A thimble of goodness within a sea of chaos

ThimbleI’m a regular user of a few social media tools (e.g. Facebook and LinkedIn).

As such, I often see the (well-intended) sharing of articles about someone passionately scooping plastic out of our oceans – perhaps with a newly invented contraption – and then lots of people (understandably) pile in with a ‘like’ of what they see. Yep, I often press ‘like’ too.

…yet I get really frustrated with the (seemingly weekly) sharing of such apparent ‘good news stories’ – sure, they appear highly desirable, but I see them as a ‘thimble of goodness within a sea of chaos’.

There’s so much more that we don’t see/ question/ understand/ shout/ do something about. I’d love to see a systemic view – of the problem, and the interventions…and their effects.

What on earth am I talking about? Well, I’m no expert but what follows is my layperson’s (current) thinking. I’d love the real experts to take it on and give us all a regular (i.e. dynamic) and highly visible (i.e. transparent) dose of whole-system reality.

A close-up look:

Here’s a diagram of our oceans – I know it’s not quite accurate…. bear with me…it’s a simplified view! 😊

Plastic picture 1

If you want to get a bit theoretical about it then Professor Jay Forrester, in his early work on System Dynamics, wrote about ‘levels’ and ‘rates’2:

“The level (or state) variables describe the condition of the system at a particular point in time.” i.e. the level (or amount) of plastic in our oceans as of today. I usually visualise a bucket and the current level of its contents.

The value of a level at the start of operation is called the initial condition” which, for the subject of this post, would have been zero plastic in our oceans, because it doesn’t occur naturally.

“The rate (action) variables tell how fast the levels are changing” and “…are defined by ‘rate equations’…that describe action in a system.  In short, we can think of taps into our bucket and scoops (or perhaps drains) out of our bucket. Each of these are rate variables.

“The level variables accumulate the results of actions within the system.” i.e. the current level of plastic in our oceans will (rather obviously) be:

The initial condition (zero in this case);

Plus: the accumulation of all the plastic that we’ve ever put into it;

Minus: the accumulation of any plastic that we’ve taken out.

“A level variable is computed by the change, due to rate variables, that alters the previous value of the level.” i.e. whether our level of plastic in the ocean is going up, staying the same or coming down is determined by ALL the rates into and out of the ocean. So, yes, we might have made a wonderful scoop BUT if we’ve also opened up the tap some more (let alone closed it) then that level will still be going up! And probably rapidly ☹.

To summarise the obvious: There’s a HUGE gushing tap of plastic being dumped into our oceans…and a tiny, irregular scoop of plastic being taken back out. That scoop represents those social media articles we so like.

Why the monumental discrepancy between our tap and our scoop? Well, we’ve got nearly 8 billion (and increasing) people devouring plastic daily, combined with ever-widening uses of plastics3we’ll never have a scoop that can cope with that!

The other bit of interest to me in my simple diagram is what happens after the scoop. Great, we’ve collected tons of plastic…but then what? It’s still plastic and will be for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

And it’s at this point you’d say to me “Don’t be stupid Steve! The collected plastic gets recycled”.

But does it? And even more relevant, does this really assist?

Looking a bit wider:

Here’s my 2nd ‘wider system view’ of plastics diagram:

Plastic picture 2

Now I’ve got four level variables (or, in simple terms, buckets) and four rate variables (the drains from one, and taps into another, bucket)

The raw materials represent the necessary ingredients found on planet earth for the making of plastic (which I understand to be mainly oil). We act in our daily lives (particularly with regards to plastics) as if these raw materials are non-exhaustible…which clearly isn’t the case.

I’ve combined made and in use into one bucket to represent the productive plastic in existence. It’s worth noting that there is an array of different kinds of plastics, and most plastic will go through a journey from its initial conversion into plastic pellets, through its forming into plastic objects, to its assembly as part of a specific product and then to its sale and consumption. This can be a short or long time-cycle (think ‘single use’ plastic vs. plastic used in, say, a car).

I’ve coloured my disposed of bucket brown to represent the fact that such plastic can be found all over the place (not just in our oceans). Most of it is likely piled up on, or buried under, land.

