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

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.

 

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.

Using the ‘F’ Word: How Framing Can Motivate Behavior Change

Can we re-frame enviro issues to make them palatable?

A constant challenge in environmental outreach is how to portray an issue in a way that reaches people with varied worldviews. Neuroscientist George Lakoff and the concept of framing has been much in the political news lately, as opposing sides try to create impressions (also known as bias) in their listeners’ minds. Lakoff notes that all communication has frames:

“The elements of the Communication Frame include: A message, an audience, a messenger, a medium, images, a context, and especially, higher-level moral and conceptual frames.”

We know that facts alone don’t change behavior; to succeed, a message needs that emotional element that reaches the deeper parts of our brain. How can environmental outreach frame important issues in a way that reaches, convinces, and persists to make long-term positive change in behavior?

Lakoff gives one example in his blog, suggesting that instead of talking about environmental regulations, we reframe laws as environmental protections.

Framing a concept like food waste should be simple – no one likes “waste,” right?
The message of buying only what you need, using leftovers, and composting what is left is quite straightforward, but we have a long way to go to tackle the huge amount of food that is wasted. Two recent examples show how framing the issue, while acknowledging the facts, can show success.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
Activist Selina Juul has worked for years on a multi-touch approach to reducing food waste in her adopted country of Denmark. She recognized that change had to come from all sides: business, government and, most of all, consumers. In this video, she reframes food waste as disrespectful to nature, farmers and to the individual’s own time and money.

 

Ugly? No, Beautiful!
2 "ugly" tomatoes kissingA more local success story focuses on our friend and colleague Jordan Figueiredo. Jordan’s Ugly Fruit and Veg campaign aims to reframe frequently wasted, less than perfect produce with humor and heart, in order to make what had been rejected, acceptable and even coveted.

Jordan couches his multi-touch campaign work as Funactivism, which counters the view some hold of activists as overly serious or shrill. Jordan successfully uses many of the tools of activism and behavior change: touting simple individual steps, assurance that individual actions make a difference, use of pledges and norming, combined with a top-down approach to companies. He has used charming photos spread via social media to challenge people to change their attitudes about what is “ugly,” reframing ugly fruit and vegetables, and by extension, reframing our view of what is beautiful.

Choosing the most effective way to frame an issue takes research, patience and testing. Most of all, it takes creativity and always remembering that change comes from within, and people act because of what they feel even more than because of what they think.

How will you frame your next campaign?

Touched by the Cart: Five Recycling Videos with Emotional Appeal

Stevie Wonder sings in a recycling video from the early 1990s
Stevie Wonder sings in a 1991 recycling PSA.


Haulers, waste agencies and environmental outreach professionals have been working for decades to improve the U.S. recycling rate, yet overall the country’s recycling rate is around 34 percent – so there is much room for improvement.

Part of the challenge that we see is putting the emphasis on operational facts before attracting people with an emotional appeal.  Search for “recycling” in YouTube and you get almost 900,000 results. Most of the top hits focus on how to recycle. Some examine if it works, or problems with recycling. But very few focus on why people should recycle, which is a very important factor in encouraging behavior change. In fact, the video results indicate how we take recycling for granted, assuming everyone is already on board and participating. The truth is, even with established behavioral practices, it helps to periodically boost morale with a new appeal that is fun, moving, or otherwise stirs our feelings.

There’s a kind of taxonomy that emerges if you look at enough videos that encourage recycling. Here are some categories with examples of different approaches, mostly light-hearted, that aim to increase recycling and composting activities:

“Here’s What to Do”

This is a classic “what goes where” video from Livonia, Michigan.  The viewer is given no context, no appeal to emotion, just “this is what to do.” (And it’s not so simple, either!). While the information is important, the delivery could be more compelling:

Hot Tunes and Celebrity Sightings

This 1991 classic from an earlier time of recycling outreach has action-packed celebrity sightings and groovy music in an attempt to make recycling cool. The video played on MTV and in move houses and was part of an integrated campaign by the Take it Back Foundation that included classroom curricula and the development of a resolution introduced to the House and Senate to declare April 15 “National Recycling Day.” It’s a great example of use of using a catchy campaign to increase awareness. (Bonus – how many of the celebs can you name?)

This Cal Recycle video combines humor and a self-deprecating celebrity “endorsement” from Ed Begley Jr., as the public is shown that you don’t have to be a star to make a difference.

Personifying Trash

Some campaigns take the point of view of the stuff being recycled rather than the recycler, as in this video from Keep America Beautiful. It was created following research that showed that only 10 percent of Americans have a recycling bin in their bathroom:

Personifying the Bin

If creating empathy for trash doesn’t help, how about empathy for the recycling and compost bins? Here’s one example from the UK, aimed at making folks more mindful of those useful outdoor bins:

At Gigantic, we thought that creating an organics cart mascot would raise awareness, and use of the green cart when we created this video for the City of Livermore:

We’ll be looking at the use of memorable messaging to increase recycling and composting participation during our session “Not Just the Facts, Ma’am: Getting the Message to Matter” at the CRRA conference this August. We hope to see you there!

