Using behavioural economics to improve recycling rates

Rachel Cope

behavioural economicsWhile at a conference recently I took the photo below.  To me it summarises the current situation in the UK when it comes to recycling.

behavioural economicsSomewhat ironically, it was taken at a print and packaging conference where sustainability was the hot topic.  In the UK alone, 2.5bn disposable cups are thrown away each year.  That’s more than 45 cups for every adult in the country.  And despite discounts in coffee shops for bringing your own reusable cup, only 1-2% of our purchases take up this offer.  It’s therefore not surprising that the subject has received a lot of media coverage recently as politicians propose introducing a tax and making sure that all cups should be recyclable by 2023.

The photo shows equal amounts of disposable cups in the recycling and compostable packaging bins, as well as a number of cups in the non-recyclable bin.  It tells me that the public (and, bearing in mind where I was at the time, it’s probably safe to assume that this was also quite an ‘informed’ public) is confused about what they can or can’t recycle.  It also tells me that they’d like to recycle, given their preference for the recycling bins, and it also tells me that, despite the lack of reusability of these materials, we continue to voraciously consume tea and coffee in take-out cups as we lazily refuse to change our ways!  It’s amazing what you can learn from a single photo: it’s a great research tool.

A recent survey[1] among UK consumers provides the quantitative evidence to support my qualitative observation.  It found that only 43% of the public now feel very confident that they put different waste in the right bins.  Added to this, only 16% of the UK public feel that recycling labelling on product packaging is very easy to understand, with 49% saying that it is easy to tell whether disposable coffee cups are recyclable.

We’re all very quick to state that we need more information and that more can be done by business and government to address sustainability challenges (and I also take this view), but what we’re not so good at admitting in surveys is that our own behaviours as consumers leaves a lot to be desired.  We may have positive attitudes towards recycling but changing behaviour is a much bigger challenge.

By using what we’ve learned through behavioural economics, we can look at how we might build a campaign to improve recycling rates and accuracy of recycling.  There are lots of models we can use to build a strategy, but I’m going to take M.I.N.D.S.P.A.C.E. as a framework for this example (I’ve used it a number of times with clients, and it works well).  It was developed by the the UK Government’s Behavioural Insights Unit to explore how behaviour change theory can help meet current policy challenges and it’s a straightforward acronym which helps marketers to develop messaging that will have the most impact on their target audience.

So let’s take a look at how we could use the M.I.N.D.S.P.A.C.E. framework…

(M) Messenger: The choice of messenger heavily influences our response to information.

I’ve noticed a trend on motorways and at train stations recently where a child is the messenger to deliver a safety message.  There’s a reason for this.  A young person delivering a message pricks our conscience, and reminds us that our behaviour can affect the future of someone so young.  Words about the importance of recycling and its impact on the environment coming from a child would also be beneficial for this example.

(I) Incentives: Our responses to incentives are shaped by mental shortcuts such as aversion to losses.

An incentive could be financial in exchange for our recycling efforts but that might prove costly.   Perhaps in this case there could be a voice-activated ‘thank you’ triggered by a deposit in the bin.  In this case, adding a statistic about how the contribution is helping to saving the planet or to recycling ‘x’ tonnes at the venue would also encourage repeat behaviour.

(N) Norms: we are strongly influenced by what others do.

behavioural economics
The picture on shows the recycling containers at another event
I attended.  It’s clearly better than the earlier photo in educating the
public on what to put where, but it could be even better if we were to
consider the role of norms.  Rather than ‘What goes in’, a message
saying ‘What people like you put in here’ or ‘What people who care
about the environment put in here’
would work better.

(D) Defaults: people are lazy and tend to accept pre-set options.

No doubt Anna, our Office & HR manager at Breaking Blue, would testify to this!  Anna worked tirelessly to improve our recycling rate at work.  It’s now at 91%, but not without a lot of perseverance from her.  The main point here would be to ensure that bins are easily accessible.  That means plenty of clearly-labelled recycling bins and in places where they’re easy to spot.

(S) Salience:  people pay attention to the novel and surprising information.

I suggested the idea of a talking bin earlier.  That would certainly be novel!  Humour is also a good way of attracting attention.

(P) Priming: our acts are often influenced by subconscious cues.

Using a logo, icon or character positioned around the venue to remind people to recycle may be beneficial.  Just seeing lots of recycling bins around the place (be it consciously or unconsciously) would also provide us with a cue.  This is commonly known as the ‘exposure effect’ in behavioural economics.  Another interesting academic finding is that messaging in bold colours is more likely to be believed than paler, middling shades.  So make that message bright and confident!

(A) Affect: our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions.

As I suggested earlier, a child delivering the message would also tick the ‘Affect’ box.  Explaining the harmful impact of not recycling on the environment and on wildlife would also help to change behaviour by building emotional connections.  I particularly like the idea of a message about the harm of not recycling as this plays to another learning from behavioural economics: losses loom larger than gains (thanks to our brains’ amygdala programming us to prioritise bad news).

(C) Commitments: we seek to be consistent with our public promises, and reciprocate acts.

We could use a statistic from a high-profile public survey that states the proportion of people who feel that recycling is important, or as part of the child’s message (described earlier) they could talk about how they’ve been told by adults how important it is to do this.

(E) Ego: we act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves.

Many of the messages I’ve mentioned here would play to our egos.  Helping the environment and thinking of the future of young people are both relevant.  I don’t think I know anyone who wouldn’t feel better by helping one of those causes.

Clearly, messaging doesn’t need to use every element of M.I.N.D.S.P.A.C.E, but the more it takes into consideration then the more likely it is to result in behaviour change.  And we can help you use it in your next marketing campaign.

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