Few people would make the case for Lotteries. But what if the scheme could be used as a ploy to improve recycling behaviours? The Accelerator Lab team in Thailand is on the quest to test this assumption. By applying behavioural science, we also hope to gain a deeper insight into individual recycling behaviours. 

Photo credit: Reuters, Soe Zeya Tun

Thailand is the world’s sixth biggest contributors of marine plastic litter, responsible for over 51,000 tons of the plastic waste flowing into the oceans every year - and it comes as no surprise. Plastic inside another plastic is a common habit here. In fresh markets and street food stalls, fruits and other perishable food items are wrapped in thin, transparent plastic on display and loaded into another plastic packet when sold. 

High plastic consumption combined with poor waste management and low levels of recycling on land are causing waste leakage into waterways and eventually leading into the ocean. According to the Pollution Control Department of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of Thailand, as much as 2 million tons of plastic waste, or around 12% of total waste, is generated in Thailand each year, of which only 25% is recycled. Contaminated items, from single use plastic bags to containers, bottles and cups, made up more than 80% of the plastics that are not recycled, often end up at dumping sites or in waterways.

Given the detrimental environmental effects of plastic waste from animal choking to pollution, blockage of channels, rivers and streams, landscape disfigurement, and health risks through microplastics in the food chain, the Thai Government aims to have all plastic waste recycled by 2027. In doing so, it kicked off a nationwide movement to ban single use plastic bags in January 2020. Supported by the Thai Retailers Association, which owns more than 25,000 retail distribution channels across the country, the ban has been widely adopted by department and convenience stores as well as retailers, who would stop providing customers with plastic bags in order to lessen the environmental impact.

Despite these efforts, of which we thought we could have made progress in saving the environment, lessons learnt from other countries show that plastic ban may not always result in changing consumption patterns or altering consumer behaviours in ways that would eradicate plastic pollution. For example, in Vietnam, the Accelerator Lab found several limitations of bans on single use plastics and argued for the need for a more holistic approach to change citizens’ behaviours and mindsets towards waste management. 

Boosting recycling relies on people changing their behaviour 

As changing people’s habits is difficult, the Thailand’s Accelerator Lab has turned to behavioural science for help.

Behavioural science is a critical tool for the UN to progress on its mandate. It can contribute to combating poverty, improving public health and safety, preventing and managing crisis, promoting gender and economic equality, tackling corruption, strengthening peacebuilding and all the SDGs,” said António Guterres, UN Secretary-General.

Through interviews and surveys, the preliminary findings show that people are generally concerned about the environment, understand why plastic is bad, and have a positive attitude towards recycling. However, something else is getting in the way as these good intentions do not always translate into pro-environmental behaviours such as recycling or avoiding single use plastic.

In order to address the so-called ‘intention - action’ gap, the Lab examined further behavioural barriers to recycling and below is what we’ve found. 

Insights from the interview also suggested how the ongoing COVID 19 has stalled nationwide efforts to reduce plastic waste. A growing dependence on online shopping platforms and food delivery service due to COVID lockdown has further added tons of plastic to Thailand’s landfills.

‘On average, I am getting at least four plastic items per one food delivery order, which may include plastic bag, food container, seasoning packets, and eating utensils such as spoons, forks, and chopsticks as well as tissue paper, which is often wrapped in plastic.’

Online shopping is no different and it leaves shoppers with piles of small ziplock plastic bags, bubble wrap, reusable pliable transparent plastic material, packaging tape, and delivery boxes at home. ‘The thorough taping of the boxes and the protective plastic bubble wrap makes unboxing no longer fun and it left me with piles of reusable plastic materials at home.’

When asked how to address the non-recycling behaviour, respondents suggested below interventions.

On the quest to find the right mix of nudges

In order to make recycling Easy, Attractive, Social, and Timely (EAST), the Lab is partnering with Trash Lucky and Thai Union to run a ‘Green Giving’ experiment with office workers in Bangkok. Green Giving is an upcycling program that incentivizes office workers to sort and recycle waste by converting recyclables into raffle tickets for winning prizes such as gold and shopping vouchers. These wastes will be upcycled into donatable products that waste pickers or “the backbone of recycling ecosystem”, who often struggle to make ends meet, can use to perform their work. These items include bucket hat, neck gaiter, light jacket to protect them from sunburn, apron, and working glove. As part of the program, the team will also educate office workers on why and how to properly segregate their recyclables at home. 

Green Giving is

  • Making recycling Easy by allowing participants to drop wastes at the office or scheduled pick up points at their convenience. We also communicate information on what can and cannot be recycled and how to segregate waste to participants by using clear, simple and easy to understand messages.

  • Making recycling Attractive by using lotteries. Lotteries can be effective motivators because people, according to the prospect theory, often focus on a large prize even if their chance of winning it is small. The team has also decided to turn recyclables into donatable products for waste pickers because we want to evoke an emotional association between one’s recycling efforts and how their efforts could benefit others in the society. Hopefully, it could help generate necessary motivation to recycle and self-efficacy, particularly among the somewhat cynical ‘What’s in it for me’.

  • Making recycling Social by setting up competitions for good recycling behaviour. Each recyclable item will be given points e.g. 10 points for 1 kg of PET bottle, 15 points for 1 kg of aluminum can, etc. By recognizing their participation and making recycling performance visible, we hope that it could help encourage poor performers to step up their game. 

  • Making recycling Timely by setting up automatic SMS reminders to recycle. 

What’s next?

  • So the stage has been set and we are now embarking on a two month learning journey to understand individuals’ recycling behaviours. Stay tuned for the next blog to see whether we’ve finally found the right mix of green nudges for further scale up and how we are going to apply behavioural science to UNDP Thailand’s existing waste management portfolio.

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