The field of behavioural science can seem elusive, but most of us encounter it often, whether we know it or not. From advertising slogans to labels on garbage bins, its impacts are everywhere. This area of social science deals – as you might expect – with human behaviour: how it works, why, and what interventions can influence it.  

It’s also of particular interest in the environmental space, especially since the revelation that much of climate change is caused by human behaviour. Experts in the climate change and circular economy realm often use behavioural science to determine what interventions will push us toward more sustainable behaviour. It’s a worthwhile endeavour, since data has shown behaviour can indeed be influenced with a targeted approach; recycling and waste management offers a good example. 

Any change or improvement in a waste collection system, like adding a new bin or reducing contamination, should come with education that considers current consumer behaviour. An article from Circular details how cities in the UK have done so successfully, with actions as simple as adding bottle-shaped receptacles to public collection bins, or showing a physical display of daily waste collected in busy areas. These interventions were enacted to reduce recycling contamination, a problem that had stymied local infrastructure for some time. Since recycling programs had already been in place for decades, experts found that messaging had to shift from just telling people to recycle, to educating them – with a positive, action-oriented tone – about the impacts of contamination.  

This was achieved through both information campaigns, and what’s called “nudging”. An article from the journal on Resources, Conservation and Recycling, defines nudging as something that “helps people without compulsion, but ‘paternalizes’ them with a gentle push towards the ‘right choice’”. The authors noted it’s come to be seen as “a low-cost solution for promoting pro-environmental behaviour” (the bottle-shaped receptacles are one example). 

Whether it’s in government policy or an ad campaign, behavioural science is powerful. Take smoking, for example; not so long ago, tobacco companies and medical professionals alike glossed over the risks because of strong public uptake – smoking was socially condoned. When evidence of its harms became widely known, a sea change took place. Now, a mix of public-private initiatives, like strict bans on smoking areas and images of damaged lungs on cigarette packaging tell a completely different story. It’s one that directly impacted human behaviour; nearly half of all American adults smoked in 1965, and in 2018, only about 13% did. 

Though the context is different, if this could happen for smoking, why not for environmental behaviours? Some may argue there have already been years of large-scale efforts to get people to participate in more sustainable actions, to little effect. But the difference now, as one expert in the Circular piece stated, is the private sector is on board in a more significant way: “Brands talk to citizens in a very different way from local authorities. That different voice is a powerful addition.” 

So, how does behavioural science relate back to the circular economy? Well, a truly circular economy needs active participation from everyday consumers, private companies, and public authorities; a diverse set of actors that could benefit from thoughtful, cohesive information and initiatives. As we know from recycling examples, a circular waste management system only works if users fully participate, and they can only do so with knowledge of (and sometimes guidance toward) best practices. By using a behavioural science lens, everyone – from big decision makers to an average household – can be empowered to take the right steps.