top of page

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.


Barkham, P. (2021) ‘No sharks but I’ve seen porpoises’: the rebirth of the River Thames [The Guardian]. Available from: [Accessed 24th March 2022].

Bovens, L. (2009) The Ethics of Nudge, Preference Change, 42, pp.207-219. DOI: 10.1007/978-90-481-2593-7_10.

Byerly, H., Balmford, A., Ferraro, P.J., Wagner, C.H., Palchak, E., Polasky, S., Ricketts, T.H., Schwartz, A.J. and Fisher, B. (2018) Nudging pro-environmental behaviour: evidence and opportunities, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 16 (3). DOI: 10.1002/fee.1777.

Carlsson, F., Gravert, C., Johansson-Stenman, O. and Kurz, V. (2019) Nudging as an Environmental Policy Instrument. Available from: [Accessed 24th March 2022].

Chen, G., Feng, Q. and Wang, J. (2020a) Mini-review of microplastics in the atmosphere and their risks to humans, Science of The Total Environment, 703, 135504. DOI: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.135504.

Chen, G., Fu, Z., Yang, H. and Wang, J. (2020b) An overview of analytical methods for detecting microplastics in the atmosphere, Trends in Analytical Chemistry, 130, 115981. DOI: 10.1016/j.trac.2020.115981.

Chris, J.J. (2016) Influence, Nudging, and Beyond, Society, 53, pp. 89-96. DOI: 10.1007/s12115-015-9975-2.

Clot, S., Giusta, M.D. and Jewell, S. (2022 Once Good, Always Good? Testing Nudge’s Spillovers on Pro Environmental Behaviour, Environment and Behaviour, 54 (3), pp. 655-669. DOI: 10.1177/00139165211060524.

Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and The Rt Hon George Eustice MP (2021) Plans unveiled to ban single-use plastics. Available from: [Accessed 24th March 2022].

Department for Transport (2015) Know Your Traffic Signs. Available from: [Accessed 31st March 2022].

Fanghella, V., d’Adda, G. and Tavoni, M. (2019) On the Use of Nudges to Affect Spillovers in Environmental Behaviours, Frontiers in Psychology, 10 (61). DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00061.

Foley, C.J., Feiner, Z.S., Malinich, T.D. and Höök, T.O. (2018) A meta-analysis of the effects of exposure to microplastics on fish and aquatic invertebrates, Science of The Total Environment, 631-632, pp. 550-559. DOI: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.03.046.

Goodwin, T. (2012) Why We Should Reject ‘Nudge’, Politics, 32 (2), pp. 85-92. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9256.2012.01430.x.

GOV.UK (no date) Behavioural Insights Team. Available from: [Accessed 31st March 2022].

Grilli, G. and Curtis, J. (2021) Encouraging pro-environmental behaviours: A review of methods and approaches, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 135, 110039. DOI: 10.1016/j.rser.2020.110039.

Hausman, D.M. and Welch, B. (2010) Debate: To Nudge or Not to Nudge, The Journal of Political Philosophy, 18 (1), pp. 123–136. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9760.2009.00351.x.

Horton, A.A., Svendsen, C., Williams, R.J., Spurgeon, D.J. and Lahive, E. (2017) Large micrplastic particles in sediments of tributaries of the River Thames, UK - Abundance, sources and methods for effective quantification, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 114 (1), pp. 218-226. DOI: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2016.09.004.

Lau, W.W., Shiran, Y., Bailey, R.M., Cook, E., Stuchtey, M.R., Koskella, J., Velis, C.A., Godfrey, L., Boucher, J., Murphy, M.B., Thompson, R.C., Jankowska, E., Castillo, A.C., Pilditch, T.D., Dixon, B., Koerselman, L., Kosior, E., Favoino, E., Gutberlet, J., Baulch, S., Atreva, M.E., Fischer, D., He, K.K., Petit, M.M., Sumaila, U.R., Neil, E., Bernhofen, M.V., Lawrence, K. and Palardy, J.E. (2020) Evaluating scenarios toward zero plastic pollution, Science, 369 (6510), pp. 1455-1461. DOI: 10.1126/science.aba9475.

Leslie, H.A., van Velzen, M.J.M., Brandsma, S.H., Vethaak, D., Garcia-Vallejo, J.J. and Lamoree, M.H. (2022) Discovery and quantification of plastic particle pollution in human blood, Environment International, 107199. DOI: 10.1016/j.envint.2022.107199.

Mols, F. (2015) ‘Nudges’ may be effective at times, but policymakers can’t rely on them to tackle entrenched social problems. Available from: [Accessed 31st March 2022].

Nelson, K.M., Bauer, M.K. and Partelow, S. (2021) Informational Nudges to Encourage Pro-environmental Behaviour: Examining Differences in Message Framing and Human Interaction, Frontiers in Communication, 5, 610186. DOI: 10.3389/fcomm.2020.610186.

Ragusa, A., Svelato, A., Santacroce, C., Catalano, P., Notarstefano, V., Carnevali, O., Papa, F., Rongioletti, M.C.A., Baiocco, F., Draghi, S., D’Amore, E., Rinaldo, D., Matta, M. and Giorgini, E. (2021) Plasticenta: First evidence of microplastics in human placenta, Environment International, 146, 106274. DOI: 10.1016/j.envint.2020.106274.

Reid, L. and Ellsworth-Krebs, K. (2019) Nudge(ography) and practice theories: Contemporary sites of behavioural science and post-structuralist approaches in geography?, Progress in Human Geography, 43 (2), pp. 295-313. DOI: 10.1177/0309132517750773.

Rutter, J. (2020) ‘‘Nudge Unit’’. Available from: [Accessed 31st March 2022].

Schmidt, A.T. and Engelen, B. (2020) The ethics of nudging: An overview, Philosophy Compass, 15 (4), e12658. DOI: 10.1111/phc3.12658.

SIbony, A. (2020) The UK COVID-19 Response: A Behavioural Irony?, European Journal of RIsk Regulation, 11, pp. 350-357. DOI: 10.1017/err.2020.22.

Thaler, R.H. and Sunstein, C.R. (2021) Nudge: The Final Edition. Allen Lane: UK.

The Environmental Protection (Plastic Straws, Cotton Buds and Stirrers) (England) Regulations 2020 (SI 2020/971) Available from: [Accessed 24th March 2022].

The Environmental Protection (Single-use Plastic Products) (Scotland) Regulations 2021 (SI 2021/410) Available from: [Accessed 24th March 2022].

The Single Use Carrier Bags Charges (England) Order 2015 (SI 2015/776) Available from: [Accessed 24th March 2022].

The Single Use Carrier Bags Charges (England) (Amendment) Order 2021 (SI 2021/598) Available from: [Accessed 24th March 2022].

Vince, J. and Hardesty, B.D. (2017) Plastic pollution challenges in marine and coastal environments: from local to global governance, Restoration Ecology, 25 (1), pp. 123-128. DOI: 10.1111/rec.12388.

We, S., Choong, W. and Low, S. (2021) Can ‘‘Nudging’’ Play a Role to Promote Pro-Environmental Behavior, Environmental Challenges, 5, 100364. DOI: 10.1016/j.envc.2021.100364.

bottom of page