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Ad agency DSTNCT defends NEA's The Waste cafe execution: 'We wanted to shock people into talking about it'

Ad agency DSTNCT defends NEA's The Waste cafe execution: 'We wanted to shock people into talking about it'

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 A recent installation by National Environmental Agency (NEA) meant to raise awareness of the impact of disposable waste on the environment, unfortunately came under fire from environmentalists and sustainability journalists for generating unnecessary waste.  

The installation, called The Waste Café, was set up at Paya Lebar Quarter last week and visitors were handed free cups of coffee in disposable paper and plastic cups. When they finished their drinks, visitors were asked to toss their used cups into the large, transparent installation. Titled The Waste Cafe, the booth quickly filled up with about 2,000 disposable cups in a matter of hours, according to NEA when MARKETING-INTERACTIVE reached out. 

Don't miss: NEA's waste reduction initiative slammed as 'missed opportunity' by environmentalists

However, despite the claims made by environmental activists of the campaign generating more waste, NEA defended the execution sharing that much of the feedback on the social experiment was positive, with many consumers sharing that it was eye-opening to be confronted with the reality of our daily lifestyle habits. 

"[The execution] has prompted them to be more conscious about reducing their use of disposables," said an NEA spokesperson. 

Adding on to NEA’s comments, Matthew Zeng, the managing director of DSTNCT, the agency behind the campaign, shared with MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that audiences have been split on the execution. While there are critics who are rallying for a purist approach, there are also ordinary folks who have found the campaign to be a revealing one. He added that while at the end of the day not everyone will be happy with the campaign, the execution served its purpose of getting people talking.

“Bringing waste to the forefront is essentially our North Star and collecting reusables to show that would have defeated the purpose of our approach. Collecting other waste from elsewhere presents issues of hygiene and sanitation, and also diminishes the impact of a real-time collection experiment,” he explained adding:

We wanted to shock people into talking about it and hopefully to compel them to change.

More importantly, he added that the cups would not be going to waste but rather will be further used for educational purposes, serving a broader aim.

He added, “I can't wait for further conversations to take place when we launch our video and exhibition. As long as people are weighing in, we are enabling that first step towards change. Isn't that what a campaign is all about?”

What was the feedback like?

According to Zeng, the campaign served its purpose as most on-ground feedback on the social experiment had been positive, with many sharing that it was eye-opening to be confronted with the reality of our daily lifestyle habits.

“This prompted them to be more conscious about reducing their use of disposables,” he said.

However, according to media intelligence CARMA, the online sentiments of the campaign resulted in most of the conversations being largely neutral with a small percentage negative.

CARMA’s spokesperson shared that while the campaign “ruffled a few feathers and gave environmentalists something to comment on”, on the online sphere there was not much of a resonance of the NEA brand and it did not do much to contribute towards NEA’s favourability among Singaporeans. She added that NEA still continues to see itself being talked about in relation to the weather and plastic bag surcharges during this period.

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Meanwhile WWF Singapore posted its support for the initiative on its Facebook page by saying that it supports efforts by all stakeholders in Singapore to raise awareness about environmental issues and to take real action to reduce, reuse, and recycle waste.

In a statement posted to its page, R. Raghunathan, the CEO of WWF-Singapore stated that the controversy itself has ironically underlined the original purpose of this social experiment - that we must use fewer disposables and more reusable materials.

"While the display of 2,000 disposable cups 'shockingly' demonstrates how we can generate such a large amount of waste within a short time, all parties can see the ultimate educational value of the installation: we need to come together to reduce waste and take personal actions for our collective environmental sustainability,” he said.

How did the campaign idea come around?

Love it or hate it, over all the campaign was created as part of the agency’s annual “Say Yes to Waste Less” campaign that encourages the public to reduce food waste and the excessive use of disposables. The campaign was created in  NEA’s attempt to try to get the public to reduce its waste particularly after it reported that in 2020, about 200,000 tonnes of domestic waste disposed of in Singapore were disposables.

This comprised both packaging and non-packaging items such as carrier bags, food and beverage containers, and tableware and utensils.  

Moreover, according to research conducted prior to the launch of the campaign, the team found that Singaporeans don't necessarily face the urgency of climate change given the lack of natural disasters and the efficiency of waste disposable systems. Hence the Say Yes To Waste Less campaign was created to change Singaporeans' perception about waste and show that the solution starts with the individual.

However, therein lies the problem, said Zeng. “With our waste firmly out of sight and out of mind, how can we even bring our waste problem into the consciousness of Singaporeans? To do so, we decided to bring our waste to the forefront given many of us are visual creatures. We hoped that through the campaign, if we could shock consumers into seeing actual waste generation, they would be more compelled to change. “

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