Rising consumer demand for online food delivery has increased the consumption of disposable cutlery, leading to plastic pollution worldwide.

In 2021, more than 400 million metric tons of plastic waste were produced worldwide, and it is predicted that the world’s plastic waste growth will continue to outpace the efforts to reduce plastic pollution in the coming decades.

It is against this backdrop that a new study has said simple “green nudges” could save more than 21.75 billion sets of single-use cutlery (or 3.26 million metric tonnes of plastic waste) if the measure was applied to all of China.

The study, which was published in the latest issue of Science magazine, investigated the impact of green nudges on single-use cutlery consumption in China in collaboration with Alibaba’s food-delivery platform, Eleme. Among its results, it found that the green nudges, which means changing the default option to “no cutlery” and rewarding consumers with “green points” increased the share of no-cutlery orders by 648%.

white plastic fork on white paper

How it was done

The study was conducted on the back on regulations that were introduced to three Chinese cities – Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin – from 2019 to 2020. These prohibited online food-delivery companies from including single use cutlery unless it was explicitly requested.

To comply with the regulations, Alibaba’s food-delivery company, Eleme, changed its app by adding a pop-up window that required customers to explicitly choose the number of single use cutlery sets to be included with their orders, by setting the default option to “no cutlery,” and by providing a small incentive in the form of green points­ to those who chose the “no cutlery” option.

The green points did not have a monetary value, could eventually be exchanged for the planting of a real tree in a desert area in China. Although the study noted that there has been some conflicting evidence in the past regarding nudges and its impact on consumer behaviour the authors referenced some key characteristics of the research to validate its results.

These included choosing to follow individuals’ repeated decisions and exploring the persistence of the nudging effect over the long term rather than just its short-term impact, and having nudges that were easy to understand and completely transparent.

In concluding, the report’s authors said “the key feature of nudges is that they do not limit the choices available to individuals, nor do they change the monetary incentives. In the past two decades, nudges have been used in many social domains, including green nudges that promote pro-environmental behaviours.”

They added:  “Our research findings not only provide compelling evidence for how green nudges can affect pro-environmental behaviors but also generate important implications for the understanding of nudges in general.”