Environmental education: What it takes to inspire life-long behavioral changes, according to the Footprint Foundation
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Environmental education: What it takes to inspire life-long behavioral changes, according to the Footprint Foundation

Environmental education: What it takes to inspire life-long behavioral changes, according to the Footprint Foundation

We live in a world overrun with plastic. Regardless of where you go or what you do, plastic is almost always used in our day-to-day activities. And it’s no surprise that the shipping and manufacturing industries contribute an enormous amount of plastic waste every year. But this doesn’t have to continue. Footprint, a process technology company, is on a mission to eliminate single-use plastics through plant-based packaging and manufacturing alternatives. Yet, we cannot completely phase out single-use plastics without consumer support. Accordingly, Footprint launched the Footprint Foundation, which focuses on environmental education for consumers, in April earlier this year.

I recently had the chance to chat with the foundation’s Director of Science and Education, Christine Figgener. We discussed the importance of consumer education in transitioning away from single-use plastics, alongside Footprint’s shifting strategies to education in a virtual world.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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ARI KELO: What are the Footprint Foundation’s main educational goals? What audience(s) does the foundation reach the most?

CHRISTINE FIGGENER: The Footprint Foundation‘s goal is to prevent single-use plastics from entering the environment by educating students, community groups and companies on the dangers of plastic pollution and how everyone can make small changes to better our lives and planet.

We aim to inspire life-long behavioral changes to consumption habits. It is not enough to be vaguely aware of the damage single-use products cause to both the environment and human health, we must promote the technologies that are being developed that stop the inflow of these plastics into our oceans and environments. Every day, we as consumers make choices in the items we buy and have power in creating change by driving demand in sustainable products.

By partnering with academic institutions, as well as working directly with students and sustainable brands, we are able to demonstrate how everyday consumption choices can dramatically improve the state of our ocean and environment. 

What pedagogy does the foundation use for environmental education?

We partner with different experts in education to develop educational outreach materials on plastic pollution. Examples of our collaborative work include student-scientist discussions with SciTech Institute during the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and working with educators in children’s hospitals.

Most recently, we launched the comic series, “Chris & Lola” for use by educators as distance learning has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are continuously looking for partners to create environmental change on a local and global scale. 

Has your approach to environmental education changed with the move to virtual work and school?

Due to the timing of our April 2020 launch of the foundation, much of the work we have done thus far has been virtual. Although COVID-19 has impacted our planning for in-person workshops, we are able to provide an abundance of plastic pollution resources for teachers and students at home, as well as sustainable brands with today’s online capabilities. Inspiring people to make changes and positively impact the world benefits from the current virtual learning environment.

Our early engagements have shown promise in the ability for online virtual programs to scale our educational efforts and making them more inclusive and readily available to more audiences worldwide. The positive digital response we’ve received helped to inspire the “Chris & Lola” comic series to support sustainability topics in distance learning.  

How integral to environmental education is in-person interaction?

Technological advances have made real-time virtual interactions possible and very similar to in-person interactions. As we continue to develop our schedule of in-person engagements, we will look at our data in the future to see if real-life in-person interactions are more effective than virtual ones.

Although in-person teaching is perhaps more personally rewarding, as you can really feel the energy in making change a part of someone’s life, I suspect online virtual learning will be very similar in effectiveness at a single-person level—especially as the pandemic changes norms around in-person interaction.

The difference is that with online virtual learning we have the ability to organize and scale to reach to many more people than possible during in-person interactions. Previous to founding the Footprint Foundation, Footprint had partnered with SciTech Institute on in-person teaching programs as well and as we move forward, we have plans to re-engage with them as social distancing requirements ease.

How can we best educate people about environmental issues and stewardship, given the pandemic has limited how much we can engage with nature?

Since people are online now more than ever, it’s important to provide essential environmental information that will allow us to take a step back and think about how our lifestyles have affected the earth. We are seeing dramatic evidence during the pandemic that human activity has directly impacted our environments. This includes being able to see the Himalayas from Kathmandu due to clearer air and marine life returning to cleaner waterways worldwide due to the lack of activity and pollution.

Our hope is that following the pandemic and this incredibly hard period of social isolation, people will have a new-found appreciation for nature and pent up demand for conservation efforts. Seeing the drastic change in pollution during social distancing gave people a greater understanding of how protecting our health and environment is essential for the long-term protection of our planet and all its inhabitants.

