In 2016, a lot of media outlets came out with stories of how certain Indian IT companies, such as TCS, were using behavioural nudges to reduce food wastage. Using simple, effective messages- such as the board shown in the image above, especially placed at serving stations in employee cafeterias, aimed at encouraging employees to only take as much food as they needed, thereby curbing waste production. Google even went a step ahead in showing up the daily breakup of food wastage, alongside weekly comparisons in the form of analytics. (TOI, 2016)
Studying in IIM Bangalore’s PGP Programme, I came across a similar board that was placed in our “mess”/cafeteria, where a daily measure of the amount of food waste was updated and recorded. In other words, what started as a corporate practice has now started gaining a foothold across institutions. Which piqued my curiosity, on how exactly behavioural nudges work, and how can they be more effectively employed in more efficient waste management practices.
Nudge Theory and System 1 Thinking
Let me now throw some light on the Nudge Theory. In a seminal work by Nobel Prize winning economist Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, titled “Nudge- Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness (2008)” it was suggested that if a decision-making pattern occurs due to cognitive boundaries, biases and habits, the pattern may be “nudged” towards a better option. This requires integrating insights about those boundaries, biases, and habits into the choice architecture surrounding the behaviour- to “promote” a more preferred behaviour than, say, “obstruct” another behaviour. Nudges are particularly directed more towards the behaviours that are guided by our “System 1” thinking. “System 1” thinking, as has been explained by Prof. Daniel Kahneman, in the book “Thinking Fast and Slow”, is the part of thinking that operates automatically, with almost little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. (Kahneman, 2011)
Existing Examples of Behavioural Nudges
Let me cite an example, to explain this better. Often, a lot of decisions we make require little or no thinking effort from our ends. For instance, choosing what to eat in a buffet, is a decision we make purely on convenience and taste, as it is guided by System 1 of our thinking faculties. As a result, if the food placed in a buffet is such that the healthier options are placed before our eyes –salads, sprouts, boiled veggies, cut fruits, and juices, we would be “nudged” to pick these healthier options which may otherwise be ignored by our subconscious mind.
The theory of “Nudges” may have made its official appearance in behavioural literature much later, but it has always been part of general business planning and strategizing. Nudges have been used for perpetuity by businessmen in designing retail spaces to sell high margin products over low margin ones (especially in case of products with low brand loyalty). Retailers often design the retail space in such a way that the high margin products are often placed at the start of the aisle and the check-out counters are placed at the end of the aisle. This nudges the shoppers to walk through the entire aisle and check out all the products often resulting in impulse buying and hence more sales.
Nudges and Waste Disposal
We know that a lot of our present environmental problems stem from human behaviour, more importantly, behaviour that is driven by the absence of active thinking. Everything from purchasing to throwing away things is often driven more by instincts than by needs. A lot of the things we buy don’t necessarily concur with our needs, and as a result, we also end up throwing a lot of the same. Behavioural nudges have been used in several experiments such as the TCS example we saw above, to try and consciously alter or “nudge” throwing behaviour more responsibly, reverse feeding into our consumption practices.
Given that our behaviour towards waste generation is predominantly System-1 driven, it is often based on the status-quo bias (which pushes us towards default options). As a result, if given a choice between repair vs. repurchase- often we find mobile phone replacement over repair unless repair services are predominant and ubiquitous.
Likewise, the reason for our inability to accurately dispose of waste bins is a design challenge- which is often unintuitive for us. For instance, even though we have a Blue and Green Bin system for segregation, we still see the two getting often being mixed (by the two I mean bio-degradable and non-degradable). This is because throwing waste is an extremely intuitive decision driven by our instinct for convenience, and often a lack of better information and ability to distinguish, which drives us to the easiest option of throwing it wherever we find a dustbin.
Other problems regarding waste generation include the absence of adequate and regular penalties, missing social ethos where people don’t consider keeping streets clean as “necessary civic duties”, as well as missing “social norms” where one’s act of throwing waste on streets can incentivize others to object the action. (OECD, 2017)
In a project conducted in the Netherlands, aiming towards reducing littering in the “immediate surroundings” of waste containers, certain behavioural interventions were tested, some of which can serve as model experiments for designing waste management systems. For example, placing a mirror next to the waste container so that a person can see his/her behaviour while throwing waste, an “injunctive social norm” which forces oneself to approve or disapprove once own action. Another example is placing a picture of a person belonging to the neighborhood next to bins, with a request beckoning people to behave the right way, a “descriptive social norm” which explains how people in the neighborhood do not litter around containers – seeking adherence to socially acceptable behaviour. These practices significantly reduced littering frequency from 50% to 30% over two weeks. (OCED,2017)
An experiment conducted by HBS students focussed on waste sorting. They – highlighted the downsides to not sorting by using the phrase “10 seconds to sort, 1000 years in a landfill”. Positioning signages in a way that students could see each other’s behaviour and simplifying the presentation of trash by sticking actual pieces of trash. Here is a picture that depicts the same. (Xu, et al., n.d.)
There are several such experiments that you could also devise for yourself, your homes, and surroundings, to effectively manage waste. It requires careful observation of waste disposal practices followed by people in your particular locales. Remember, social norms are different everywhere, depending on people’s notions about their space and concern towards others. In certain cities like Tokyo, one cannot find dustbins, despite that there are no littering practices because of extremely strong social norms and control over socially unacceptable behaviours, apart from strong monitoring and penalizing that is practiced. As a result, any such solutions driven by nudges must be “effectively localized” for a small population in a particular area and adopted elsewhere only after seeing behavioural similarities in the respective cases.
Nudges and Waste Reduction in Indian Context
Gifts form an essential part of Indian tradition and customs. Keeping this in mind, we can nudge people’s behaviour towards choosing sustainable lifestyle options (thereby reducing waste) by gifting them an eco-friendly alternative to daily-use disposable plastic products. For example, we can gift eco-friendly oral hygiene kit containing eco-friendly Bamboo Toothbrush and Bamboo Tongue Cleaner.
Last, but not the least- the effort to create a responsible waste management practice requires commitment from all stakeholders- including policymakers, researchers, and the local community. It is only together that we can build a more sustainable and responsible future.
1. Hansen, P., 2016. What is Nudging. [Online]
Available at: https://behavioralpolicy.org/what-is-nudging/
2. iNudgeyou, n.d. Green Nudge: Nudging Litter Into The Bin. [Online]
Available at: https://inudgeyou.com/en/green-nudge-nudging-litter-into-the-bin/
3. Kahneman, D., 2011. Thinking Fast and Slow. In: Thinking Fast and Slow. s.l.:s.n.
4. OECD, 2017. Tackling Environmental Problems with Behavioural Insights, s.l.: s.n.
5. TOI, 2016. [Online]
Available at: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/pune/tackling-food-wastage-the-it-way/articleshow/58841541.cms
6. Xu, C., Zhuo, D. & Sides, T., n.d. Improving accuracy of waste sorting through behavioral nudges. [Online]
Available at: https://green.harvard.edu/tools-resources/case-study/improving-accuracy-of-waste-sorting