Going Plastic-Free in Pandemic Times: A Tough Job

Click above to see the phases of Dennis’ Plastic-Free July waste audit.

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.

2 images of plastic sorted  by type with alternatives to try to reduce it

The Gigantic Team Reacts to The Story of Plastic

story of plastic coverLast 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. 

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.

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.

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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