Does the foundation pursue any efforts to combat nature deficit disorder?

As an environmental scientist, I have experienced the benefits from being in nature firsthand and I am convinced it is beneficial for everyone’s health. In addition, seeing the tremendous and heartbreaking impact that single-use plastic has on our world is really powerful in driving personal change. This is one area that having a direct, personal experience has the ability to create change.

Since the Footprint Foundation has only been operating in the COVID-19 era, we have not begun promoting outdoor activities. Once the social distancing recommendations lift, we expect that we will be able to both address the benefits of connecting with nature and show how small changes in habits can help improve the experience of interacting with nature with less plastic pollution.

You’ve done a lot of work in getting more women engaged in STEM. Have you noticed a gender disparity in environmental education? What efforts have you taken to combat this disparity?

Despite a low representation of women in STEM, the environmental education field is actually dominated by women. The Footprint Foundation actively works to promote diversity in STEM and help young women make the leap from taking environmental classes to choosing careers in the sciences.

This year, in honor of World Oceans Day and Sea Turtle Week happening this week, we launched a comic book series, “Chris and Lola,” featuring a woman marine biologist superhero. The comic series was designed to increase knowledge around the ocean and environmental stewardship and is provided to educators free of charge. We believe that by highlighting female scientists from all different backgrounds and ethnicities, we will be able to show prospective future environmentalists relatable examples of real-life scientists that are making a difference in the world.

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A large part of environmental education deals with consumer choice. How is this element integrated into your educational outreach? What tools do you use to teach people about how to make the best consumer decisions?

The important message we are trying to get across is that individual choice matters, and that we vote with our dollars. These votes happen every time we purchase and have a large cumulative effect on reducing plastic pollution post-consumer use. The supply of plastic-free alternatives will increase when the demand for it increases, it is simple economics. 

We have different campaigns and different platforms that we are utilizing to make a local, national, and global impact. The Footprint Foundation’s social media is used for publishing new research findings and tips and tricks to living a more sustainable life. We anticipate it will become a repository of information for various legislative efforts across the country for single-use plastic bans and sustainability initiatives. 

Some additional examples of the activations we’ve engaged in include the Ocean Heroes Network, a collection of over 10 non-profit environmental organizations that host an annual boot camp to empower existing and emerging youth leaders to create their own campaigns that take action against ocean plastic pollution.

Prior to COVID-19, The Footprint Foundation partnered with the Super Bowl LIV Sustainability Village in Miami to connect with football fans to discuss preventative measures to decrease plastic pollution. We also educated fans on existing plastic-free solutions for food packaging that are recyclable, compostable and marine-degradable without any performance detriments compared to plastic. 

Do you believe education can inspire individuals to change their environmental behaviors? If so, what educational strategies are most effective in changing behavior?

Yes, educating individuals on how to better care for the planet can help correct past environmental mistakes and positively impact our environment. Since the very beginning, human activity and technology advances have altered our ecosystems.

It is always best to start at an early age to ingrain the idea of sustainability and the understanding that we humans don’t exist in a vacuum. We need clean air, water, and food to survive, and when we destroy our planet, we will not be able to survive as a species. 

It is often harder to break habits in adults because they can’t see the immediate reward of making small choices, and there’s a lack of understanding about how recycling works — for the small percentage of material that is recycled.

With Millennials and Gen Z not only advocating for a greener planet, but also gaining greater and greater purchasing power, the everyday choices younger generations make in the supermarket alone can make a positive impact in reducing the amount of plastic created and discarded in the environment.   

Could you describe how the Footprint Foundation has used its platform to encourage pro-environmental behavior, especially as it relates to plastic consumption? Do you have any metrics relating to your impact so far?

At this early stage, from the foundation standpoint, we are still adjusting our metrics to meet the unprecedented situation during the pandemic. However, it is fairly easy to calculate the impact Footprint has had in preventing additional plastic from entering the waste stream.  Since Footprint was founded over six years ago, the net effect of customers adopting its sustainable products has prevented over 60 million metric tons of plastics from enter. 

The foundation will continue producing campaigns, outreach events, engaging on social media, and curating complimentary online educational material to help provide scientific knowledge to our audience and help them make the right choices in helping them eliminate single-use plastics from their personal lifestyles. 

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