For eye-catching publicity, the 'Plastic Water Bottle Awareness Campaign' should win some sort of award. Dreamed up by a couple of concerned individuals at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome, it also fits squarely with the agency's desire to promote environmentally friendly behaviour change among its staff, as a key element in strategy to implement the UN Climate Neutral initiative.
It started with the shocked reaction of two members of the FAO staff when they saw just how many bottles of water the organization was getting through in Rome – a staggering 2500 of those 50cl bottles per working day. They approached Climate Neutrality Advisor Julie MacKenzie with the idea of doing something about it; an awareness-raising campaign, backed up by providing better alternatives. She helped bring them together with other colleagues in a nascent Going Green Group (GGG) interested in voluntary action to 'make FAO green', and they began to develop plans for a high impact, multimedia campaign on the plastic bottle issue. World Environment Day 5 June 2009 was identified as the perfect focus for a week-long launch 'event'.
The action kicked off with an intriguing stunt. Recycled wooden packing crates were left in prominent places in the main entrances day after day, with plastic bottles building up inside them, to the point of spilling over. No explanation was provided at first, so staff wondered what was going on (only senior management having been tipped off that it was all in a good cause, not a breakdown in waste services).
The centrepiece of the campaign was an art installation in the central building area, consisting of 70 plastic bags suspended from the ceiling containing the amount of plastic bottles disposed of by FAO staff per day. Posters, handouts and a TV clip helped spread the message and made suggestions for cutting down reliance on bottled water, such as installing drinking water fountains.
It was a great success, both in awareness-raising by sensitizing people to the plastic bottle problem, and in convincing staff that water fountains would be a good alternative. Since then, the organization has gone ahead with installing 50 fountains to provide refrigerated drinking water (still and sparkling) throughout its Rome headquarters. The campaign's target is to reduce the sale of plastic bottled water by 50% before the end of 2010.
Timely, credible and convincing communication is one of the keys to promoting behavioral change. The GGG is currently exploring more ways of getting messages across to FAO staff, and encouraging more people to join in its activities, to raise awareness about environmental issues and becoming climate neutral. No one form of communication will suit all audiences. The immediacy of a message on paper, for instance, works better for some than being directed to a website for the same information. But what the plastic bottle campaign does show is that information can reach its target much more effectively when presented in a motivational and even entertaining way.
The water fountains initiative also illustrates another point, about providing good information about changes before they actually happen. This can be important to avoid negative perceptions. Addressing possible staff concerns about the quality of city water, for instance, through accurate and reliable technical and medical information, was essential to deal with people's sensitivities on health issues.
The water bottle awareness campaign itself cost the FAO virtually nothing. It was conducted mainly by staff on a voluntary basis, and their time and energy was devoted to it for the most part outside office hours. The business case for the water fountains was premised on their introduction being budget neutral.
The direct benefits, which are measurable over time, are mainly the reduction in plastic waste, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions from the processing and transport of bottled water. The fountains mean that staff and visitors alike have free access to good quality drinking water. In broader terms, it's a good showcase project, an example to others in the United Nations and other organizations, and a way of showing how staff really can make a difference.