Bite-Sized Outreach: A Single-Material Campaign Focuses on Food Waste

A typical set of curbside recycling instructions can leave residents confused. At this year’s California Resource Recovery Association/SWANA conference in San Jose, Gigantic Idea Studio presented an alternative approach: make it bite-sized.

To kick off our session on behavior change outreach and food waste diversion, Wendy Wondersort (aka our own Stefanie Pruegel) hosted the Sorting Game, with NorCal competing against SoCal to win the coveted Golden Pizza Slice. One team was given a long, complicated list of recycling instructions. The other received more straightforward directions. Can you guess who won?

The golden pizza slice winner
And the winner of the coveted Golden Pizza Slice is…Deb Phillips of the San Joaquin Regional Conservation Corps!

The Sorting Game helped us demonstrate how too many messages can lead to poor recycling outcomes. To show a real-world example, we presented the concept and results of a single material outreach campaign conducted with our partners at the City of Livermore earlier this year. This “bite sized” campaign focused on one material – pizza boxes – and used multiple tactics to reach residents. The simple instruction: pizza boxes go in the green cart.

To make our outreach message memorable, we created a “story line,” where Binny, the hungry green Organics cart, visits with a Livermore family as a dinner guest and craves the delicious pizza box once the family is finished eating.

The slideshow below goes into detail on the strategy and tactics of this multi-touch campaign, including partnerships with businesses and community organizations, creation of a 30-second video and accompanying contest, and a combination of online and offline tactics to ensure that residents got the message.

Early results show an increase in the number of pizza boxes correctly sorted and a greater confidence in proper disposal amongst residents surveyed. The City of Livermore has been a great partner, and we look forward to piloting more single-material campaigns in the future and continuing to share outcomes.

Questions?

There were many great questions at the end of our presentation at CRRA, and we wanted to share answers to a few of them:

What were ancillary benefits of the campaign?slide sample: multi-touch campaign

While focusing on one material, we were able to build a character and storyline around it that we can now leverage for other single-material campaigns. In addition to seeing some positive operational results, the campaign’s contest offered the opportunity to opt into receiving Livermore Recycles e-news updates; two-thirds of all contest entrants opted in to receive these news updates.

Is brand consistency between campaign and program recommended?

In general, it is a good idea to have a consistent look and feel for campaigns launched by an agency, and that was our strategy for this campaign. There may be instances when a more neutral or different campaign branding might be appropriate, if appealing to a segment like young people or those who might be distrustful or fearful of government agencies.

Could this type of campaign/strategy be scaled up to a regional or statewide level? 

A bite-sized approach can be scaled up or down, depending on the target audiences. However, a regional or statewide campaign may need to consider leveraging additional or different tactics from a local campaign.

Do you think this type of campaign could be applied to business outreach? 

Absolutely!

Resources

Here are some resources we recommend for further reading on behavior change theory:

Diffusion of Innovations, Everett M. Rogers

Fostering Sustainable Behavior, Doug McKenzie-Mohr

The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell

Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

Influence, Robert Cialdini

Our April Fool’s Quiz Answered

Our April Fool’s quiz asked readers to say which of four possible waste reduction innovations was true:

4 waste reduction scenarios
A, B, C or D?

A. Self composting organics carts in Abu Dhabi,

B. Pneumatic tube waste system in Germany,

C. Recycling drones program in San Jose, or

D. Cat hair balls in the organics stream in Portland.

The right answer is B!  There is, as some of our commenters pointed out, a long history of using pneumatic tube systems to collect trash. The practice began in Sweden, and has been used since in several towns in Europe, at least one Olympic Village, and even at Disney World. Our own Stefanie Pruegel let us know that the system installed in Munich for the 1972 Olympic Games is still in use, now serving the 3,500 condos created from the Village once the games were over. She knows this because her mother lives in one of the buildings.

We were delighted by the erudite and thoughtful responses of so many of the commenters. Of the 16 “votes” received, six picked B, followed by three each for A and C, two for D (ah, those cat lovers!), and one for None of the Above. Thanks for taking up the challenge and responding with such care.

One thing the blog and your responses made clear: When it comes to waste reduction (by which we mean all of the 4RS— not just “reduce”/prevention), there are many right answers…and some have not yet been discovered. No fooling!

(In case you were wondering: the April Fool’s blog author, Avril Poisson, is not a new Gigantic staff member; it’s just a play on words from the French version of April Fool’s, Poisson d’Avril.)

