Whenever I order food for delivery, I play a little game to guess how many sets of cutlery the restaurant will provide with my meal. Sometimes restaurants will throw in two, three, or four sets for just one order. But I rarely need any cutlery at all, and the waste goes in the trash or collects dust in a kitchen drawer.
Researchers working with Chinese technology conglomerate Alibaba tried a simple fix to this pervasive problem. Instead of just wastefully doling out cutlery sets, the company required food-delivery customers in select cities in China to pick how many sets of cutlery they wanted to receive. The default was set at zero. The result, published today in the journal Science, was a 648% increase in the share of no-cutlery orders. If applied across China, researchers found, the approach would save nearly 22 billion sets of plastic cutlery and cut 3.26 million metric tons of plastic waste. The study doesn’t cover carbon emissions, but it’s safe to say that the impact would be significant given the high-emissions cost of petrochemical production.
Companies have a lot of hard work ahead to green supply chains and bring clean products to market, but this study struck me as a useful reminder of the many low-hanging fruits across the economy that can cut waste, and emissions. Nudging its customers cost Alibaba nothing more than a few hours of software engineering time, and the impact was immense. There is scant research on the global possibilities for nudges from the private sector—and yet the scale of the opportunity is clearly significant.
It’s useful to understand the origin of nudging. The concept comes from the field of behavioral economics known as nudge theory, laid out in the aptly named 2008 book Nudge by economist Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass Sunstein. Nudge theory suggests that subtle cues can encourage good human behavior without the need for coercive policies that limit choice or economic penalties that raise the cost of bad behavior. To nudge customers to eat better, for example, a restaurant might organize its menu by listing healthy options first, and bury unhealthy ones at the bottom.