What Companies Can Learn About Climate Action From a Study on Plastic Take-Out Cutlery

4 minute read

(To get this story in your inbox, subscribe to the TIME CO2 Leadership Report newsletter here.)

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.

The concept caught on like wildfire in the 2010s. Governments sought to incorporate nudges into their policymaking. Sunstein, for example, joined the Obama Administration with that goal in mind. And some major companies hired behavioral economists to figure out how to change consumer behavior and improve employee performance.

More recently, some big companies have also begun to use nudges to advance climate objectives. Google now provides the lowest emission route when you search for directions on Google Maps and airlines will highlight which flight option is the most efficient. But nudges need not be limited to large corporations that employ behavioral economists. A paper published earlier this year in the Dickinson Law Review suggests a range of different categories of nudges that companies can explore, from changing default options to the most environmentally friendly ones to “reframing” the choices to present those that emit less in a better light.

Behavioral economics broadly, and nudges more specifically, aren’t without controversy. Some scholars have criticized nudges as attempts at manipulating individuals, while others have questioned the efficacy. An academic dishonesty scandal that bubbled up this year involving a prominent behavioral economist further served to cast doubt on the validity of the field. Still, analysis of the published research shows that well-designed nudges can work—and they can do so with limited costs to businesses and consumers.

Finally, some might look at this most recent study out of China as the latest iteration of the plastic straw debate that assigns consumers responsibility for addressing environmental challenges. But there’s another way to look at it. In the absence of necessary policy—and policy is needed—companies can help encourage a widespread shift of consumer behavior—without blaming individuals for the problem.

And all of that behavioral change can add up. The International Energy Agency found in 2021 that small behavioral changes in energy consumption such as walking instead of driving and adjusting the thermostat could in total shave off 4% of global emissions. The more that companies can do to facilitate such changes, the better.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com