Perhaps you recently watched Blue Planet II and learned about the catastrophic effects of plastic pollution on our oceans and marine wildlife, you heard a story on the radio about plastic microfibers in almost all drinking water or you read today’s British report which predicts that plastic debris in the oceans will increase by threefold within the next seven years.
Whatever motivated you, you’ve taken steps to get off of plastic. You shop with reusable produce bags, you cook more of your meals at home and you haven’t bought bottled water in months. Good for you!
But you soon feel discouraged. Your teenager believes that the only effective personal care products in existence come in plastic tubes and containers. Your best friend constantly raves about the (overpackaged) subscription meal kit delivery service she signed up for. Your coworkers use a Keurig. Made with bottled water. And cooled down with bottled water because they can’t wait for the coffee to cool on its own (yes I have witnessed this).
How can you convince those around you to change their ways?
1. Do, don’t preach
Of all the steps I’ve listed here, I’ve found that this one has worked the best for me. If you preach, drone on and on about the many depressing statistics on plastic waste or berate your family, your friends and your coworkers for their plastic consumption, no one will listen to you. Most people dislike being told what to do. Even if you’re right. Even if they know you’re right.
I just do my own thing, people ask questions about it and they often make changes. Some of my habits have rubbed off at the office, for example. My boss now buys milk in returnable glass bottles and always saves her lunchtime compost for me, another coworker stopped using plastic baggies in her son’s lunches and another threw her son a plastic-free birthday party.
2. Do something
If you want to see change, you usually have to take the initiative to make that change. Leave a jar of homemade deodorant in the bathroom for your consumer-product-loving teenager. She may just use it. Diplomatically offer to teach your meal kit-loving friend how to cook a simple meal (I doubt many people who can cook sign up for these expensive subscriptions).
Bring in a reusable Keurig coffee pod to the office and keep a running tally of the number of pods you and your coworkers keep out of landfill. Bring an appropriately sized jar for the coffee grounds and track that volume too (take these home to compost or to dump directly onto plants outside). People need to hear about successes, not just failures. And people love to watch their numbers—pretty much any numbers—climb. Just ask your coworker who says to you every morning, “Have you liked my Instagram post yet?”
3. Show, don’t tell
A common maxim in creative writing textbooks, this rule can also apply to your efforts to educate your audience about plastic pollution. If you think your teenager is open to it, show her Blue Planet 2, A Plastic Ocean, Trashed or Bag It. If the people around you resist learning about the problem, don’t push it, otherwise your efforts may backfire and they’ll go shopping at Walmart for cases of bottled water merely to spite you. Just keep doing number 1 (do, don’t preach) and your values may eventually rub off on others, even rebellious teenagers.
4. Give them steps to take
Once interested in reducing their plastic footprint, people generally have no idea where to start. It seems impossible to kick the stuff because it’s everywhere and we use it for everything. So give them some steps to take and some easy wins. Here are my top three ways to break up with plastic, along with their alternatives:
- Eat real food, not processed food wrapped in plastic. Processed food, convenience food and to-go food almost always come in shiny plastic wrappers and containers. Real food you cook yourself does not.
- Ban the bottle. Instead of buying expensive bottled water, drink tap water and carry a reusable bottle. Replace sugary beverages such as soda, energy drinks and juice with homemade kombucha or ginger beer (so, so delicious!).
- Refuse single-use plastic. Use cloth shopping bags and cloth produce bags instead of plastic ones. If you must use a straw, get a metal one. Carry metal utensils with you to use in place of plastic ones. Bring a reusable mug with you to your café (you’ll often get a discount).
5. Stay positive
Often, if you focus on environmental doom and gloom—and there is plenty of it—people’s eyes tend to glaze over. They may feel terrified or paralyzed to do anything or both. “If we’re already screwed,” they may think, “then why bother?” I’m not suggested you stick your head in the sand and pretend everything is just fine. Yes, we’re in big trouble. But focusing on solutions may bring more people on board.
I try to do this here on my blog. I show people what they can do in their lives to reduce waste. And I can tell you that a post like “Captain Charles Moore’s 10th Voyage to the North Pacific Gyre,” a post about horrifying ocean plastic pollution, unfortunately doesn’t get nearly as many views as a post like “How to Freeze Food Without Using Plastic” (my most popular post of all time). People don’t want to hear the depressing stuff. At least not from me. Not that they shouldn’t know what’s happening. I’m just explaining what works here.
Tell people what they get—the benefits. So, rather than saying “I’ve been vegan for five years and you should stop eating meat because it consumes too many resources and is always packaged in plastic and you don’t want that stuff touching your food…” say something like, “This nutritious lentil dal tastes delicious, the bulk ingredients I bought for it cost very little and I’ve lost five pounds since I started eating it regularly [if that’s true]. Here, have a taste…” People don’t respond well to guilt trips or to admonitions of “Don’t do this,” “Don’t do that” and “You must give up X, Y or Z.”
Persuading people to make changes is difficult. You’ll convert more of them if you offer encouragement and support.