Clean Water Program Alameda County grow. In the early 2010s we focused on general stormwater education as well as integrated pest management topics related to gardening. But with the explosion of awareness of the Pacific Garbage patch and wildlife harmed by marine debris, the severity of the issues facing our oceans gave birth to our beloved mascots Fred and Izzy. With three video campaigns under our belt, we look forward to creating a new video on gardening in 2020. We were happy to expand work on these topics with “YardSmart Marin,” a new organization aiming to reduce pesticide use, and with City of San Rafael to reduce illegal dumping. In 2020, we look forward to piloting a litter reduction campaign as well.
Here’s to the next decade of engaging the public in programs for a healthier world!
At Gigantic, we understand that facts and figures are important for advancing science and for communicating about issues such as the impact of climate change. But plainly presented facts are not always ideal for inspiring action and behavior change. Visual and performing arts can be very useful for helping people see the larger picture, grasp relationships through story and create an emotional response that will reinforce action. Two Bay Area examples show the way.
In downtown San Francisco, a 60-foot-high mural of climate activist – and TIME Person of the Year – Greta Thunberg fixes passersby in Union Square with an implacable look. The mural is a project of the nonprofit One Atmosphere and Argentine artist Cobre. Ms. Thunberg is an icon of climate resistance and the single-minded passion of young climate activists all over the world. This 16 year old has become a heroic and still very human and vulnerable face of the climate movement; the mural’s unavoidable stare serves as a prominent reminder of the need to raise climate awareness.
Also in San Francisco, the Climate Music Project seeks to “ tell the urgent story of climate change to broad and diverse audiences in a way that resonates, educates, and motivates.” A collaboration of world-class scientists and musicians, the Project supports science-guided music and visual experiences to inspire people to engage actively on the issue of climate change.
I recently saw a concert of pieces inspired by climate change data by San Francisco Conservatory of Music composition students and was impressed by the different creative approaches the students took to portray the grim statistics.
Artists around the world are grappling with how to express the enormity of the emergencies of climate and biodiversity loss. Their work can inform and enhance our outreach efforts and remind us of the importance of vivid communication in all our environmental work.