That all looks simple doesn’t it. Surely we just need to collect it (increase rate 3) and then feed it back round (increase rate 4). A lovely closed loop. However…

Adding some of the tricky details

Here’s my 3rd diagram:

plastic picture 3

I’ll take each of the four sub-systems, starting at collected and working my way backwards:

Collected: Much of what we, as consumers of plastic, see (and therefore think about) in terms of recycling is only the front-end collection piece. We can (rightly) feel good about having gathered it all up…but we have very little understanding of what (if anything) happens afterwards. For example, do you know:

  • what % of the plastic that you have lovingly collected is re-useable…and, more importantly, is actually re-used?
    • Corollary: what is done with any plastic that is ‘rejected’ for re-use?
  • how efficient is the re-cycling process? i.e. what % of your collected plastic makes it to a re-cycled state once the various processes are performed upon it (cleaning, de-stickering, de-capping, separating….)
    • Corollary: what is done with any plastic that falls out of this processing?
  • what can your re-useable plastic be used for? And what can’t it?

and most significantly:

  • have your efforts prevented ‘virgin plastic’ from entering the system?

Disposed of: My revised diagram is showing that plastic can be responsibly disposed of, or can be discarded (anywhere and everywhere), and can then leak down the chain through the land and rivers to the oceans. There’s masses of it, everywhere!

Made or In use: There’s some really important points of note within this sub-system.

  • Types of plastic: There are thousands of types of plastic, and because of this, it’s not simply a case of plastic collected and put back into the system again. Not all plastics are alike. Yes, there are some common types, but manufacturers are free to develop very specific plastics for their needs…which can then preclude it from being re-cycled (or at least currently).

  • ‘Virgin plastic’: Some plastic applications require 100% brand new plastic. I understand that (much of) the food industry (currently) sits in this category.

  • ‘Down-cycling’: A great deal of what we call the re-cycling of plastic is in fact ‘down-cycling’. i.e. yes, we have got plastic that we can use for something….but in many cases we can’t (or at least don’t) re-use it for its original purpose. Sure, we can make items like hard chunky plastic furniture (a common use) but is this really a good thing? Has it prevented new plastic entering the system? Do we need these down-cycled items?

A common ‘down cycling’ application that is touted as a great thing is the creation of polyester clothing…. which takes us to the thorny issue of micro fibres. Every time we wash ‘plastic fibres’, some bits come off into the water and enter our environment…and our food chain.

  • Re-cycling: Even if we are re-using plastic, many such applications require it mixing with virgin plastic to do so, often in high proportions. Sure, you might be pleased that some of your collected plastic has come back round the loop, but that’s not much good if 9 times as much new plastic is required to do so4.

  • Re-purposing: I often see links to video clips where plastic has been collected and then made into ‘art’. Yes, the result might look very nice (and desirable) but all we’ve done is found a place to sequester the plastic for a few years! Such repurposing has no effect on the gushing tap.

Raw materials: Every time we use raw materials to make plastic (i.e. the red flows on my 3rd diagram) we are adding to the existing problem, no matter how much is collected and returned. Put simply, we are created more plastic that will go somewhere on this earth.

The only sure way to close the loop would be to return the plastic to its original state – the green flow on my final diagram. Can this (truly) be done? That’s where, as a lay person looking at the whole system, I frustratingly admit that I don’t know. I’ve seen videos of people running small scale experiments on this, but I’ve got no idea if this is being (or will be) ‘industrialised’.

There’s probably nothing in the above that you didn’t already know but, because it’s never put to us in one glorious picture…we are good at compartmentalising it all away (hitting ‘like’ on a feel good article) and getting on with our (plastic consuming) lives.

The Whole system

We, the citizens of this world should want to know about the whole system. Sure, that scoop collecting our detritus out of the ocean is (currently) necessary but it’s soooo not sufficient.

Personally, I want my government5 to show us (i.e. everyone) the ‘warts and all’ picture. Transparency of what’s happening (i.e. feedback) is required – without it we aren’t in a position to properly respond.

For your information: Here’s a diagram from a 2017 research study into the amount of plastic ever produced and where it currently resides…

Plastic in the world

Some notes:

  • The figures in the diagram represent millions of metric tons (Mt). i.e. 8,300 Mt is 8,300,000,000 tons.
  • If, like me, you don’t really understand what a ton looks/feels like (I’ve never picked one up) then imagine a 1 kg bag of sugar. 8,300,000,000 tons is 8,300,000,000,000 kg.
  • I’ve not really helped you much there…because that’s unimaginable!!!6
  • This plastic only started to be produced in scale from the 1950s…we’ve achieved this mess in as little as 70 years….and it continues to accelerate.
  • 60% of all plastic ever produced is ‘out there’, discarded
  • Only around 7% has been recycled…but this hasn’t stopped new plastic entering the system.

