Seven top tips for driving behaviour change in the fight against single-use plastics

Changing behaviours is widely regarded as one of the most important, yet difficult, pieces of the plastics puzzle. Here, edie rounds up seven top tips for delivering a plastics strategy that engages all key stakeholders and delivers lasting impacts in the wake of the 'Blue planet 2 effect'.

Seven top tips for driving behaviour change in the fight against single-use plastics

The webinar is now available to watch on-demand

Last year, a survey of 2,500 consumers by Viridor found that two-thirds are more likely to buy a product if it is housed in recyclable or reusable packaging, and that nine in ten know that recycled or reused plastic can be a valuable resource for businesses  But confusion reigns supreme. The same survey found that almost nine in ten have felt confused about how to recycle or reuse their plastic in the past 12 months.

While measures like unifying kerbside collections by local authorities, changing national curriculums or scaling up infrastructure are likely to take time, businesses of all shapes, sizes and sectors can take action today to improve communications and engagement in a way that delivers measurable and lasting results.

As part of its Mission Possible Plastics Week earlier this month, edie hosted a 45-minute masterclass webinar on eliminating single-use plastics through behaviour change, providing practical tips on taking these actions.

Featuring expert speakers from Keep Britain Tidy and Reconomy, the webinar gave case studies, facts and figures, and top tips for organisations wishing to engage consumers, staff, suppliers and other key actors on their journey to tackling single-use plastics.

You can watch the Q&A debate, along with the rest of edie’s online plastics event, here.

Here, edie rounds up seven of the session’s key takeaways.

1) Data is your friend

Keep Britain Tidy’s research and innovation development manager Rose Tehan kicked off the discussion by explaining how the charity conducts research of its own before developing “behavioural interventions”, to ensure they are “targeted”. In other words, it is important to ensure that schemes are developed in context so that they reach the right demographics, are taken seriously, are widely engaged with, and so on.

On water bottle reuse, for example, Keep Britain Tidy’s research found that embarrassment around asking for water bottle refills was just as much of a deterrent for water bottle reuse as a lack of water fountains or low prices on bottled water. To that end, Refill uses stickers in shop windows to signpost businesses which always offer free refills.  

Tehan’s favourite method of applying data insights and transforming them into designs is to “reverse brainstorm” after co-designing workshops. At these events, the targeted audience and other stakeholders meet to discuss drivers and challenges.

Reverse brainstorms begin with taking an issue and coming up with ideas which would make it worse, then flipping these to develop potential solutions.

2) Know that your stakeholders DO want to be engaged – and that engaging them is good business

Tehan emphasised Keep Britain Tidy’s latest research with BRITA, which, in its section on the role of business, drew on a survey of 1,006 UK SMEs by YouGov. She did so to emphasise the growing demands of staff and customers for businesses to act on plastics, providing stats that sustainability professionals could take to their boards when pitching an engagement initiative.

For example, 79% of businesses surveyed said their staff wanted to reduce their plastics use at work, and half felt it is their responsibility to do so.

On the consumer piece, 66% of businesses said their buyers want to reduce plastics use, but less than one-quarter (23%) said they were responsible for encouraging and supporting consumers to take that action.

3) Avoid knee-jerk reactions

The survey also assessed how changing staff and consumer perceptions of plastic would affect who they choose to work for and shop with. On the latter, the survey found that 77% of customers would view a business less favourably if it refused to give out free tap water refills, with the proportion standing at 85% for businesses exposed for printing greenwash claims on labels for plastic products.

“Customers want genuine solutions when it comes to single-use plastics and we think this is really important when it comes to looking at alternatives like biodegradables or compostables,” Tehan said.

“The consideration of the full life cycle is essential to promoting a circular economy with all stakeholders,” Reconomy’s head of sustainability Nathan Gray added.

4) Get ahead of legislation

Building on this point, Reconomy’s Gray highlighted the swathe of new and upcoming legislative drivers on plastics waste in the UK, noting that engagement schemes are only likely to be seen as ambitious by stakeholders if they are forward-thinking compared to policy.

The Resources and Waste Strategy, for example, will see the introduction of new extended producer responsibility requirements, the development of a deposit return scheme and, in the shorter term, a ban on plastic straws, cotton buds and drinks stirrers.

Gray also emphasised the importance of backing schemes up with a broader “zero waste” goal to achieve engagement. “If we as organisations publicise our commitments as goals and accept that zero waste is where we need to be to limit climate change impact, where we need to start is measuring,” he said.

5) Don’t be afraid to pilot or tweak

When asked how organisations which are on a budget or are wary of negative perceptions could approach the development of an engagement scheme, Tehan explained that Keep Britain Tidy often chooses to pilot ideas before rolling them out geographically or making them permanent. She also highlighted that many “new” schemes developed or co-developed by the charity are actually built on pre-existing initiatives.

“Interventions you design can be tweaks to existing interventions, to make them more effective or more targeted, or they can be a whole new way of doing something,” Tehan said.

6) Remember to EATS…

Tehan argued that, overall, the facets which make certain engagement schemes stand out are ease of access, attractiveness, timeliness and social factors – EATS, for short.

“Coming up with behavioural interventions that are easy to take up is essential,” she said, emphasising the need for communications to be bolstered by the necessary infrastructure to make necessary changes “fit with existing behaviours and routines”. For example, consumers will not necessarily recycle a small item, like a battery, if they have to make a dedicated trip more than a mile from home. If collection points are placed at shops which sell these items or at community locations, however, results are likely to be more favourable.

On the social piece, Tehan emphasised the ways in which plastics-themed events can garner a sense of shared community and bring about cultural change, and the fact that pledge platforms are often more successful when groups are encouraged to sign at the same time.

7) … And pull the four levers of change

Gray also used a four-step framework for changing behaviours, known as the four levers of change. The framework consists of:

  • Leadership – achieving top-level buy in and leading by example
  • Understanding – telling a compelling story which emphasises that individuals can make a difference, and remaining transparent and honest
  • Development – providing tools to facilitate new habits, including education and infrastructure
  • Reinforcement – monitoring your scheme, collecting data, taking feedback on board and telling participants what impact their actions have had collectively

Tehan was keen to highlight the importance of the last “lever”, adding: “We’ve tested a lot of interventions out in the real world… and those that don’t rely on awareness, are intuitive and involve some kind of direct feedback loop are the most effective.” 

Catch up on edie’s Mission Possible Plastics Week 

Earlier this month, edie hosted Mission Possible Plastics Week – a five-day camapgin packed with exclusive interviews, podcasts, reports, blogs, webinars and in-depth feature articles – all dedicated to turning the tide on single-use plastics. 

You can catch up with all of the content, including webinars on-demand, by clicking here. This campaign was hosted in association with Nestle. 


Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie