Trash Talk: What's happened since we launched our packaging campaign?

Ever picked up a pair of avocados lying on a tray, covered by a sheet of plastic, then wrapped in plastic and thought: "why is there more packaging than avocados?"

Or ordered something online, which arrived covered in bubble wrap and placed in a cardboard box with foam pieces and thought: "this packaging it totally unnecessary"?

Back in April 2018, I asked those two questions in a blog post that triggered the beginning of our first environmental and socially-driven campaign: Trash Talk.

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For those new to the City Girl Network, Trash Talk is a campaign that asks every day people to lead the conversation around innovative changes in packaging. Over the course of 6 or so months, we engaged with over 1000 people on social media, at events and through our survey.

What happened during that campaign and the events that unfolded outside of it are truly remarkable. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing some examples of our findings in this blog.

But first, I wanted to start with an overview of what we learned, how our sponsor, Clarity Environmental, has grown since the campaign began and significant attitude shifts across the globe towards packaging.

Lessons learned from Trash Talk

As is the case with everything, what you expect to learn from something and what you actually learn are two very different things – usually you get far more than you bargained for. In the case of Trash Talk, it became clear very quickly that people cared for change but weren’t too sure on how that could evolve.

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 Let’s take the example of plastic fruit and vegetables. 98% of the people we asked said that they’d rather buy loose vegetables and the majority of people brought up plastic wrapped around vegetables as a packaging problem that annoys them the most.

When it comes to reducing plastic waste, it’s a seemingly simple solution to solve – fruit and vegetables have their own natural packaging, after all.

Yet, even though loose groceries are available to buy in most major supermarkets now, people still opt for plastic. Why? Habits, convenience, ease, marketing, having your hands full and, frankly, not really thinking about it because you don’t have to.

The next Trash Talk blog post will be focusing on this specific issue as it really deserves a blog post of its own.

Our aim with Trash Talk was to reach out to people who wouldn’t class themselves as “eco warriors”. Don’t get me wrong, eco warriors are imperative to change because they’re more likely to take action and force evolution. It’s just that they’re not the vast majority of the population who buy the products that are in such desperate need of a redesign.

We aimed to talk to the everyday worker who goes to the healthy fast food stores that package their goods in part-cardboard, part-plastic and therefore can’t be recycled. We aimed to talk to the parents who are chasing after their kids in the supermarket whilst quickly throwing their shopping into the trolley.

And we did. 

We asked them to fill out surveys, or attend one of our three events, or speak to us on social media, or simply talk to us in the streets of Brighton and London while on their way to the next stop. 

In our survey, of which 61% would “tend to agree” that they that are environmentally friendly, 93% believed that packaging was a major environmental problem and 83% strongly agreed that packaging on products were excessive, wasteful and unnecessary. 

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Whilst the attitudes are clearly apparent, when talking to people on the streets and at our events, it was difficult for people to identify what a solution would be other than “let’s just not package fruit and veg” and “you don’t need to package things twice when it comes to online shopping”.

Don’t get me wrong, some amazing ideas came out of our events - especially for the medical and food industry - but it took some prompting and time to educate people, which our 90 minute events allowed us to do.

When it came to people on the streets and the conversations on social media, they felt far more comfortable to talk about what happens to the waste after it’s produced - whether it can be or needs to be recycled. I won’t even start to delve into the number of conversations we had around overflowing bins. 

Yet, when we engaged more in conversations with our Trash Talkers, both online and offline, it became clear that they saw refill as the better option for the environment. Even one of our more committed Trash Talkers to living a zero waste lifestyle said: “I regularly forget my containers to fill with detergents on the way home from work”. And he’s someone who’s adapted his lifestyle to limit his waste footprint.

People are crying out for something that’s convenient and works for them.

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Another Trash Talker described the situation with refill quite accurately, too: "We struggle sometimes when life is really busy and we haven't had the time to plan and end up going for convenience.”

