How “Green Nudges” Can Reduce Disposable Cutlery Use

By Albert Park, Elaine S. Tan

These charts illustrate the impact of green nudges on single-use cutlery consumption in the People’s Republic of China and the implications of more widescale use of such nudges.

Plastic waste is a global environmental threat that endangers marine and freshwater ecosystems worldwide. More recently,  as food-delivery services became increasingly popular during the pandemic, the surge in plastic waste generated by single-use cutlery has become a key environmental concern.

Yet effective policies that control single-use cutlery waste are largely nonexistent, and it is important to find ways to encourage individuals to reduce their single-use cutlery consumption.

From 2019 to 2020, three cities in the People’s Republic of China (Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin) introduced regulations that prohibited online food-delivery companies from including single-use cutlery unless it was explicitly requested. Single-use cutlery usually included a plastic fork, a plastic spoon, a pair of wooden chopsticks, and a napkin.

To comply with the regulations, Alibaba’s food-delivery company, Eleme, added a pop-up window that required customers to explicitly choose the number of cutlery sets to be included with their orders; setting the default for this pop-up window to be “no cutlery;” and provided a small non-monetary incentive–– points that result in the planting a real tree (under the customer’s name) in a desert area in the People’s Republic of China. 

The changes in the app’s user interface embody the concept of “nudging” from behavioral economics and social psychology, which describes approaches that change the choice environment (or choice architecture) or provide indirective information to influence the behaviors and decision-making processes of individuals.

 

The green nudges, on average, increased an individual’s share of no-cutlery orders by 20.1 percentage points, which was a 648% increase relative to the baseline group. Meanwhile, the  green nudges incentivized a large portion of individuals to somewhat change their behaviors rather than encouraging only a small portion to change their behaviors substantially.

Women, older individuals, frequent food delivery service users, and wealthy individuals were more responsive to the green nudges. Importantly, Alibaba’s business performance was not affected by the green nudges, suggesting that this could be a highly cost-effective way to reduce single-use cutlery waste.

We estimate that if green nudges were applied to all of the People’s Republic of China, more than 21.75 billion sets of single-use cutlery could be saved annually, which is equivalent to preventing 3.26 million metric tons of plastic waste and saving 5.44 million trees.    
 

 

Our study provides compelling evidence that nudges can be a powerful tool for changing behaviors. It also suggests that private sector and platform companies can provide highly cost-effective solutions to promote prosocial behaviors among their customers.

In this study,  the costs of implementing the green nudges were almost negligible (i.e., several hours of work to redesign the user interface), yet the aggregated environmental benefits were tremendous.

This blog post is based on the report Reducing single-use cutlery with green nudges, originally published in Science and authored by Guojun He, Yuhang Pan, Albert Park, Yasuyuki Sawada and Elaine S. Tan.