by Becca Stallings
Now that you’re aware of the single-use plastic (SUP) problem, it can be hard to understand how other people can be so blind to the need to clean up our planet and make some changes in how we do things! People may react badly if they see you as “ranting and raving” about the environment. Maybe they feel attacked or nagged. Maybe you’re giving too much information at once, making our environmental crisis look so big and bad that it seems unsolvable.
What can you do that will make a positive difference, to make people aware of the problem and motivate them to become part of the solution?
PASUP held a Zoom presentation and discussion on this topic May 2, 2021. This article contains information that was presented and links to references. Contact PASUP if you’re interested in a presentation of this material to another group!
Here are some ideas from research studies and from my 30 years’ experience as an environmental activist and writer. Different strategies will be best for different people and situations, so pack your toolbox with several approaches you’ll be ready to use when a teachable moment arrives!
This is one of the most helpful concepts I learned as a psychology major in college: Cognitive Dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling in your mind when your Actions don’t match your Beliefs. One way to resolve cognitive dissonance is to change your actions, do what you believe is right. Another way is to change your beliefs to justify your actions.
Cognitive dissonance often is subconscious, so people don’t understand what’s motivating their defensive belief that an action was justified. One way to motivate a change of action is to make people aware that cognitive dissonance is a sign that they are good, caring people already; they only need to express it!
This applies to a lot of SUP situations! For example, picture a parent who takes his child to a playground every Friday and always brings a plastic packet of crackers and a plastic-lined juice box with a plastic-wrapped plastic straw, because this is the snack all the other parents bring. However, he feels sad about the straws and wrappers that are so often blowing out of the trash can and across the grass. He believes it’s important for his child to grow up in a clean, healthy, beautiful world and learn to respect and care for our environment.
As you help him pick up the litter, you can help him recognize that this isn’t solving the real problem: The trash still isn’t thrown away when it’s in the trash can and then the landfill. His belief in maintaining a healthy world and his belief in teaching his child responsibility need to be supported by action. He can show his child that when we get ready to go to the playground, we put a handful of crackers (from the big, recyclable box) into a washable box and pour juice (that we mixed from concentrate in a pitcher) into a washable bottle–and instead of throwing our things in the trash, we bring them home and wash them to use again tomorrow.
That kind of small change in routine can be very fulfilling. Sometimes people resist because they see reusing things as “too much work,” but here’s an interesting thing about cognitive dissonance: The more effort you put into an action, the more strongly you believe that you acted correctly. I’ve seen this over and over in myself and my friends: Acting on our values relieves cognitive dissonance so that we enjoy our lives more.
Over time, green actions encourage even greener beliefs, as people shift their goals from self-fulfillment to helping the world. A cross-cultural, longitudinal study found that actions like commuting by bicycle or recycling increased people’s sense of being responsible citizens, connected to the community, and always learning.
Try This Triangle
A useful method for difficult conversations comes from Breakthrough Strategies & Solutions, an organization focused on communication about climate change that has revised its discussion guide based on experience and feedback. The same method is easily adapted for focusing on other environmental issues.
This triangle can guide your approach to talking about SUP so that you focus on 3 essential angles, instead of rambling on with too many details.
The 3 corners of this triangle are the Threat, the Villain, and the Solution. Typically, if you’re starting a conversation, you’ll begin talking about Threat, then make sure to move on. If you’re responding to someone, start where they are, and look for segues to the other corners.
Here’s how the triangle might look when you start a conversation about SUP:
- Threat: “Plastic trash is turning our planet into garbage. Plastic also puts chemicals into our food, and plastic factories pollute our air and water.”
- Villain: “Companies are making money by convincing us that plastic packages and disposable things are convenient, clean, and easy. Really, we’re spending a lot of money on things we use only once. Why should they make big bucks destroying our world?”
- Solution: “I’ve been gradually switching over to reusable things that are healthier and better for our environment. In the long run, I save money, have a shorter shopping list, and don’t have to take out so much trash!”
In developing this method, the team at Breakthrough learned that 21st-century Americans really like the idea of communities taking control through local action. You’ll likely be most successful casting impersonal, distant, profiting-at-our-expense corporations as the Villain and friends working together to make wholesome changes as the Solution.
This method works well with a focus on larger values and goals over specific details. Get into the details only when talking about the Solution for cutting one specific type of SUP out of your life.
Solutions give people hope. Remember to move around the triangle rather than focusing too long on the Threat or Villain.
Who Has a Green Personality?