The simple message within this post is for us to set out, look at, and continue to focus on, the whole.


This post was about plastic on our planet but the idea of ‘seeing the system’ rather than ‘focusing on one sub-system within’ is applicable to all complex, dynamic systems.

Turning to models: Forrester defined a model as “…a substitute for an object or system” and went on to write that:

“any set of rules and relationships that describe something is a model of that thing. In this sense, all of our thinking depends on models.”

However, “There are several major defects in mental models of dynamic systems that can be alleviated (not eliminated) by converting from mental models to models represented by explicit statements in the form of flow diagrams.”

Further, “…because we cannot mentally manage all the facets of a complex system at one time, we tend to break the system into pieces and draw conclusions separately from the sub-systems. Such fragmentation fails to show how the sub-systems interact.”

See, and work on, the whole.


1. Health: This post has totally ignored any ill-health effects on humans (and other life forms) from using plastic. That’s a far bigger topic, and one that I don’t know (enough) about to comment on.

2. A Book: I don’t know if it’s currently in reprint but the early work on this is ‘Principles of Systems’. I bought it years ago. It contains Forrester’s original undergraduate course on System Dynamics.

Note: Modern system dynamics seems to talk about stocks and flows in place of levels and rates. Different words, same thing.

3. Plastic use: If you did a ‘plastic usage’ audit for one day of your life…then it’s scary what you’d find, even if you are attempting to be a responsible citizen. When it comes to plastic, we often don’t get a choice!

4. Mixing: here’s a short video clip of the making of plastic bottles. It shows a ratio of 10% recycled plastic to 90% virgin. Not much ‘closed loop’ recycling going on there! I don’t know how current or standard this video is…but you get the point. The narrator explains that “Recycled plastic loses some of its physical properties, so the recycled content can’t exceed 10%”.

5. Government …because I don’t suppose that the plastic producers will do this, at least not objectively.

6. Unimaginable: Some people have tried creating some info-graphics to assist. Here’s one:

what does 8300 Mt of plastic look like


People don’t change their minds!

hugh-title-pictureSo a manager stands on a stage and lectures a group of people (or is that ‘thrusts hero opinions upon them’?) about how they should behave at work, and what ‘check box’ traits they should be looking for in others.

Within the bluster is a seemingly bizarre sentence stated as fact: That people don’t actually change their minds.

Is this true? How about some excellent examples of where you might agree:

  • a ‘Boris Johnson-loving’ Brexiteer at loggerheads with a ‘Yes to Europe’ standard bearer;
  • a Trump ‘nut’ arguing with a Hillary ‘supporter’;
  • a French secularist quarrelling with a Burkini wearer;
  • [name any other issue around the world and find people from opposing camps]

…what do you expect will be achieved by holding a ‘debate’ between these two sides?

Well, the best case scenario is that they retain their current views…but the worst case is that their positions will become firmer, their views more militant, and their mindsets become less respectful of (those that have now firmly become) their ‘opponents’1.

(Why) don’t we change our minds?

I recall reading an article that said a similar ‘people don’t change their mind’ thing…so I searched around the inter-web to see what I could find. Now, there are plenty of articles out there with headlines like ‘Why people don’t change their minds – even when faced with the facts’ so, yep, I was getting warm in my search…

…and after digging, reading, and a bit more digging, I find that there are two parts to it:

  1. Why do we form the opinions that we do?; and then
  2. Why do we cling on to them so tenaciously?

Now, many brilliant books have been written on the 1st part, covering all the weird and wonderful irrationality going on inside the human brain so I won’t attempt to summarise them here. If you want to ‘see for yourself’ then pick one of these up2 and have a read – they can be very entertaining!

But let’s go to the 2nd point: why do we cling on to these views once formed?

Here are a couple of explanations given:

Self-affirmation theory: individuals are driven to protect their self-integrity.

Hence, once you’ve decided something (especially if you make this public) then you are into ‘protection’ territory.

Cultural-cognition theory: the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact…to values that define their cultural identities (i.e. with the view of the groups with which we most strongly identify).

The key to this is the presence of doubt in respect of facts. If there’s no real dispute about something (e.g. that it’s currently raining outside) then there’s no challenge of values.

The doubt point is important, and was called out within research conclusions from this field of study3:

“…doubt turns people into stronger advocates…this effect is stronger if someone’s identity is threatened, if the belief is important to them, and if they think that others will listen. It all fits with a pattern of behaviour where people evangelise to strengthen their own faltering beliefs.”

