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Could Nudge be Used to Tackle the Plastic Problem in the UK?




Plastics are a prominent environmental problem. Plastic pollution is a global threat and is an issue that is becoming increasingly devastating for the planet. Plastics and, in particular, their smaller counterparts - microplastics - have been found in many places, ranging from coastal and marine environments, to the atmosphere to human placentas and human blood.

Literature addressing the impacts of plastics and microplastics on organisms is vast.


Plastic in the UK


Has the UK government taken any initiative to tackle the plastic problem?


Yes! - the UK government has legislation focused on certain plastic products and certain microplastics. The latest law is the raise of the charge on single-use plastic carrier bags to 10p from 5pm last May 2021 in England. This charge is now extended to all retailers. It is anticipated that the use of single-use plastic carrier bags will decrease by 70-80% in small and medium-sized businesses. It is expected to benefit the UK economy by over £290 million over the next 10 years.


The Environmental Protection Regulations 2020 (Plastic Straws, Cotton Buds and Stirrers) (England) bans the making and selling of plastic-stemmed cotton buds, plastic stirrers and plastic straws in England. The Environmental Protection (Single-use Plastic Products) (Scotland) Regulations 2021 bans the making and selling of plastic products such as single-use plastic cutlery and plates.





What is Nudge Theory?


The creation of nudge (theory) is credited to Thaler and Sunstein, the authors of the book on Nudge which was first published in 2008 and whose final edition was published in 2021.


Nudge is ‘‘any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives’’.


Nudges are not legislations or bans. The goal of a nudge is to aid someone in a way that is advantageous to them, for example leading a lifestyle that is more healthy or being a kinder person.


The ways nudging is implemented includes: functional design, presentation, priming, labelling, proximity, sizing and prompting.



The Nudge and the UK


The UK government has particularly embraced the use of nudge ever since ex-Prime Minister David Cameron’s era.


The UK government had its own Nudge Unit - the Behavioural Insights Team. In recent times, the Nudge Unit has worked with the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care on the UK government’s nudge response to COVID-19, with some of the most famous nudges including the promotion of singing Happy Birthday during handwashing so that the public washed their hands for the correct amount of time.


Examples of nudge include:

  • Healthy foods being at the front of a grocery store; unhealthy foods (e.g., pizza, frozen food) at the back (you have to go past the healthy food to get to the unhealthy food)

  • LOOK LEFT, LOOK RIGHT signs painted on the road at crossings


  • ‘Wear a facemask’ signs in shops, public transport etc.

  • Hand Sanitizers available (after the pandemic hit) in for example, the workplace, school and university

  • More expensive items at eye level, cheaper items are harder to reach in stores

  • Yellow line on train platforms to prevent harm to individuals from trains (gentle reminder to not go past the line helps keep the safety of train users)

  • Waste and Recycle bins next to each other ‘nudge’ people to recycle things that need to be recycled - encourages them to check if what they want to dispose of is recyclable or not.


Green Nudging


Human behaviour is known to be the root cause of the planet’s environmental problems, from overconsumption to waste production.


However, human behaviour can also be the solution. Nudging can encourage behaviour that is pro-environmental, therefore decreasing behaviour from individuals that have the potential to harm the environment.


Pro-environmental behaviour nudges are called green nudges. Green nudging has been increasingly applied to address challenges related to sustainability and the environment. Unlike traditional policy tools, nudging builds on people’s existing ways of thinking and making decisions, to direct specific behaviours in predictable ways.


Although businesses have engaged with strategic efforts to change consumer behaviours regarding plastic, they have had limited success.



As with many other sustainability issues, consumers are typically aware of plastic pollution as an environmental problem, but often fail to grasp the extent and severity of the problem and therefore fail to translate this awareness into more sustainable behaviours.


In order for there to be cohesion between awareness and sustainable behaviour change, scholars have advised that policymakers look to behavioural sciences to discover potential strategies to reduce plastic waste and pollution.


Nudging has been proven to be successful within promoting pro-environmental behaviour.


For example, WRAPs citizen behaviour change team created a behavioural nudge that successfully increased household recycling by 7%.




Potential drawbacks of nudge


Pro-environmental nudges, whilst they do have potential to help encourage behaviour that can help the environment, are not the be-all-and-end-all and that policymakers shouldn’t just rely on nudging but also use other tactics, such as taxes, as well.


Although nudge seems to be a helpful technique, not everyone is supportive of nudge - there are criticisms of nudge as well.


Nudging is a type of manipulation and could also be considered as a form of coercion; is not enough to solve society’s big problems that need great action, such as public health and the climate crisis.


Schmidt and Engelen, 2020 also point out that if we focus on nudging, the roots of society’s problems may be ignored and won’t be acted upon.


Other criticisms include nudging not allowing a person the freedom to choose, or stopping someone from learning from the things that they get wrong (which is a normal process by which people improve) (Thaler and Sunstein, 2021).


Help tackle plastic waste


From the literature it may be unclear whether nudging will or will not work in the context of reducing plastic use and waste.


However, nudging can be used as a driver to address and create necessary positive changes.


Implementing nudging techniques in your own businesses or simply being more aware of nudging in your daily life can help bring the necessary attention to the vast issue of plastic waste.


Plastics have undoubtedly infiltrated our lives and impacted both human health and the environment's health, thus, as a consumer and/or supplier of plastics, we need to change.


Help promote, and more importantly participate, in changing the behavioural norm.


Using plastic can no longer be the norm.


Examples of pro-environmental nudging


Put images of animals in plastic on plastic products such as disposable cups, non-recyclable drink bottles or takeout containers.



Place reusable cups at the till in cafes.




Put images of plastic bags harming animals at the checkout counter.



Have reusable cutlery, plates and bowls available at the workplace kitchen or eating area.





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