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Is it a bird? Is it a plane?... Or is it a talking recyclable carton?

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Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Or is it a creative use of animation, with a serious message behind it? The innovative, animated series ‘The Carton Campaigners’ has hit the mark when it comes to explaining why sustainable packaging is key to a circular economy. The five superhero-style characters - created by Pro Carton, the European Association of Carton and Cartonboard Manufacturers - were launched in 2019 and have taken on a life of their own.

We spoke to Tony Hitchin, Pro Carton’s General Manager, about why The Carton Campaigners have been instrumental in raising awareness of environmentally-friendly packaging and educating consumers about their responsibilities. 

How did the initial pitch/brainstorming phase go? 

Most people have heard of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, but at Pro Carton, we felt this was missing key aspects of the circular economy. We updated this to become the 5Rs of Responsibility, adding ‘renew’ (choose renewable materials) and ‘replace’ (replace the use of non-sustainable materials) to the mix. The 5Rs were well received by the industry, but we knew more needed to be done to explain the elements to consumers, particularly young people, in a really clear and simple way.

Pro Carton had the idea for the initial concept: five cartoon heroes made of cartonboard, each representing one of the 5Rs. Our PR agency, Storm Communications, worked with a designer to develop the characters so that each of their bodies is made up of different cartons, such as the ones used to package tea bags, cereal and fast food. 

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We gave each of the characters a name, with an international flavour – Ricki Recycle, Renée Renew, Rhianna Reduce, Ryan Reuse and Ronnie Replace – and launched them to the press and on social media in 2019. I knew that there was huge potential for the characters to become Pro Carton mascots, delivering our key messages at various points throughout the year. And so, The Carton Campaigners animated series was born.

Tell us more about the concept. Why was it the right choice? 

Communicating the benefits of fibre-based packaging can be quite dry and I wanted to have a greater impact. Additionally, in the digital age, it is important to create something that resonates with consumer audiences on social media, as well as the traditional channels. I was lucky that I was already working with Storm - their creative team loved the idea and helped to develop the scripts.

We started with a short animation introducing The Carton Campaigners, with the first of the full-length videos exploring the story of Ricky Recycle defeating the ‘waste monster’ in time for World Recycling Day in March 2020. The video demonstrated that increasing our recycling rates is a viable solution to the climate emergency. With 85% of paper and cartonboard packaging in Europe being recycled, the story explains the importance of recycling, in an easy to understand format for children.

Since then, we’ve created a video for Renée Renew, explaining that trees are a sustainable resource, and that by using renewable packaging and planting more trees, carbon emissions will reduce. As the United Nations (UN) says ‘the climate that makes our planet habitable’ comes from nature, and we amplified this message to consumers, ensuring that they understand the cartonboard industry’s role in helping to maintain sustainably managed forests. 

Our most recent video explains Earth Overshoot Day, which marks the date when humanity's demand on natural resources continues to exceed what Earth's ecosystems can regenerate in a year. It features all of the characters working together to move the date back and ends with an important question to the audience with a deliberate double entendre asking - ‘are YOU responsible?’.

What was the production process like? 

The team at Storm drafted the script and storyboard for each video, with Pro Carton’s input, and then worked a designer brought the story to life. Once the animation was perfect, we translated the script and hired professional actors to record the voiceovers in four languages. 

What was the biggest challenge?

As often is the case, the biggest challenge was the initial phase, trying to get the characters right. We went through a number of iterations of the characters because I wanted them to clearly represent cartons you’ll find in the real world. If you look closely at the characters, you’ll see for example that Ricki Recycle has branding all over his outfit, while Ronnie Replace’s head bears a strong resemblance to a fries carton!

As a pan-European association, anything we created needed to be understood by consumers in different countries – so the wording had to be carefully crafted, without any of the messages getting lost in translation.

Perhaps surprisingly, COVID-19 had very little impact on the quality or speed of production, with all parties working well together remotely.

Why will the final assets resonate with consumers?

We wanted to get our message across to a broad audience, so the characters were specifically developed to be fun and colourful so that consumers were instantly engaged.  The videos have had well over a million views already, so it is clear they have been well received.

What’s the main message of the campaign and why does it matter? 

It’s all about helping brands and consumers take responsibility for material recycling, product reuse, reduction of non-sustainable resources, increase in use of renewable materials and waste reduction. 

The campaign matters because we have just one planet, and we all have a responsibility to protect the environment through practical actions.

What is one unique aspect of the campaign?

We know that cartoon characters are universally popular but I don’t think they’ve ever been used to promote the benefits of a packaging material!  They also give us a way of speaking to all age groups.

For example, during lockdown, when we knew parents were homeschooling their children, we developed our ‘EduCarton’ initiative, which offers free online learning resources. This included the Carton Campaigners’ videos, but we also created downloadable worksheets featuring the characters. 

What do you hope it achieves for the cause? 

We hope that consumers recall the five crucial actions that we believe will help us achieve a circular economy - Renew, Reuse, Reduce, Replace, and Recycle. 

Ultimately we want everyone to understand what sustainable packaging is, so they choose environmentally-friendly materials like cartonboard wherever possible, that way we will all be responsible and help to save the planet!

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