Researchers have identified some personality traits that are more prevalent among people who take steps to reduce their environmental impact and/or speak out against corporate or governmental environmental policies. If you’re trying to green a group, start by talking to the people who have these traits. When you recognize one of the traits in a person you know, emphasize that aspect of green behavior in your approach.
- Openness to Experience is the desire to try new things. These people are intrigued by alternative products and willing to question familiar routines.
- Conscientiousness is a sense of responsibility for your actions. These people don’t want to leave a mess, and they like feeling prepared.
- Extraversion is thriving on interaction with others. These people love being part of a group and trying things their friends are doing.
Compassion is another trait that might be seen as a part of personality, but it’s more malleable than some: Feeling compassion about one situation inspires people to act more compassionately in the next thing they do. One study found that college students who had just been thinking about the feelings of a homeless person or a sick child, as compared to students who were shown the same pictures and told to “stay neutral and detached,” were more determined to take steps to reduce their environmental impact.
That may explain why images of sea creatures harmed by plastic garbage are so effective at getting people to listen receptively to information about the SUP problem. It’s also a good reason to wait until the end of a meeting about civil rights, feeding the hungry, or other compassionate issues to propose minimizing plastic waste at the group’s next event.
Locus of Control
This is another concept from psychology that’s useful for motivating green behavior changes. Locus of control is your sense of who’s responsible for what happens in your life: An internal locus of control is the feeling that your decisions and actions guide your experience, while an external locus of control is the feeling that other people, larger forces, or random chance direct what happens to you.
Who controls your individual environmental impact? Well, it’s partly internal and partly external, right? You make a lot of the decisions about what you’ll do, buy, and use–but corporate decisions and government policies also limit your options, and you’re not always aware of pollution or exploitation involved in making something you’ll ultimately use.
This is one reason the Solution corner of the triangle needs to focus on what we ourselves can change in our immediate environment. Although awareness of the Threat and the Villain could motivate a person to attack the Villain (through letter-writing or attending protests) trying to change the Villain’s behavior, research shows that this is usually a later step in environmental activism, which follows changes in personal behavior.
Research on locus of control finds that people with a more internal locus are more successful at what they attempt, as well as healthier and happier, because they feel responsible for what happens and believe in their ability to bring about change.
Knowing doesn’t mean doing. Hearing facts about how our world is in trouble and many large forces are collaborating to make it worse, a person may just feel doomed. Even being told what we “should” be doing differently isn’t helpful if we’re feeling overwhelmed–we just feel doomed and guilty!
The classic motivational story of returning stranded starfish to the sea–you can’t save them all, but you can make a difference to this one–is an example of shifting the locus of control to inspire someone to do what they can do individually even though it isn’t perfect.
When you’re trying to shift someone’s locus of control, look for what is triggering that person’s cognitive dissonance. For the parent who sees trash from his child’s playground snack threatening his child’s beautiful world, taking control of the playground snack will be a fulfilling first step on his green journey–whereas if you start criticizing his habit of buying coffee in a disposable cup on his way from childcare to his office, he’s likely to snap back that you just don’t understand how much he needs to treat himself during those few minutes’ respite between being at the mercy of his child and being at the mercy of his boss! Start by nudging him to recognize that he wants to take charge of his child’s impact, and after a little while he’ll probably realize that he wants a travel mug for himself, too, and it wouldn’t be so hard to change that habit….
Find the Right First Step
Guiding a person to make effective, long-lasting changes is different from forcing a person to be like you. A person who feels attacked is motivated to be defensive, not open to change. Instead of inundating a person with facts and advice, ask open-ended questions, listen carefully, and try to reflect their own thoughts back to them.
Here are some open-ended questions you might ask about SUP:
- “What packages really annoy you?”
- “What do you think are the most common items in your trash?”
- “What’s stopping you from doing X instead?” [where X is a less-plastic alternative]
Listen for the possibility that they’re considering a specific change, and then offer facts (“Brand Z is in a cardboard packet!”) or personal experiences (“We used disposables at childcare but cloth at home.”) to support the feasibility of that change. Help them make a change that will have a positive impact on their own lifestyle.
Soon after the founding of PASUP, I was telling a co-worker about it, and she said, “How did you learn about this problem?” I floundered for a moment (wanting to say, “I’ve always known! The downsides of plastic are obvious!”) and then I said, “I’ve always been interested in making the most of resources–to save money and minimize damage to the environment–and there’s a lot of information online about avoiding disposable plastic stuff. I’ll send you a link!” and I sent 12 Ways to Cut Back on Single-Use Plastic. A few days later, this co-worker showed me the reusable bag she was going to use instead of getting a plastic bag when she bought lunch every day! A month later, she told me she loved her bag so much that she was giving one to everybody on her Christmas list. And by then, she was ready to discuss what she could buy for lunch that would have less packaging….
