Plastics Discussion with Kate Laffan, Assistant Professor in Psychological and Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
Kate Laffan currently serves as Assistant Professor in Behavioural Sciences at The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), Visiting Fellow at the University College Dublin. She is chairing the working group on Applied Behavioural Science for Sustainable Lifestyles as part of the One Planet Network (OPN). The group explores how insights from this field can help to understand and reduce people’s negative environmental impacts by promoting sustainable lifestyle shifts.
She holds a Ph.D. in Behavioural Public Policy and Wellbeing and a Master of Science in Social Policy Planning from LSE, and a Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) International in Economics from University College Dublin.
You are a specialist in Behavioural Sciences. Can you explain in a few words what the behavioural sciences mean and what they entail?
Behavioural science is an interdisciplinary field that draws on insights and methods from psychology, economics and cognitive science, among other disciplines, to understand human behaviour and to design interventions (e.g., policies, programmes and communications) to shape how people act.
Within the framework of the Sustainable Lifestyles & Education programme of the One Planet Network, a report entitled “Solutions from the One Planet Network to Curb Plastic Pollution” published in 2022 evokes the use of behavioural science in policymaking “to explore new potential strategies to reduce plastic pollution.”
Can you tell us how Behavioural Sciences can have concrete impacts on reduction of plastic pollution?
From how we consume to how we dispose of waste, the everyday choices that we make have important implications for plastic pollution. In providing insights into the drivers of human behaviour and how to intervene to impact what people do, behavioural insights can inform efforts to tackle this pressing problem. For example, behavioural science approaches can be used to map when and where people consume plastic goods that contribute to pollution, as well as to identify contextual barriers to opting for alternative products. This kind of behavioural mapping can also provide insights into problematic waste disposal practices. Additionally, behavioural insights can inform the design of interventions that target the reduction, reuse and proper disposal of plastic products, for example, by feeding into campaigns that raise awareness of plastic pollution and informing labelling regulations.
As part of the UN One Planet Network - Applied Behavioural Science for Sustainable Lifestyles, you worked on the Chalmers Industriteknik report entitled “Behavioural insight to promote reusable cups – a field study on reducing the use of single-use cups”.
This report summarises the scope, design and key results of a pilot study using “green nudges” to reduce consumption of single use takeaway cups in Sweden. The report states that “Today, governments around the world are prioritising plastic pollution and littering as an environmental urgency. As with many other sustainability threats, consumers, businesses, and policymakers tend to be aware of plastic pollution, but often fail translate this awareness into more sustainable behaviours. (…) Nudging, an emerging policy tool derived from behavioural insights, is increasingly applied as a means to stimulate behavioural changes.”
Could you explain what "green nudges" are? Could you tell us more about pilot projects that are implementing “green nudges” to reduce use of single use plastics?
Green nudges involve making changes to the choice environment in which behave with the goal of steering behaviour in sustainable directions without restricting people’s choices or significantly changing their incentives. In the Spring of 2022, Chalmers Industriteknik undertook a pilot study on behalf of the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency that drew on behavioural insights to target a reduction in the use of single-use coffee cups in a series of cafes in Gothenburg, Sweden. Specifically, they tested whether providing people with a small financial discount when buying a coffee in a reusable cup, as well as making reusable cups available at a discounted rate could encourage the uptake of reusable cups. The thinking behind the intervention was to “add financial friction around the undesired behaviours while making the desired behaviour easier and more affordable” (Chalmers Industriteknik Report, 2022). The pilot results found mixed results around the efficacy of this strategy with suggestive evidence that its impact was dependent on the type of customer based and their existing habits, as well as the level of buy-in from staff.
In a WRAP report entitled “Green Nudges Playbook”, resulting from background work carried out in collaboration with the Sustainable Lifestyles and Education (SLE) Programme of the One Planet network, it is stated that “Based on behavioural science, a nudge is an intervention that utilises human nature to assist people in making decisions towards a desired behaviour. This works because the brain desires convenience and has limited cognition, meaning that it automatically takes shortcuts to minimise the effort it needs to put in to reach a decision. Policymakers and businesses can take advantage of this by changing the environment in which citizens operate, which is known as the choice architecture.”
How do nudges fit into the broader policy toolkit aimed at promoting sustainable lifestyle shifts?
Our choice environments have a profound influence on the decisions we make and as a result green nudges — which look to shape those environments to influence behaviour in sustainable directions — represent a valuable tool within a policymaker’s toolkit when looking to encourage sustainable lifestyles. These strategies can act as alternatives to bans which are infeasible or undesirable for political, or equity-based reasons, and as complements to other ‘harder’ policy interventions like taxes and subsidies as part of broader efforts to promote sustainable lifestyle shifts. The process of developing and evaluating tailored green nudge strategies is detailed in the excellent and freely-available Green Nudging Playbook developed by Wrap in close collaboration with the OPN Working Group with financial support by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency.
What are the next steps in the global collaboration on behavioural insights that has been built up during the past years within the One Planet Network ?
We foresee further collaborations which will expand and disseminate our knowledge on the application of behavioural science to promote sustainable lifestyle transitions. An example of work currently under development is a Nordic project that is now taking off. In this project, the approach documented in the Green Nudging Playbook will be tested in a series of Nordic cities. In addition to this project, we plan to explore the potential for collaboration with other global partnerships within One Planet Network and beyond.
The environmental challenges the earth is currently facing, require us to shift how we think and act in more sustainable directions. By drawing on behavioural insights into what drives human behaviour and how to influence it, and by sharing expertise and experiences within the One Planet Network, we hope to support these necessary lifestyle transitions.