Digital Agenda for Europe
A Europe 2020 Initiative

ICT 2013

Developing a Cognitive Guidance for Waste Management

Waste collection and handling have been recognized as a key aspect of systems for resource recovery that merit further research and development. The worldwide issue about how and where to dispose of household waste has become an important policy problem. The widespread provision of doorstep recycling collections and growing public awareness has led to an extensive change in householder’s behaviour. Many householders now routinely sort their waste in a variety of containers provided by their local authority. But while most householders have changed their behaviour, a significant minority have not, choosing to dispose of their recyclable waste in household waste bins. Several studies on environmental topics have already demonstrated how cognitive approach could help people to make the “right choice”.

In 2008 Richard Thaler and Cass Sustein published a book entitled “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness”. It draws on behavioural economics and social psychology to explain why people behave in ways that deviate from rationality as defined by classical economics. Behavioral economics relies on cognitive – psychological research and teaching that humans have “bounded rationality” and so make biased decisions that sometimes run counter to their best interests.

Thaler and Sustein thus expound a theory of libertarian paternalism. They believe it is legitimate for governments to design environments and contexts – the “choice architecture” – in which people make decisions in order to make it easier for them to maximize their wellbeing. They counterbalance this new approach by an insistence that people should ultimately still be free to make their own decisions, as the choice architecture should be unobtrusive and should not entail compulsion. As such, a “nudge” entails any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly effecting their economic incentives (Thaler and Sustain, 2008).

The nudge concept was used in several researches for protection of the environment. In a 2010 study Costa and Kahn (2010) show how “nudges” are being widely promoted to encourage energy conservation. By providing a individual feedback with smile and frown faces to householders consumption of energy is reduced by 3 percent.

One of the chapters of the book “Nudge, nudge, think, think” was devoted to the recycling topic. Using the same concept as in Costa and Kahn research (frown and smile faces) they found the same result: an increase in recycling participation of 3 per cent was achieved. Both smile and frown feedbacks were effective: positive feedback encouraged those in high-performing streets to carry on making the effort, while negative feedback persuaded those in low-performing streets to join in with the waste collection scheme. The results of this research confirmed that behaviour can be shaped by the use of relevant social or community influences.

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