• The amount of plastic waste we generate has surged since the start of the pandemic.
  • Many of us now have drawers filled with unused plastic cutlery we have received with takeaway orders.
  • Nudge theory could help customers make better choices, reduce waste, and lay down the habits we need to build a more sustainable world.

In a time of unprecedented change, we have an opportunity to think critically about the default settings in our world. So far, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to more plastic use, especially in the food and restaurant industry. However, behavioural nudges can help change the default and cut down on plastic waste.

Plastic use in the time of COVID-19

Concerns about plastic use are not new. Around half of all plastic is used once and thrown into landfills, where it takes centuries to break down. Only around 20% of plastics are recycled in an average year. Americans are some of the worst offenders, producing 106kg of plastic waste per person per year. When plastic isn’t recycled it ends up in landfills or spreads throughout the environment, leading to public health issues such as air toxins, greenhouse gas emissions, polluted drinking water and dangerous litter.

Pre-pandemic, plastic waste had become a common global enemy. As images of sea turtles with straws lodged in their noses were widely shared, companies promised to use fewer single-use plastics and local governments banned plastic bags. Polystyrene plastics, the type used for single-use packaging, were experiencing long-term declines in production. New York passed a plastic bag ban that was set to begin in May this year. Cities like Toronto and San Francisco were experimenting with behavioural nudges that placed a small tax on plastic bags to reduce bag use. France was lauded as the first country to ban single-use plastic utensils with a plan beginning in January 2020.

However, priorities have changed since COVID-19 took hold, and plastic waste is surging. Due to the rightful fear of spreading germs, cafes stopped accepting items like coffee mugs and stores stopped accepting reusable cloth bags. Take-out and food delivery increased, leading to the use of more single-use packaging items like containers and plasticware. Simultaneously, plastic advocates in the US lobbied that single-use plastic was safer to use than reusable items even though studies have not shown this to be true. Out of coronavirus-induced caution, New York postponed its plastic bag ban, and at least eight other US states have reversed their plastic bag bans and halted plastic bag taxes. As a result, some environmental organizations are rethinking their long-term targets for plastic reduction.

The growth of takeout, deliveries, and the 'drawer of shame'

As a result of these changes, our 'drawers of shame' have gotten especially full. Most of us now have a drawer of shame – one filled with the plastic forks and sauce packets restaurants give us with food deliveries, and which we’re too ashamed to throw out. America’s collective drawer of shame clocks in at around 40 billion plastic utensils per year. According to a Gallup survey, 44% of US adults picked up food from a restaurant in May, a 26% increase from March. App-based food delivery services have been growing over the past few years, but they experienced a huge jump as a result of stay-at home orders. Grubhub’s revenue has also jumped 12%, with active users increasing by 24% from the same time last year. So, for the sake of drawers of shame everywhere, we need to change the default. Restaurants should not assume we all need extra plastic utensils; they should instead ask if we need them.

The world's most prolific plastic waste generators
The world's most prolific plastic waste generators
Image: Our World in Data

Changing the default: would you like plastic with that?

Behavioural economist Richard Thaler defines nudge theory as a shift that encourages people to make decisions that are in their broad self-interest. By asking the non-coercive question, “Would you like plasticware with that?” when a customer makes an order, consumers may take a second to consider that they do not in fact need the extra plastic. This is a timely shift, since most consumers pick up food and bring it home while observing quarantine. By changing the default to not including plasticware with orders, restaurants save money and reduce waste. It makes sense to place the responsibility of this question on the business instead of the individual consumer. If a restaurant builds this question into their ordering script, they can make an impact on every customer who calls.

Food delivery apps can implement this idea, too. By making space for the customer to indicate whether they want utensils, these platforms can effect widespread change by helping the customer to think about the impact of their order. If just half of Grubhub’s 23.9 million active diners selected a 'no utensils' option, we could avoid the disposal of almost 12 million utensil sets. That’s a lot of help for our drawers of shame.

Continuing to build good habits as economies reopen

A nudge is not the answer to all our climate concerns. However, it’s a step that helps us reconsider our plastic use by make a dent in our drawers of shame, landfills, and pollution. As economies slowly begin to reopen, we should continue using these nudges to challenge our defaults and build healthier habits. Though restaurants are being urged to provide disposable menus and utensils when they reopen, they should consider withholding these items by default. QR codes could be provided in lieu of a menu, and reusable containers and utensils can be incentivized. As we adjust to a post-COVID world, we can create a new version of normal where we work together to address climate change.