Even though Lebanon generates a reasonable amount of waste relative to the global average, most of this waste is either landfilled (51%) or openly dumped (32%). With the recent closure of one of the main landfills in the country, and a distinct shortage of adequate sorting and recycling facilities, Lebanon is facing a severe solid waste management problem.
In Lebanon, 11% to 13% of solid waste consists of plastics. Despite this fact, most restaurants continue to provide plastic cutlery with their food delivery orders by default, even though customers may not necessarily need or want it. Concurrently, customers do not usually care or think to ask for the exclusion of cutlery, due primarily to a status-quo bias. As such, the unutilised plastic cutlery is discarded, resulting in unnecessary (and avoidable) environmental costs.
Against this background, Nudge Lebanon, in collaboration with a local restaurant in Beirut, implemented a simple and timely nudge that consisted of a verbal prompt, giving customers the option to opt-out of including plastic cutlery with their order.
A small-scale pre-post intervention was conducted at the call centre of a local restaurant to examine the impact of using a verbal prompt as a means to change the status-quo. The prompt was designed to enable an active choice in case customers wished to opt-out of receiving plastic cutlery. Moreover, the prompt was framed to highlight the restaurant’s efforts in preserving the environment, thereby priming customers to act in an environmentally responsible way. Therefore, customers keen on maintaining a positive self-image would find it costly to deviate from the recent norm of environmental consciousness, unless they had a genuine need for the cutlery.
The prompt was delivered in Arabic, and read as follows: “In order to preserve the environment, we are encouraging our customers to reduce the use of plastic, which is why we would like to ask you if you wish to have plastic cutlery with your order.” The call centre staff were instructed to deliver the prompt before each call was concluded.
A monitoring system was put in place to ensure that data was consistently and accurately recorded, and that customers who opted-out of having plastic cutlery did not receive it. This included daily visits from members of the Nudge Lebanon team to confirm that the intervention was running as intended. In addition, a salient visual cue was placed at the call centre to remind staff to consistently deliver the prompt.
The intervention was implemented for a period of 14 days (weekends included), and involved six call centre staff members. During the trial period, 620 delivery calls were recorded. Given that pre-intervention, plastic cutlery was dispensed by default with all delivery orders, results of the trial were compared to a baseline of 100% cutlery inclusion.
Results and Impact
Out of 620 customers, only 137 requested that cutlery be included with their orders, which translates into a 77.9% reduction in the demand for cutlery compared to the baseline. Further statistical analysis revealed no significant differences in the proportion of excluded cutlery across the days of the trial. However, the same was not true across employees. A post hoc pairwise comparison revealed that one employee had significantly lower exclusion rates than three of the five other employees. No other employees revealed similar differences. The latter highlights one of the limitations of using verbal prompts. That is, the risk of inconsistency in delivering the message across customers.
Overall, these results show that prompting food delivery customers to make active choices can be extremely successful at reducing the amount of cutlery dispensed. This, coupled with the strong approval and support customers had for the initiative, demonstrates that in certain contexts, encouraging individuals to make active choices can overcome poorly designed defaults – particularly when people agree with the proposed changes.
These results contribute to the growing body of evidence that people respond to nudges even when they are implicitly aware of them. This is consistent with the research programme lead by Carnegie Mellon behavioural economist George Loewenstein and his team, who found that informing people that they were about to be nudged did not significantly diminish the effectiveness of the nudge.
Building on this success, Nudge Lebanon is in the process of replicating the intervention with other restaurants, while adapting some of its features, such as using a more standardised method of delivering the prompt, as well as trialling different messages. Ultimately, Nudge Lebanon will reach out to major stakeholders, including the Ministry of Environment and the Syndicate of Restaurant Owners, among others, to scale up this intervention.
Nudge Lebanon is a nongovernmental behavioural insights initiative that applies behavioural solutions to the policy challenges that Lebanon faces, using rigorous experimental tools and methods typically used in the field of behavioural economics, such as randomized controlled trials. Nudge Lebanon is a leader in the Middle East in the application of behavioural science to various public policy areas, in particular, improving citizen-centred policies and steering people and organizations towards making optimal choices for both themselves and their communities. Nudge Lebanon focuses on compliance and the Rule of Law, governance and anti-corruption, healthy lifestyle, sustainability and the environment, education, inclusion, and issues of public finance management.
 In a report published in 2012, the World Bank estimated the waste generation rate in Lebanon at 1.18 kg/person/day compared to a global average of 1.1 kg/person/day. Global waste generation ranged from 0.29 to 2.1 kg/person/da – https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/17388
 Ministry of Environment website – http://www.moe.gov.lb/Sectors/Land/Sub-Sector.aspx
 Source: Loewenstein, G., Bryce, C., Hagmann, D. & Rajpal, S. (2015). Warning: You are about to be nudged. Behavioral Science & Policy, 1(1), 35-42.