With 240kg of plastic waste entering the ocean every second, the need to radically reduce single-use plastics has never been more urgent.
Developing countries, and small island nations in particular, face challenges in addressing plastic pollution due to limited recycling and waste management infrastructure. This issue was compounded globally by the breakdown of recycling industries all over the world after China restricted the import of recyclable materials in 2017.
So, we partnered with the United Nations Development Programme and the Solomon Islands Government to try and reduce use single-use plastic on the islands.
In January 2019, we visited the capital city of Honiara, and saw first-hand the shocking scale of the plastic crisis, with plastic waste piled up on roadways and beaches.
Particularly striking was the generation of plastic waste by Honiara’s local schools – with thousands of single-use containers being discarded during lunchtime each day. We applied a behavioural lens to this challenge in five schools in Honiara, which focused on shifting the default away from single-use plastics to reusable containers.
Changing the default
We introduced two different initiatives to encourage the use of reusable lunch containers, and reduce single-use plastic: a deposit return initiative where students would be refunded a dollar if they returned their reusable containers at the end of lunch; and a discount initiative where students who brought reusable containers would get a dollar off their meal.
Overall, the deposit return scheme worked best, and was well-received by students and staff. Three schools chose to implement this scheme, as they (correctly) believed it would be easier to change the behaviour of the food sellers, rather than the behaviour of individual students. Students in these schools returned practically all containers after the lunch service to receive their deposit back, so schools have continued to implement the initiative after the trial finished.
The results for the discount scheme were more mixed. In the primary school where this scheme was implemented alongside student engagement, it was successfully implemented and led to reductions in single-use containers. However, the secondary school did not really engage students or vendors, and due to the small price hike may have encouraged students to buy their lunch from food sellers outside the school.
Wider system effects
During co-design workshops and consultations with local government officials, we frequently encountered the attitude that it would be impossible to get people in the Solomon Islands to switch from single-use plastics. Our study fundamentally challenged this popular belief, and the schools involved have been helping to spread the message that change is possible through the local media.
It also demonstrated some of BIT’s key principles – make it easy and attractive for people to perform the desired behaviour. In this case, reusable containers became the default and their return was incentivised through a small financial incentive.
As for costs – the reusable containers paid for themselves almost immediately. Our calculations estimate a return on investment in just 1 – 2 weeks for the food sellers if they purchased the reusable containers. However, the upfront cost remains a barrier to entry for most vendors. Per school- the initial investment to buy the containers for the vendors was only approximately $1-2000 AUD. If you are interested in helping us to scale up the deposit return scheme to other schools in the pacific- please get in touch.
Most encouraging of all, this small scale trial directly contributed to the Solomon Island government’s proposal to ban 5 types of single-use plastic in 2020. This clearly demonstrates how relatively small nudges and trials can galvanise wider systemic action on the most urgent issues facing our planet today.
Behaviours never happen in isolation: an interactive system map of the elements implicated in schools using reusable lunch containers. (Tip: hover over the elements to see their unique connections.)