Do the Next Right Thing
A positive experience with one greener behavior increases the odds that a person will make another, similar change. My co-worker’s reusable bag got her thinking about the plastic clam-shell boxes around the food she was putting into that bag, and it made the idea of washing and refilling a food container feel more like something she could handle.
When you talk to someone who’s happy with a change they’ve made, congratulate them and reinforce their positive feelings. Then bring up something similar: “If you like your travel mug, you’ll love a utensil kit!”
Convey the idea that going green is a continuous process by talking about the new things you are trying. Some people make an Earth Day resolution to improve something new each year.
If a next step involves buying a different product, you might encourage change by giving a gift, sharing a discount code, or offering to order a case and split it–reducing the financial cost of taking that step. I know a couple who received a case of unbleached, paper-wrapped, 100% recycled-content toilet paper as a wedding gift, thought it was hilarious…and switched to that kind of toilet paper forever afterward. Without the gift, they might never have tried it.
The 40-Day Free Trial
One of my own most startling changes was supposed to be a temporary one. My partner Daniel and I understood that meat has a larger environmental footprint than most other foods (and it’s one of the hardest foods to buy without SUP packaging) but the idea of becoming vegetarians was just too daunting. We decided to give up meat for Lent, reasoning that at least we’d reduce our impact for those 40 days.
That was 19 years ago. We never went back to eating meat almost every day! Once we had tried living without meat, we felt that once a week is more than enough. We were capable of a bigger, longer-lasting change than we’d realized–but we wouldn’t have tried it if we’d thought we were doing it permanently.
Now I encourage people to give up one wasteful behavior for Lent or to do an intermittent fast like Meatless Monday that reduces a behavior by skipping it one day a week. Giving the behavioral change a “free trial” is easier than committing to it full-time and long-term.
Eternity in Your Hand
Many people didn’t give much thought to their environmental impact until they became parents–but then, suddenly, they realized the importance of maintaining a livable planet for their children’s future, and/or they found that taking care of someone other than themselves made them aware of the need to take care of the Earth.
I’m glad for every environmental awakening, however it happens–but it really isn’t efficient for a person to trash the planet for 30 years, add another person to the planet, and only then start caring about the environment. Also, many people never become parents, but we need them to be greener, too!
Research shows that thinking about how you, individually, want to be remembered–how the world will be different because you were here–has a subconscious effect motivating you to do greener things and contribute to pro-environmental groups. Think beyond the world a specific child will experience in her lifetime to consider your effect on the whole planet’s infinite future.
You’re never too young to start working on your legacy! As a Brownie, I was very inspired by the part of the Girl Scout Law that says I will “make the world a better place,” by the informal saying, “A Girl Scout leaves a place cleaner than she found it,” and by a paper switch-plate cover that reminded me to turn off lights when not in use. At seven years old, I could do my part to slow down the conversion of coal into air pollution.
Back in 2009, I was frustrated that so many people would buy disposable dishes and plastic tablecloths for church events, when we had cupboards full of real dishes and a drawer of real tablecloths! I wrote the essay “Eternity in Your Hand” to make them think through the story of each piece of plastic. There was an immediate shift toward using our real stuff almost exclusively, and it lasted more than a decade (until the pandemic put our gatherings on hiatus). Several people have told me this essay was what made them realize they were part of the SUP problem.
A blunter phrasing of the same idea came from a ten-year-old Girl Scout when I was a troop leader. Planning an event, I said, “Will we borrow the church’s dishes and wash them, or buy disposable stuff?” and Isabel instantly said, “Why would we spend our money on instant garbage?!” That is a great question to get people thinking!
Share Your System
Sometimes people resist trying something new because it seems so unfamiliar and awkward, they can’t imagine working it into daily life. A good role model can help!
“Cloth diapers were my gateway drug,” say many people whose green epiphany came with a new baby. They were drawn into the cheerful subculture of parents eagerly sharing advice on how to store, transport, use, wash, and dry cloth diapers that showed them it would be possible–even kind of fun!–to resist sending a lot of plastic-wrapped poop to the landfill. Cloth diapers easily led them to cloth baby wipes, cloth napkins, reusable snack containers…and soon, reusable gear for the grownups, too!