 

Recycling Spot Checks: Flipping Lids in Livermore

During the last week of September, my colleague Stefanie Pruegel (pictured left) and I (pictured right) donned orange safety vests and set out before sunrise to study recycling program participation in various neighborhoods in Livermore, California. Armed with headlamps, clipboards and maps, we walked some 20 miles over five days and flipped about 2,000 recycling and organics cart lids.

Stef and I flipping Livermore lids.

This walkabout was part of our observational research to gain insights into residents’ recycling and composting habits, including contamination patterns (i.e., putting things in the wrong carts). The data we gathered will also measure the baseline participation rate. Repeating this measurement after an outreach campaign will allow us to compare the results and determine how successful we were as well as guide the next phase of outreach. This particular kind of measurement can be a messy job, but someone’s gotta do it.

During our lid-flipping adventures, several patterns emerged:

• Livermore loves pizza and is confused about leftovers.  In Livermore, the proper process is to chuck pizza boxes and leftovers into the Organics (compost) cart. Pizza boxes are considered food-soiled paper (as are most fast food paper wrappers), and pizza crusts are considered food scraps – all of which goes into Organics. However, we found households were evenly split over whether to put the box in Recycling or Organics.

• Livermore is a thirsty bunch, and cup sorting is a challenge.  What is the preferred destination for takeout cups, lids and straws? These items are made of both plastic and paper, and each needs to be handled IMG_2610differently. This leads to a lot of consumer confusion. We found that no matter if the cups were for cold drinks (plastic) or hot drinks, (paper) the majority ended up in the recycling cart, along with their lids and straws. But, the lids and straws actually go into the garbage, and the paper cups go in the organics. This kind of contamination adds considerable expense for waste haulers and ultimately can drive up trash rates. (Please Note: This is a general observation and not a prediction for Livermore.)

• Livermore has beautiful yards, and sorting the waste is a conundrum.  Throughout the week we “ooh-ed” and “ah-ed” at the beautiful yards and landscaping in the neighborhoods we saw. However, many residents seemed to assume that anything from the yard belongs in the Organics cart. In fact, certain items like pet waste belongs in Garbage, not Organics. Putting whatever blows (or gets pooped) in people’s yards into the Organics cart causes another costly contamination headache.

We saw some clear consistencies in what was going right and wrong in the carts. Next we will tabulate our findings, design an outreach campaign to focus on the most prevalent behaviors that need to change, and afterwards, check those carts again. We look forward to helping the city and the citizens of Livermore “sort out” any issues and move forward with their waste reduction goals.

 

Recycling the Big Apple (Core): Food Scrap Collection Comes to New York City

The New York City mayor’s office last week announced the rollout of food scrap recycling to City residents after a successful pilot program in Staten Island. apple on a NYC park benchWhile this newest move toward Zero Waste by a big city is encouraging, we suspect that plenty of Zero Waste Outreach will be needed to make this new behavior palatable to blasé New Yorkers. The Big Apple will come up against many of the barriers to food scrap recycling that we struggle with on the West Coast, including countering perceptions of odor and vermin — aka the “yuck factor” — that make introducing food scrap recycling so challenging.

While several headlines focus on New York’s new “leadership” with this move, it should be noted that the City’s broad goal is to divert 30% of waste from landfills by 2017 (and 75% by 2030), as compared to San Francisco’s goal of zero waste by 2020 and the State of California’s goal of a 75% diversion rate by 2020, with an ultimate target of zero waste. New York’s current residential recycling rate is a startlingly low 15 percent.

The City conducted a pilot program in Staten Island, and officials were heartened after reaching a 43% participation rate in the targeted area. However, Staten Island is atypical of New York in that it comprises largely single-family homes. We know from our outreach work that multi-family dwellings (MFDs) are one of the most challenging segments when it comes to organics recycling … and there are a lot of apartment buildings in New York. MFDs lag single family dwellings in recycling rates by a huge margin. In Seattle, for example, single family homes achieved a 70.3% recycling rate in 2010, versus 29.6% for MFDs. Barriers to food scrap recycling in multi-unit buildings include space concerns, the perceived inconvenience, high turnover among residents and building managers, and lack of accountability, as the anonymity afforded by a large apartment building can let people assume that no one will know who’s not using the correct bin.

Believe it or not, curbside food scrap composting has been tried previously in New York, with a pilot program in Brooklyn in the early 1990s. But perhaps the effort was ahead of its time. The pilot wasn’t extended due to concerns that diversion would be low, while the expense and environmental impact of adding another truck route to the waste collection system was high.

In the interim, composting has been championed by a local agency, NYC Compost Project, which supports and promotes community-based composting sites throughout the City. The 20 years that have passed since the Brooklyn pilot likely means a better return on investment

We salute New Yorkers for taking steps toward reducing waste; each diverted pail-full will make a difference. If food scrap recycling can make it there, it can make it anywhere!

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