…and the following is worth reading a couple of times and pondering:

 “The present research also offers a warning to anyone on the receiving end of an advocacy attempt. Although it is natural to assume that a persistent and enthusiastic advocate of a belief is brimming with confidence, the advocacy might in fact signal that the individual is boiling over with doubt.”

So back to that lecture:

What struck me about being told the ‘we don’t change our minds’ statement is that it questioned the whole basis of the lecture being dealt out to the group of people listening. If people don’t change their minds then why lecture them on your opinions? (i.e. attempting power/coercive or rational change)…you’ve just implied that there’s no point!

Now, I’d like to suggest an obvious flaw in the presenter’s logic about change.

Yes, people may be devoted to their (currently held) beliefs but they (including you and I) demonstrably do sometimes change their minds…and perhaps it is worth considering the massively important question: What was it that got them to change their minds?

Enter that lovely idea of normative change – true change arising through experiential learning.

I’ll describe a rather nice example:

I was watching a TV programme recently presented by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (River Cottage chef).

Hugh is a favourite eco-warrior of mine and his programme was all about the amount of waste within our daily lives…and a call to action to do something about it.

hugh-binsHugh picked an ‘average’ street in a Manchester suburb and joined the bin (garbage) men and their truck, on the weekly rubbish collection. He then ‘went through their bins’ back at the waste processing plant, gathering together what he found – mounds of discarded clothes, wasted food, unwanted electrical goods….and so on.

Now, Hugh looked into lots of different waste angles during his programme…but I want to focus on one of these, which makes the relevant point for this post:

Of particular note was the amount of metal, plastic and glass that had been thrown into the general rubbish bin – i.e. unsorted and therefore due for landfill or incineration – even though everyone in the street had been provided with recycling bins and instructions on what should and shouldn’t be put in them.

Why weren’t people separating their recyclable waste from the rest?

recyclingA great question!

So, where would be a good place to investigate?

Well, with someone who utterly refuses to separate their waste because they “don’t believe in it”. Can you see where this is going…

You may be able to influence those already on the cusp of change but if you want to appreciate the real problem then, however uncomfortable this might be, you need to find and work with a ‘true disbeliever’.

Hugh asked around the street and found the perfect person to ask: A young women, perhaps in her 20s, with (what us old farts might think as) an ‘attitude’ on life and what it owes her (I’m sure she’s a great person 🙂 ).

…and so Hugh sat down for a cup of tea and a chat with her about recycling…BUT, the important bit, here’s how he did it:

He observed her environment and then, from asking some non-judgemental questions about her behaviours, he listened to what she believed….and when she said something of particular note, rather than pointing out the counter-logic he simply checked that he had fully understood her belief – perhaps with a further clarifying question and/or repeating it back to her to confirm.

Importantly, he never sneered or scoffed at her responses (which would have been a direct challenge to her self-integrity) – he politely listened and showed a genuine interest in what she thought.

…and she came out with the classics:

  • “Why should I be wasting my time separating stuff, it’s not my problem – it’s ‘theirs’ to sort out”;
  • “There’s no point in separating the plastic, metal and glass from the rest because they all go straight to the landfill anyway”;
  • “Even if they don’t go straight to landfill [i.e. they go somewhere to be processed], nothing actually of worth is done with the materials that they separate out”; and
  • “It’s just a waste of time.”

I hope you can see that, if this is what someone believes, you can tell them till you are ‘blue in the face’ that this isn’t the case, and even tell them why…but where would this get you?

Even more interesting is that if ‘I’ believe the opposite of her recycling statements, how do I know that I’m right? Perhaps she’s right!

…and so we can see that we have arrived at that point – two people holding opposing views. Arguing about it (even by producing supposed ‘facts’) isn’t going to be productive. This is no different to telling a Trump ‘nut’ why they should be a Hilary ‘supporter’.

So, given the ‘people don’t change their mind’ narrative, is this the end? Should Hugh ‘pack up and go home’? Of course not…

Hugh has nicely set up a potential dose of normative learning. He’s found out what she believes, so he now knows what experiences to provide her with…and given his genuine interest in what she has to say, he has established the necessary level of trust to take things further.

He therefore gets her acceptance to go along (with a whole group from her neighbourhood – spot the cultural identity bit!) to see the recycling plant. Importantly, he goes with them to show that he, just as much as they, needs to experience it – he could be wrong too!4

The visit

hugh-waste-visitSo they start at the beginning: a manual sorting line with workers at a conveyor belt removing all the things that the recycling plant can’t (currently) process. Eeeew – no one said it was going to be pretty!

