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Turning the tide on plastics

Turning the tide on plastics

We’ve all seen the National Geographic photograph of the seahorse grasping a plastic cotton bud and the rivers of plastic […]

Manipulated photo of sand and plastic replacing sea

We’ve all seen the National Geographic photograph of the seahorse grasping a plastic cotton bud and the rivers of plastic bags in far-flung nations where waste management infrastructure is non-existent. Awareness of how plastic is polluting our ecosystem is at an all-time high.

But what can we do as communicators to keep the sentiment positive and to prevent the risk of ‘green fatigue’ setting in. That is, a state of being where the average consumer is literally tired of hearing about environmental issues.

Simon Kruper’s ‘How to sell climate change’ suggests that we “talk about people today”, not some abstract scenario of what the planet will look like when our grandchildren come of age. Rather than painting a picture of a distant future, it’s better to highlight climate disasters that are happening today. It’s only when people feel “personally threatened” that they will act. Kuper’s argument says that immediacy makes an issue more relatable and can bring that issue closer to our hearts.

Stories spark conversation

When we merge immediacy with creating narratives and stories that bring scientific facts and figures to life, then we frame a mammoth problem in a way that can be understood on a human level, appealing to our hearts and our minds.

A great example of this is the documentary series Blue Planet II. Episode 7 in the series painted a searing portrait of the how the plastic we use everyday impacts the entire ecosystem — from marine habitats to our food chain. Natural historian and broadcaster David Attenborough told a simple story framed in an immediate action and immediate consequence matrix, yet it was so potent that it sparked a global conversation on social media.

“something must be done about the plastics epidemic”

Unless you broke up with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn last year, you will have seen images of sea birds that had choked to death by plastic milk bottle tops, sea mammals cut open to reveal they’d been literally stuffed to the gills with plastic bags. Social media Influencers and non-influencers alike didn’t just ‘like’ or ‘share’, there were comments and there was dialogue that showed that the general public had come to a consensus that something must be done about the plastics epidemic.

A little less conversation, a little more action

Photo of multicoloured plastic products exploding in front of black background

The conversation about plastic pollution fuelled direct action on both micro and macro levels. There is now an EU-wide ban of single-use plastics and  manufacturers must pay for the costs of waste management. Where national government initiatives has been slow to make legislation, big business has picked up the slack. IKEA is committed to phasing out oil-based plastics and is aiming to ensure all its plastic products are made using recycled materials by August 2020. Nestle announced this week that it is to make 100% of its packaging recyclable or reusable by 2025. In terms of shop floor innovation, the first package-free grocery stores are popping up from Berkeley to Berlin and larger grocers Budgens piloted a plastic-free zone in one of its London stores.

“we must remain creative in approach and keep finding ways to  make the issue relatable, human.”

There are also small ‘nudges’ in our behaviours that get us to small things that add up to make a difference, more of us now travel with reusable coffee cups on our daily commute and reusable water bottles when we go to the gym. Recycling is now a daily habit for many, but there is still some way to go in terms of educating the public on what types of plastic can legitimately be put in the recycling bin. And while we know that the small nudges aren’t going to turn the tide in any drastic way, that here is still a lot more work to do in waste management, infrastructure and government legislation before we can really bring ourselves back from the brink. But is the public ready for more information? For more messaging? For yet another campaign?

Herein lies the danger of ‘Green Fatigue’ at a time when awareness / engagement / conversion is high, won’t more campaigning fall on deaf ears? As communicators we can prevent this by pushing away from the temptation to ram facts and figures down peoples’ throats, we must remain creative in approach and keep finding ways to  make the issue relatable, human.

Scientific language needs ‘framing’

Just like picture frames draw attention to parts of an image inside it, linguistic frames can do the same with ideas. This technique is encouraged by Dan Kahan, a leading researcher in science communication. He believes that instead of talking about science, communicators should make it personal and relatable. Discuss how plastic affects issues pertaining to  their own health. By framing the issue in a human, relatable way, this scientific evidence becomes important to individuals.

“stories are a much more powerful tool for learning”

Scientific language can make people shut down because facts and figures can be difficult to process. Also, when science is met with doom, fear and distrust, it can be easier to deny it than to grapple with the tension it creates.

Instead of bombarding people with scientific evidence in its raw state, communicators need to focus more on how to present that evidence. People are being given facts, but we know that stories are a much more powerful tool for learning.

Metaphors matter

When we talk about framing an issue, metaphors can help provides these frames. This has proved particularly useful for climate change, particularly when using metaphors for global warming to influence people’s behaviour. The metaphor of drowning in oil was used by Greenpeace in 2014 in a YouTube video that went viral (none of the major broadcasters wanted to show it). The result was LEGO ended its partnership with Shell. 
Why not use the same for plastic? There’s such an opportunity here for visual communicators, particularly when looking at the link between plastic and humanity. As communicators, we focus on the human stories. In order for any communication or behavioural change to take effect we must be able to create an emotional response. We have to humanise the problem, so people can relate more easily to the solution and be inspired to take action that will make a difference.