Human Centred Design Approach to Communicating the Risks of Illegally Dumped Asbestos

  • 2021

  • Social Impact

Designed In:


There is a significant impact on the lives of people who unwittingly receive soil on their land contaminated with asbestos. The NSW Environment Protection Authority, working with Meld Studios undertook a human centred approach to developing and evaluating effective messaging to inform communities about the risks of receiving contaminated ‘free fill’.

Image: Ethnographic research to understand the negative impact of asbestos illegally dumped on their land. Estimated cleanup cost to be borne by land owner was $300,000
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  • From a project participant. "We were looking for free soil for our land. They came with a truck. For the life of me I didn't even think it would have asbestos. At first we were absolutely furious. You get guilt thinking of my family. Financially it's a huge burden, we're looking at around $300,000 clean up costs. I went into a depression." The challenge was to design effective communication of the risks in accepting 'free fill' on their land. To reduce the impacts of illegally dumped asbestos on the environment, community, family, financial and personal wellbeing.

  • The design solution began with understanding the current experience of people who have had asbestos illegally dumped on their land. Ethnographic research methodology was used to reveal behavioural drivers and decision pathways for sourcing and use of free soil/fill. We explored opportunities and potential futures for values-based communication of risks of sourcing 'free fill' in contextual workshops with people in semi-rural NSW. The effectiveness of communications to inform communities about the risks of receiving 'free fill' in changing attitudes and behaviours of sourcing fill materials for land use was conducted using quantitative pre- and post-evaluation of a pilot campaign.

  • Resulting NSW EPA communications increased awareness of 'free fill' risks. Over 96% of people seeing the campaign agreed 'free fill' might contain asbestos. The communications made significant, positive, social impact on attitudes and behavioural intent of people in semi-/rural areas sourcing 'free fill' on their properties. Critically, communications gave people knowledge and confidence to take positive steps in sourcing fill rather than be stopped by fear of the risk, or acting recklessly. This enhanced EPA perceptions as a regulator in mitigating risk while enabling people to act, rather than attempting to manage risk by stopping people sourcing free fill.

  • Rather than a 'scare campaign' attempting to stop people using 'free fill' on their land, NSW EPA undertook a values-based approach to co-designing communications with the people most likely to be significantly impacted by 'free fill contaminated with asbestos. Recent research has shown how cultural perspectives explain differences in people's responses to the same environmental risk. Understanding these values in the context of the risk of contaminated fill was vital to the design. Ethnographic research was used to understand the values, attitudes, behaviours, decisions of people who had been adversely impacted by inadvertently receiving soil and fill contaminated by asbestos. Workshops with people in context explored how different sets of shared values produced a plurality of views on the natural environment which influenced how they perceived and responded to risk. As a result, three different communications were developed to communicate the risk to people of using 'free fill' on their land. Quantitative evaluation showed there was significant difference (+18%) of intention to 'check fill' among those who had seen the communications versus those who had not. Research showed the vulnerability of those in regional communities who do not have English as a language. A multi-language campaign was subsequently developed.