Learning number 1: Seeing what waste the current process can and can’t cope with.

They move on to see an awesome magnet sucking the iron-containing metal off the moving line. Cool!

Next, the line goes over big crushing teeth – gravity bounces the glass over them and smashes it into little bits which fall through the gaps…but the plastic and aluminium glides over the teeth. Glass separated – Awesome!

After that, another magnet gets to work on the aluminium – but this is different than earlier because it repels it off the line. Groovy!

And the impressive finale: the remaining plastic goes over a conveyor belt ‘cliff’ containing sophisticated cameras. These cameras can ‘see’ the types of plastic, which then rapidly trigger lasers to shoot certain plastics in differing directions.  Amazing!

And so to the end, to see big cubes of metal, glass, aluminium and different plastics stacked to the ceiling.

Learning number 2: Our waste can be, and is, separated into types.

Hugh’s group of observers are really impressed. What a ride!

Except for that young women – our disbeliever. Yes, she thought it was really cool technology and all that…but “I still don’t believe anything gets done with it.”

But Hugh’s not done – he takes them to a display where he has gathered together examples of what each recycled material goes on to become, from clothes through to bike frames. She picks out a really cool branded jacket, puts it on…and it fits. She loves it…she wants it…Hugh tells her that it was made from a bundle of recycled plastic…and, yes, she can have it.

Learning’s number 3 and 4: Something is done with the recycled materials…and I like the result, so it’s not a waste of time!

People don’t change – really?

Well, you’ve guessed it, through the power of television Hugh goes back to see our disbeliever in her daily life some time later and she is happily sorting her rubbish into what can and can’t be recycled.

Let’s go back to the top: if Hugh had ‘given her a lecture’, then she wouldn’t have changed. Worse, her efforts at arguing back would have made her more militant – she would have justified herself!


I accept that there is likely to be a small percentage of people who, even after what might appear to be compelling experiential evidence, might not change their mind…but I believe that there are far fewer people like this than we might imagine.

The experiences required to alter our thinking will likely differ for each of us…and this comes back to the need to understand each of our underlying beliefs and behaviours if we are to effect meaningful change.

Further, some people might need several doses and a longer time period for the normative medicine to take effect on them. We each process our thoughts in some quite bizarre ways. It’s not a ‘one size fits all’ operation….but that’s because we are all different…which is a great thing.


And, of course, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it.” (Upton Sinclair)

So, back to the world of work

lecture“But that normative stuff will take far too long! We’ve only got time for a lecture.”

Hahaha…and look where all those lectures are getting you!

Such a response reminds me of a wonderful quote:

“Managers will try anything easy that doesn’t work before they will try anything hard that does” (Womack)

And to those of us trying to move our organisations from ‘command and control’ to a better place, we can ‘tell them’ about the effects of cascaded objectives, targets, ratings, rewards etc…but don’t expect change from this.

We need them to see reality for themselves.

You may find that you can’t just take managers ‘to the gemba’ (the place where the work is done) BUT:

  • you can talk with, and observe, them to find out what they believe; and
  • you can look for learning opportunities as and when situations arise

i.e. bide your time, look for the instance…and then engineer a chance for experiential learning…and keep doing this until they start to question their own beliefs.

A nice quote that fits with this: “Only describe, don’t explain” (Ludwig Wittgenstein)

i.e. show them what is actually happening, but let them ponder and explain it for themselves….but provide them with help along the way.

To close:

So, do people change their mind? Of course they do…but not because you told them to!

And therefore, given all of the above, have I changed your mind? Of course not! I’ve merely explained something to you. You would need to go out and discover normative change for yourself….but I might have made you curious to do so 🙂


1. Debates: This is why the media just love the debate format. It does little for humanity, but a lot for ratings.

2. Irrationality: The first such book I read was called ‘Irrationality’, written by the late Stuart Sutherland (Professor of Psychology) – a good read. The last one I read was ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman.

3. Research: David Gal and Derek Rucker, North-western University referred to within this 2010 MINNPOST article

4. Could Hugh have been wrong? I realise that this is ‘Television’ and Hugh will have done his homework first (i.e. been to the recycling plant and seen for himself).

5. Note to councils around the world: If you really want people to recycle, and do so really well, then you need to show them (including me!) what happens….and every time that you make a step-change improvement in the capability of your process, you need to inform us of this and show us.