The ‘convenience factor’ is the reality that the much-needed changes in waste are dealing with. Yet, people did change their habits when the 5p plastic bag tax came in. 

Trash Talk was intended to be a short campaign encouraging people to share how they want packaging to be redesigned. But the power of conversation and urge for habitual change has inspired us to build this campaign on a greater level. 

We’ve spoken to huge international brands about this powerful consumer panel and the ideas that its generating around using circular economy thinking to reduce waste whilst making life simple. 

How Clarity have evolved since Trash Talk

Trash Talk would not have grown at the speed it did without the support of Clarity Environmental, a Brighton-based company who help businesses to comply with packaging regulations. And this campaign update would not feel complete without mentioning the amazing things they’ve been doing alongside this campaign.

"What Clarity have recognised through Trash Talk is that people are frustrated with unnecessary packaging. It's increasingly clear is that you can’t solve everything at the drop of a hat, but you should start by stopping waste.

"When it comes to packaging, waste is material that is not necessary to protect the goods and is not deemed necessary by the consumer in their decision making or use at home.” Jimmy Dorrell, Head of Sustainable Business for Clarity Environmental explained. 

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He continued to give the example that a coconut does not need to be shrink wrapped to protect it in the supply chain, for customers to know what it is and to get them home safely. What Clarity realise is that there’s a disconnect between the people who package the products, the people who sell the products and the people who consume them. So, in a nutshell, Clarity want to help companies to make better packaging design decisions.

“For the clients, we’re helping them to reduce considerable costs. For the planet, we’re reducing the amount of material that ends up in the waste stream and therefore the environment. For people, we’re reducing frustration and full bins,” Jimmy explained. 

And with that, he shared that Clarity had launched ‘Beyond Compliance’, which is an umbrella term to describe how Clarity will bring forward new ways of thinking with regard to packaging compliance and sustainability. 

This doesn’t stop when just looking at packaging. They know, like any company, that they themselves have an environmental impact. In their most recent internal assessment, they identified laminated business cards as something that needs to be addressed in their own business. Lots of business cards are laminated with 200-300 microns of polyethylene, which is essentially the same material that can mean paper coffee cups can’t be recycled.

We’d ask everyone reading this blog post to do the same thing. 

The evolution of attitude towards plastics and packaging

In a time shorter than I could have personally predicted, a collective social shift towards environmental issues has dominated headlines across the media, in the boardrooms and in the comfort of our own homes.

Over the past few months, businesses and governments have presented their practical ideas of how to tackle the plastic pollution problem. And smaller SME’s at a local level are trying to deal with things in their own way, whether it’s through implementing digital documentation, banning certain office materials or encouraging beach cleans.

We’ll delve into some examples in the coming months, as the reality begins to truly unfold.

There’s now more money, more time and more publicity than ever around climate change and plastic pollution at a global leadership level.

And the key message that’s come out of Trash Talk is based around behavioural change.

Global leaders have the power to impose ideas and solutions, but until we learn what can actually be recycled and start to develop our understanding of sustainable materials as alternatives to the majority of what we have right now, change simply cannot happen at the level we need it to.

Let’s take the recent insurgence in reusable coffee cups – a promising idea, with all major coffee brands offering 25p off if you hand over your own coffee cup to be filled.

Yet, a Costa survey says only 1% of hot drinks it sells are in reusable mugs. This statistic and the conversations that we’ve had with a vast range of people suggests that money alone isn’t going to get people to change.

Change needs to be designed and engineered by the people to really make a difference. And to make that happen, more conversations like Trash Talk need to take place and education around environmentally-friendly practices need to become far more accessible.

Trash Talk is continuing across towns and cities all over the UK. Where should we continue the conversation next?

Written by Pippa Moyle. Photography by Fanny Beckman

If you want to get involved in future stages of the campaign, email hello@citygirlnetwork.com.

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