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Can behavioural science help #BeatPlasticPollution?

Can behavioural science help #BeatPlasticPollution?

BehaviourWorks Australia has a few ideas (and a few researchers) when it comes to the wicked problem of dealing with plastic pollution.

In 2023, the theme of World Environment Day is #BeatPlasticPollution. BehaviourWorks Australia has a number of researchers who have actively looked at this problem from different angles. Let’s see what insights they can share when it comes to avoiding single-use plastics, reducing waste in locations ranging from hospitals to kerbside recycling.

The message matters

Kim Borg is a Research Fellow at BehaviourWorks Australia and her PhD looked at the issue of reducing or avoiding the use of single use plastics. She quickly discovered that this is a very complex problem. For instance, simply switching plastic shopping bags for cotton ones presents its own problems - cotton can have an even bigger environmental impact than plastic.

Her study focussed on the impact of media on people avoiding the use of single use plastic (like bags and drinking straws) and promoting reusable cups. Kim conducted a survey on plastic use and researched news and social media coverage on the Victorian government’s introduction of the ban on single use shopping bags. She found descriptive norms (what others are doing) and self-efficacy were the strongest predictors of whether someone would avoid or use single use plastics. In other words, “it’s what others are doing and I know I can do it too”.

Kim also tested existing media content to see if this had any effect. Using four different clips from different documentaries, the results suggest that media clips focussed on the volume of waste were not as effective as clips focussed on the impact waste had, particularly to wildlife. Clearly, what we watch (and share) influences what we do.

A simple rule of thumb: Make it easy and clear

In high pressure environments, like hospital operating theatres, waste (including plastic) often gets mixed up. Another of our researchers, Lena Jungbluth, led a study into hospital waste from operating suites. The study had two key aims; to improve rates of recycling and to reduce the large amount of clinical waste generated, which requires special (and expensive) treatment.

The three different streams of waste requiring clear separation and treatment are; clinical waste, general and recyclable waste (like paper, glass, and metals), and, lastly, waste that exists only in hospitals, like sterile wrap.

Nurses play a critical role in waste sorting, so were the target audience for behaviour change. There are many different drivers and barriers influencing nurses’ behaviours, such as lack of trust in the recycling process, different rules for different hospitals, time pressures, etc. So a range of interventions were implemented to see which were effective across the major hospitals involved in this study.

One finding was the importance of the waste bins themselves; by putting something as simple as wheels on bins, nurses were able to get better access to the right bins at the right time. By replacing the larger bins with smaller containers, clinical waste was also reduced. And the introduction of two new clearly labelled streams - soft plastics and sterile wrap – helped reduce previous contamination of waste.

One hospital reported that since the new streams were introduced more than 5 tonnes of waste have been diverted from landfill.

Aim your messages carefully

Why do people keep putting the wrong things into recycling bins? Researcher Jennifer Macklin has become the ‘go to’ expert on reducing kerbside recycling contamination, thanks to years of research into this issue. It is an area that has become critical since Australia can no longer export its recyclable waste overseas.

In leading the research in our Waste and Circular Economy Collaboration, Jennifer looked at the physical, social, and individual behavioural factors at play. She found that if recycling messages aren’t carefully targeted, they may be ignored or even reinforce poor recycling behaviours.

Messages that prompted shame or guilt were avoided in case they generated anger in the community. Generic positive messages from councils (e.g. ‘Thanks for being a good sort’) also meant contamination increased in some instances. Residents may think good feedback meant they were off the hook and didn’t need to change anything.

Specific messages that clearly highlighted what types of items go into which bins worked best. Some councils began the program with a priming postcard to let the community know what changes were happening and why.

With many different messages trialled, the best results were seen with personalised and positive messages.

Trial and trial again

Each of these studies reflect some key insights from behavioural science. There are four key takeaways we would like to leave you with. That it takes some ‘deep diving’ to find out how to address a specific problem. That you should resist assumptions. That you should test different interventions. That what didn’t work can tell us what may work in the future.

Behavioural science doesn’t have all the answers, but it does have a role to help #BeatPlasticPollution.

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