Thinking inside the box

I had written about an advertising campaign around paper straws (replacing plastic straws) yesterday. Let me continue on the same theme of environmental pollution.

But let me start with a question – what is the most common form of plastic pollution? You may say plastic straws, taking a cue from yesterday’s post. Or, plastic bottles or polythene covers that we see everywhere.

What most people completely miss in their many guesses is something so utterly common and ubiquitous: cigarette butts.

That’s because most people think that the butts must be made of paper or cotton and hence biodegradable. But, cigarette butts are actually made of plastic! They are made of cellulose acetate, a man-made plastic material, and contain toxic chemicals like arsenic, lead, and nicotine. These butts (or filters) take almost 10 years to decompose and even then leave traces of the harmful chemicals in the atmosphere. And worse, they look small and colorful, like food for fish on the water surfaces. So they get eaten more often by fish and birds!

Most importantly, because of their size—so tiny—they are difficult to collect and dispose of properly. So they escape most clean-up efforts and remain on water or the ground, polluting the place. For most smokers, there is no incentive whatsoever to consider disposing of cigarette butts carefully and thoughtfully, to avoid them polluting the environment. Since they are small, and since most smokers assume they are made of cotton or paper, they hardly care and simply flick them into the air after a smoke.

But, if a city did want to incentivize smokers to dispose of cigarette butts carefully, how should they go about it?

There are a couple of ways that cities could go about this:

  • launch an educational campaign about how dangerously deceptive and toxic cigarette butts are and hope that such education helps smokers throw them away more thoughtfully in designated bins
  • install prominently colored and marked bins specifically for cigarette butts
  • levy heavy fines for throwing cigarette butts outside the bins
  • make cigarette companies responsible for cleaning up cigarette butts off city streets

Some or many of these ideas may or may not work, but the root cause of cigarette butts littering our streets is just one: the smoker.

It is the smoker who buys a cigarette and does not think before they throw away the butt, thinking it to be a tiny thing that is anyway so small compared to the larger, more obvious non-biodegradable stuff.

More importantly, the call-to-action in these ideas are not compelling enough for the smoker to bother disposing of the butts consciously. It’s far easier to ignore this call-to-action and just do what pleases them.

So how do cities get the smokers to remember to throw cigarette butts more thoughtfully? Mere education alone is not going to help.

This was the thought behind the hugely creative campaign by Westminster Council, Hubbub (a UK-based charity that creates environmental campaigns), and CommonWorks, a Design and Technology studio.

The first idea launched towards this in the UK was based on inspiration from seeing online polls attracting a lot of engagement on social media platforms.

So they created a physical poll (called ballot bins) where smokers vote with cigarette butts!

The poll questions are changeable to keep the interest alive! The idea is essentially a playful nudge to do the right thing and the competitive element gets people to be conscious and thoughtful while discarding cigarette butts without even thinking about the impact of what they are doing! There is no user education, no campaigning, no pollution-related messages, nothing! Just good old human psychology!

Hubbub measured the impact of the campaign for five months and found that the amount of cigarette butts in the litter had dropped by 26%. Given the success of the campaign, they worked with another agency (Instrument PD) to redesign and manufacture these ballot bins on scale, and sell them around the world.

However, I had one question about the ballot bins. Many of the poll questions used involved sports-related topics and were placed outside sports stadiums to attract sports fans who smoke a lot outside while waiting. Given how competitive sports fans tend to be, I wonder if this polling induced people to smoke more just to be able to participate in the poll and swing the chances of their choices winning! Would that be an unintended consequence of this gamification?

I do understand that this seems unlikely since cigarettes cost money and only a tiny fraction may go to the extent of smoking more for the same of winning a pointless street poll, unlike online polls where participation does not cost anything at all.

Hubbub also explored a similar engagement-based creative idea around another common form of litter that is equally toxic and is poorly disposed of: bubblegum/chewing gum!

80–90% of chewing gum is not disposed of properly and it’s the second most common form of litter after cigarette butts. Chewing gum is made from polymers which are synthetic plastics that do not biodegrade.

What Hubbub came up with to incentivize people to dispose of chewed gum was as interesting and creative as the ballot bins!

This is the hallmark of great design – the real intent of the effort is invisible even as it attracts attention for entirely other reasons!

On a related note, I recall not throwing away the bubblegum wrappers of a 1980s brand of bubblegum in India called Big Fun. The actual gum was terrible, but what really stood out was the way the brand became viral. Each gum wrapper had a cricketer’s photo inside along with runs and wickets mentioned. When you collect a certain number of wickets and runs, you can send the wrappers to the company by post and get goodies like a diary, calendar, autographed cricketer posters, and so on. I remember collecting many wrappers and getting a diary – it was my most prized possession for a very long time while in school 🙂 The point was that while I threw away the gum after chewing, I did not throw away the wrapper and had an incentive to collect them!

Another example is that of the 1980s bottlecap-based idea led by the soft drink brand Gold Spot. The brand had a tie-up with the Jungle Book TV series back then and had a circular plastic/rubber disk inside the bottlecap carrying the visual of a character from Jungle Book. When you collect all the character disks, you send them to Gold Spot company and win Jungle Book collectibles! Again, we had an incentive to not throw the bottlecap (at least the rubber disk element).

These examples are not about being environmentally friendly, but are similar in terms of the gamification aspect and the point around avoiding litter. The call-to-action was similar, but the intent was different.



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