Peer pressure could be ‘key’ to cutting household waste

Making waste reduction the ‘social norm’ can lower household general waste by up to 27%, Keep Britain Tidy says a pilot suggests.

Making waste reduction the ‘social norm’ can lower household general waste by up to 27%, and simply worded reminders about the cost of dealing with the waste we generate can cut it by 13%, according to the results of a new behaviour change pilot study by environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy and BRITA UK.

The findings come alongside YouGov polling showing that Christmas is one of the most wasteful times of the year, with fewer than one in ten of us opting for recyclable wrapping paper and cards.

More than 6,000 of the UK’s most wasteful households in two local authority areas, Oxford and Cheltenham, were involved in the pilot by Keep Britain Tidy’s Centre for Social Innovation, which explored how different interventions or messages framed in certain ways can change behaviour around the containers, bottles and packaging people throw away.

What’s clear is that peer pressure or waste reduction becoming a social norm can lead us to shift our behaviour in positive ways

The research ran during 2021, a period when many households were generating vast quantities of waste thanks to lockdown takeaways and delivery packaging.

It was designed to help people better understand and implement the ‘reduce’ premise of the waste hierarchy and, ultimately, reduce the pressure on the natural environment created by vast quantities of waste.

Following a series of focus groups to understand what might work best, households were contacted with letters from their council including five rules-of-thumb for reducing waste at home, from choosing no (or less) packaging alternatives and ditching the disposables, to looking out for refill options, getting organised and simply saying no to things that aren’t needed.

Three different key messages were tested: an environmental message, linking individual consumption to wider environmental concern; the cost of waste disposal, linking this to other services that residents care about and framing waste prevention as a social norm, increasing the perceived capability to reduce waste.

Peer pressure

Allison Ogden-Newton OBE, Chief Executive of Keep Britain Tidy, commented: “We’re really pleased to be able to publish our latest research with BRITA UK.

“By working closely with business, local authorities and consumers we can identify cost-effective, impactful, and sustainable solutions to Britain’s waste epidemic.

“What’s clear is that peer pressure or waste reduction becoming a social norm can lead us to shift our behaviour in positive ways.”

Key findings from the pilot included:

  • General waste decreased by up to 27% in one area where the social norming message was tested;
  • General waste decreased by 13% in another area where the cost of waste disposal message was tested;
  • In two areas where total waste decreased, (general waste, recycling and food waste combined), it decreased by up to 6% in one area, and 5% on average.

A resident’s perception survey was also carried out as part of Keep Britain Tidy‘s research which found that as a result of seeing the intervention materials:

  • 82% avoided buying things they didn’t need or used up what they had already;
  • 73% used reusable alternatives to single-use items such as bottled water;
  • 72% used less packaging;
  • 68% tried planning meals for the week ahead or organising their fridge and food cupboards;
  • 60% used refill versions of products such as household cleaning items; and
  • 90% of those involved agreed that reducing waste was an important message.

Festive waste

Keep Britain Tidy and BRITA UK set out to find practical, low-cost and scalable solutions to cut household waste and encourage residents to rethink what goes in their bins.

Alongside the study, YouGov research was carried out to explore consumer behaviour around household waste, with the results showing that older generations are more likely to adopt sustainable waste reduction habits.

A third (33%) of over-55s never buy things they don’t need, compared to only 9% of Gen Z (18-24) and almost half (47%) of over-55s buy products with lots of packaging less often than once a week, as opposed to 26% of Gen Z.

The pilot results come as we head into the Christmas period, a time that often sees the generation of even greater volumes of waste than normal. YouGov data has shown that almost three quarters (72%) of UK adults are concerned by the amount of waste generated over the Christmas period, but only 9% use recyclable wrapping paper and cards every year, and less than a third (26%) plan meals over the Christmas period, only buying the food they need.

For the full report and methodology please see here.

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