Sharing your system is a great way to address objections about not having time or space for greener habits. If your system won’t work for their family, think about how you’d modify it if you were moving into their situation. (For example, my article Choosing a Clothesline that Works for You talks people through figuring out where, when, and exactly how to line-dry laundry.)
This doesn’t apply just to complicated tasks. Share your tips for packing a SUP-free lunch, remembering to bring cloth bags to the store, making SUP-free coffee in the office, or whatever you’ve learned to do–be enthusiastic and practical in your explanations.
It’s Cute! It’s Easy! It Saves Money!
“Better for the environment” isn’t always enough of a selling point for a change of habit. Like “better for your health,” it suggests something may not be as fun and indulgent as the conventional option. When you sense this qualm in your audience, talk up other selling points.
Durable personal accessories like a travel mug or cloth shopping bag can express your sense of style. My co-worker who got a reusable bag chose one in her favorite color, printed with dancing penguins, and was soon commenting on how much it brightened up her lunch break. The cuteness and fluffy fabric of cloth diapers are a big part of the allure for parents. For me, cloth baby wipes in a variety of colors and prints made cleaning the baby more fun!
Easy systems, like ordering eco-friendly products through an app for home delivery, appeal to people who feel busy and confused. With so many options in our current consumer economy, shoppers can get overwhelmed. Talk up the versatility of natural cleaners, and point out options that are available at stores the person already shops.
When cleaning up the Earth seems like too large and distant a goal, focus on the person’s own comfort and effort at home. Having less garbage to carry out to the curb is a goal anyone can get behind!
Saving money is popular, too–and it’s easy to get the impression that being green means buying more expensive stuff, like organic food or pricey glass containers for leftovers. When people raise financial objections, shift your focus to changes that rapidly repay a small investment, like buying a $9 travel mug so you can save 25c a day on the exact same coffee you’ve been buying in a disposable cup.
Respect Each Person’s Path
Sharing your own journey toward environmental awareness and greener living can inspire people to follow you down that path–but it’s important to realize that they may do things in a different order than you did. The things that really get their attention may seem relatively unimportant to you. They might neglect the most obvious changes that would make the biggest impact. You might even feel irritated that they swore off buying that plastic-wrapped food you just can’t resist after years of trying, and now they’re so perfect about it that you feel guilty….
Take a deep breath and remember that the air is ever so slightly cleaner because of each green choice each person makes, and they all add up to a better future for everyone. Let’s all work together in our own ways!
(These are in the same order as the concepts from them first appear above.)
- McLeod, S.A. (Simply Psychology, 2018, February 5). Cognitive dissonance.
- Unanue, W., Vignoles, V.L., Dittmar, H., and Vansteenkiste, M. (Journal of Environmental Psychology, 2016, June) Life goals predict environmental behavior: Cross-cultural and longitudinal evidence.
- Jacobs, T. (Pacific Standard, republished in The Week, 2016, March 7) What makes people become environmentalists? This article gives more detail about the Unanue, et al, study than is available in the abstract of the research paper.
- Climate solutions for a stronger America: A guide for engaging and winning on climate change and clean energy. PDF explaining how to use the triangle approach, with many examples, developed by Breakthrough Strategies & Solutions and shared by Grist Magazine.
- Popovic, I., Bossink, B.A.G., and van der Slide, P.C. (Sustainability, 2019) Factors influencing consumers’ decision to purchase food in environmentally friendly packaging: What do we know and where do we go from here? This overview of research from around the world includes a great outline of how theoretical models of consumers’ pro-environmental behaviors have changed over the past 50 years.
- (Psychology Today) Locus of control.
- Eisley, L. (Academic Therapy Center) The Starfish Story.
- Brick, C., and Lewis, G.J. (Environment and Behavior, 2014, October 15) Unearthing the “green” personality: Core traits predict environmentally friendly behavior.
- Pfattheicher, S., Sassenrath, C., and Schindler, S. (Environment and Behavior, 2015, March 10) Compassion for human suffering correlates with compassion for the Earth’s suffering.
- Mooney, C. (Washington Post, 2015, March 19) The surprising psychology behind why some people become environmentalists. This article gives more detail about the Pfattheicher, Sassenrath, & Schindler study than is available in the abstract of the research paper.
- Grant, A. (New York Times, 2021, January 31) The science of reasoning with unreasonable people.
- Urry, A. (Grist, 2016, April 7) Here’s everything we know about how to talk about climate change.
- Markowitz, E., and Zaval, L. (Washington Post, 2016, January 4) Here’s the secret to making people care about climate change.