Food Waste’s Impact on Climate: What Do Californians Know?

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

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

Our Commitment to Environmental Justice

photo of george floyd mural and oakland protest

We support the historic efforts by the Black Lives Matter movement, seen here at a march in Oakland, May 2020.
Photos: Thomas Hawk, CC license (left); Daniel Arauz, CC license (right).

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:

  1. 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.
  2. We pledge to actively advocate for BIPOC-centered spaces in our industry at the discretion and leadership of BIPOC professionals/community members.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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. 

Earth Day 2020: Same Planet, New Reality

earth day im
This year, coming together for our planet will be different, but just as powerful.

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

Clean Water Program’s Frog-tastic Activity Pack teaches kids at home about our creeks.

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!

Effective Environmental Messaging in the COVID-19 Era

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?

  • Cooking
  • Working from home
  • Home schooling the kids
  • Gardening
  • 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
This Facebook post gives a relevant environmental action for a now-common behavior: the use of disinfectant wipes.

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!

Reflections on a Gigantic Decade: Campaigns for a Healthier Planet

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!

Binny the Green Organics Cart helps Livermore residents recycle right.

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!

zak zero of palo alto
Palo Alto’s Zak Zero spreads the good word about zero waste
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.

Happy Reusable Cup says Together we can do great things
Promoting reusables 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!

Communicating Climate Urgency Through Art

mural of Greta Thunberg in San Francisco
Greta is watching us…

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.

Multi-touch Outreach: Getting in Gear with Riders Recycle

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.

San Mateo County DIYers with free oil filter recycling drainer containers at the San Mateo County Fair.

IN-PERSON

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.

This Facebook video ad encourages DIYers to seal up their stockpiled oil filters and drop them off at a local collection center.

ONLINE

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.

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.
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