Cannes Lions

Precious Elements

WEBER SHANDWICK, Glasgow / ROYAL SOCIETY OF CHEMISTRY / 2020

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Overview

Background

Everything on Planet Earth is made from just 118 building blocks – the 118 elements in the periodic table.

But natural supplies of many are under serious threat. Rare elements like indium and gallium, for example, have millions of vital uses – from capturing energy in solar cells to treating disease. If we continue to rely only on natural resources, we risk exhausting supplies, yet only 1% is ever recycled. Most remain locked inside technology for decades.

The UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) wanted to get this crisis in front of policy-makers, and saw 2019 – UNESCO's ‘International Year of the Periodic Table’ (IYPT) – as perfect timing, with a year of public events at UK institutions celebrating 150 years of a science icon.

Our brief was to leverage IYPT to get the government’s attention on this sustainability crisis, via an integrated campaign of media, public and corporate pressure.

Idea

The RSC saw the events planned for IYPT as the perfect campaign platform. But for many people, the periodic table is a dry artefact of their schooldays; a challenging tie-in.

What is universally relatable, though, is our personal technology; one of the biggest culprits in the depletion of Earth’s elements. Smartphones contain over 30 unique elements, six of which are critically endangered (indium, gallium, arsenic, silver, tantalum and yttrium). Once our old gadgets are discarded in landfill, these elements are prohibitively difficult to recover.

And in 2019, we were in a boom of environmental activism – Greta Thunberg was speaking at the UN and Extinction Rebellion were mobilising public demonstrations. Here was an opportunity.

Working seamlessly with RSC, our idea was to link these forces together – the climate movement; our obsession with technology; the six endangered elements; and IYPT – to rouse activism and pressurise the Government into action.

Strategy

We surveyed 2,353 UK adults about their technology use. We learned that millions of UK households were stockpiling old technology; up to 40mn devices nationwide. Worse, four out of five people had no plans to recycle them (or didn’t know how).

Here was a call to action: Poor recycling of our personal technology is stripping the Earth bare. But to mobilise a movement that would influence government, we needed a very broad coalition: consumers, media, schools and business, all working together. At the strategy's core, therefore, was a portfolio of repeatable 'alarm call' messages (plus practical solutions) for re-use in different formats – crisp enough for social media; visual enough for displays; broad enough to get us airtime – to ensure consistent messaging across audiences and channels.

The RSC would then adapt these into a package of much more detailed evidence for Parliamentary MPs, so they could push for legislation.

Execution

Our plan was to start a national conversation as the platform for change. We placed a package with the BBC linked to an ‘Elements in Danger’ sub-site on www.rsc.org.uk, using our research to create a compelling story for multiple channels. We partnered with RecycleNow and TechTakeBack to offer practical recycling options.

Activated in August, this was a launchpad for:

-August-November: RSC lobbied policy-makers directly, preparing briefings and tabling motions in the Scottish, Welsh and UK Parliaments; hosting a cross-party debate with Scottish Parliamentarians at a ‘Science and Parliament’ event, displaying laser projections amplifying key messages.

-A media and social campaign, using key ‘pickup’ collateral and imagery.

-To stimulate youth activism, a key demographic, we maintained momentum by illuminating university buildings with key messages during UK Chemistry Week, with representatives attending to share information. Partnering with chemistry education influencer Compound Interest, our online teaching resources were embraced by hundreds of schools.

Outcome

Working closely with the RSC throughout to create a groundswell of public pressure, we generated results far beyond our expectations. In August alone, we doubled our social objectives (3.9mn impressions on Twitter) and generated 576 pieces of coverage around the world, including a special feature on BBC radio’s Jeremy Vine Show (7.42mn listeners).

Now a public debate, our campaign began to inspire corporate activism: EMR Metal Recycling partnered with retailer Currys PC World to launch a schools recycling initiative, ‘Recyclabots’, which collected thousands of gadgets and has now been extended into 2021.

By September, motions were tabled in the Scottish, Welsh and UK Parliaments. After we projected our ‘alarm calls’ onto the Scottish Parliament building during a ‘Science and Parliament’ event, the keynote speaker championed our cause; soon afterwards, Iain Gray MSP raised the issue in Parliament.

In July 2020, this persistent pressure paid off: The UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee launched a new inquiry into e-waste and invited the RSC to share evidence. Its final report on 26 November heavily featured the RSC’s recommendations and, in a stunning result, the UK Government has now put these proposals onto the 2021 Parliamentary timetable: They will now be debated and turned into UK-wide legislation as part of a new ‘Resources and Waste Strategy’.

It means we emphatically over-delivered our most ambitious objective – to “get the issue of e-waste before government.” We got the Government to act – and, in doing so, have accelerated the preservation of Earth’s most endangered elements.