What unsustainable behavior needs to change:
Waste production and management have become major issues since we shifted from a reuse and repair culture to a more linear economy. This in turn has pushed us to mass overconsumption. Unless we change our consumption habits and shift our economic model to a more circular one, waste issues will continue to worsen – especially as our global population increases. Waste disposal creates significant environmental and social problems such as: occupying large amounts of land, contaminating underground water resources, soils and air. There is an urgent need for industries and organisations to innovate and change.
At the same time, it’s also necessary for households to manage waste properly. As much as there is a lack of will and intentions for some people, there might also be a lack of knowledge. This inability to sort waste accurately can lead to recyclable materials getting contaminated, leading to 20% of recyclable products ending up in landfills yearly.
The Green Nudge:
Reported by Akbulut-Yuksel and Boulatoff (2021), a Canadian municipality implemented a clear bag policy to incentivise households to manage their waste better. Departing from monetary incentives, this municipality decided to use subjective and personal norms to nudge people.
Instead of having opaque black bin bags for general waste, the municipality distributed see-through bags. Firstly, it enabled waste collectors to screen bags and refuse them if they thought some materials could be reallocated to the recycle or organic category. Secondly, having passersby, such as neighbours or people from their community, who could see into their bags – added some social pressure to stick to the subjective norm of recycling and sorting waste properly. It also contributed to increased pressure regarding their internalised values and moral obligations to be good citizens.
The result: an increase in recycling by 15% and a decrease in overall municipal waste by 27%. Not only did people start sorting their waste better, but a spillover effect occurred which impacted people’s consumption habits. Simultaneously, the overall amount of waste generated yearly also decreased.
As much as it proved to be effective, this experiment raises questions about the morality of social norms, external influences and how it applies to different cultural contexts. How would this look different if, say, it was deployed in Europe?
Are you aware of any other nudges that use social norms? Get in touch: email@example.com
From Lucie Mathieu who graduated with a master’s in Psychology of Economic Life. She has a strong interest at the crossroads of behavioural sciences, sustainability and social entrepreneurship. Currently, Lucie works in a social enterprise startup and advises Sustainacy (a B2B platform aiming to foster employees‘ sustainable behaviours at work, through the use of behavioural science, gamification and education).