• Kevin Duggan

How Nudge Theory Can Increase Recycling



So what is nudge theory? Nudge theory is a behaviour economics theory which proposes that it is possible to influence people’s behaviour by subtle suggestions or positive reinforcement. In other words, get people to do what is ultimately in their best interest by giving them a gentle ‘nudge’. Nudge theory is a powerful concept. Richard Thayer, the man who initially proposed this theory, won the 2017 Nobel prize for economic sciences due to the impact that it has and can have. I became interested in nudges as a way to increase recycling. It is probably best to give a couple of examples of what I mean.


Through research, Dr. Jennifer Argo, the Carthy Professor in Marketing at the University of Alberta's school of business in Edmonton, found that if a coffee shop wrote the customer’s first name on a disposable coffee cup it increased the chances of that cup being recycled from 26% to a whopping 48%. There is an important caveat here though, the name has to be spelled correctly. If the name is spelled incorrectly on the cup then the chances of recycling actually DROP from 26% to 24%. A little more on the importance of understanding that nuance a little later in this post.


In another experiment, Jamie Kimmel, then a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, found that a simple change to the garbage container yielded increased diversion. What was discovered was that by merely placing a large yellow sign reading: “LANDFILL,” and then in smaller letters underneath: “Imperial, PA (17.3 Miles) on the garbage bin increased recycling by 29%. Kimmel opines that he reckons the effect is larger on females than males.

I encourage you to read the referenced articles to get a sense of the psychology driving each of these successful nudges. But also, as you read those stories, think about how important it is to to have the data to draw the conclusions that leads to dramatic increases in recycling at very low costs.


In the “name-on-cup” nudge it was found that it was important to make sure the name was spelled correctly. One can easily speculate that had someone not painstakingly recorded the recycling rate of both correctly spelled and misspelled named cups that the larger benefit could have been missed. In the “Landfill” nudge Kimmel reckons that females are more affected by the signage than males, but because he couldn’t measure that effect, he is left to guess.


What if there was a way to record those variables, and many more, without having to sit, isolate, and count each one? What insights could be discovered, and what nudges could be developed to increase recycling? Artificial intelligence (AI) is a fabulous tool for taking the drudgery out of such efforts!!! By combining the powers of AI, data analytics, and nudging, municipalities can exponentially increase the identification and creation of improvements to solid waste management.

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