How to recycle the truth
4 min read

How to recycle the truth

How companies create narratives for the $$$
How to recycle the truth

Manipulation happens all around us, and sometimes it can be so clever you can't help but be impressed. And then upset.

Over the weekend I was reminded of the classic story about the plastics industry using recycling to dupe us into buying MORE plastics.

Then later in the week there was a media storm about a World Health Organisation (WHO) report.

It was labelled sexist for, according to reports, suggesting women should be banned from drinking alcohol . This had the strong whisky-scented whiff of the alcohol industry behind it.

Let's start with the plastics.

Plastic fantastic

I remember as a kid seeing a rather modern looking wheelie bin arrive in my home. This, apparently, was no ordinary bin.

I was told by my parents, the government, and the television that I could help the planet by placing my plastic in this new bin. Great.

Another great thing: it was easy. I hardly had to change my habits at all.

All I had to do was throw the plastic in a different bin. Lazy Simon gets a pat on the back from Mother Nature several times a day through this small, simple act.

Except, nothing in life is actually that easy...

It turns out that only around 10 per cent of plastics can be recycled. Even if we could recycled it all perfectly, it's still cheaper to make new plastic. Companies had figured out how to make money while making me feel good.

Most of my garbage was in fact being sent overseas.

First to China, and then elsewhere when they had had enough. Much of the rest was just being incinerated.

Amazingly, I began to learn about this while working at Greenpeace years later - yet my habit did not change. It was so embedded.

I handled video footage of vulnerable people living among mountains of plastic waste. I saw how dangerous and toxic it is. I saw how this waste from from countries like my own.

Yet, after watching these videos, I'd go home and throw my plastic in the recycle bin, no questions asked.

That's because if there's one thing we love, it's convenience + feeling like we've done something good.

I felt good doing this small act.

By handling two bins rather than one, I was signalling that I cared and that I was doing something about it - with, as Seth Godin puts it, 'just the right amount of effort'.

The oil companies were brilliant marketers in this case.

They tapped into the environmental movements and had activists calling for governments to support recycling. Governments then got on board with the idea and footed the bill for collecting and managing the waste.

The public felt good about doing their bit, and began consuming more plastic than before because, well, it was all being recycled and it didn't matter - right?

The companies got richer while they looked greener and their customers turned a blind eye.

Alcohol ban

WHO last week got into hot water when their draft (I repeat: draft) report about alcohol was labelled 'sexist' because, said some news outlets, it proposed an alcohol ban on women of child-bearing age.

Spoiler alert: it did not suggest anything of the sort.

I've flicked through the draft and indeed it's not perfect. It's almost like it's a first draft or something. But it also doesn't say anything close to what the likes of The Irish Post and Daily Mail reported.

But the news headlines caught on and a stream of 'how dare they!' tweets started to roll in, with experts jumping in to add their 2 cents.

I can't help but wonder if, like the plastics conspiracy, someone - or some people - are behind this reaction.

They found a shocking headline and, knowing people don't generally read reports, knew that the myth will travel a long way before the truth can even get its trousers on to catch up.

And by then, people don't really care anyone as they're angry about the next thing.

Before long experts in various fields, who have likely never read the report, are asked to comment.

'Yes an alcohol ban on women is sexist', 'yes why focus on child bearing age?, 'yes why does this only focus on women of child bearing age?'.

Experts begin answering questions created by someone somewhere else, with very different motives.

What can be done?

Not very much. But we can learn from it.

While I was at Greenpeace, we worked on a Dove campaign targetting Unilever - a company with a multi-billion dollar advertising budget.

The original:

The Greenpeace version:

There's no way to compete, but there is a way to use ideas for good.

They have some of the most creative minds in the industry coming up with catchy adverts and slogans - so why not tap into that?

Enjoying these posts? Subscribe for more