The Nudgelet
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The Nudgelet

Panic Chute: Insights into Waste Management during a pandemic

By Udoyon Banerjee

When referring to waste management, our first mental image is the 3 R’s — Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. The question, however, is whether these practices are episodic? Does it apply in certain conditions and not in others? Or is it always implemented regardless? What better time to test the cardinal rules for waste management than in a pandemic, no? The purpose of this article is to explore waste management efficiency and look at the insights we can derive from positing the question- What are the ways in which the seemingly inane interaction of humans and waste create and solve problems, in the context of COVID 19?

We need to of course, make our lives easier with some assumptions used in this piece

The reason behind these assumptions is primarily to focus solely on individual responses to waste management, or to be more precise ‘behavioural responses’ in a pandemic. This is not to say the state or the market do not influence said responses, rather the question is what are the ways in which you and your neighbour have changed or can change in the way you dispose of waste. As such structural or technological changes of large-scale measures do not answer this question, we turn to the individual- you and I and how we dispose of waste.

The first change that arises and a small-scale change is the competition between repair and replace.

Repair or Replace, Featured Image Credits-This Old House Mag

There are several parameters such as income, brands, warranty and other factors. However, the simple conception of items for example phones falls into the status quo bias- which is very simply that if there are fewer shops to repair, then consumers must opt for replace. There is, naturally confusion between what consumers want, and what producers want ( information asymmetry) between consumers and producers ( life expectancy, warranty and factors mentioned above) however keeping in mind the implementation of lockdown, and the obvious fact that repair and replace cannot occur. Due to this the approach should be to consider how to advocate for using your items for a longer period of time, therefore from a consumer’s point of view the simple way in terms of waste management is to simply reduce the replace part of it with efficient habits dealing with maintenance ( the reuse and reduce part of the Rs).

The producers, while making the phone now have to consider

a) resilient phones that require as little repair as possible and

b) the ability to create auxiliary items from the get-go, create or market practices that either improve the longevity of the device or the items that are used are easier to dispose of.

The focus should be on the ability to combine the convenience of disposal with the efficiency in which devices are disposed of as this is the quality most visible as of now. To explain this in an example- a phone, we cannot really replace nor repair this item at least hardware-wise, however, instead of disposing of it, you could look at concepts like Nokia, which primes itself on durability or have better-operating software on phones which self-correct bugs. Additionally, the concept of maintenance could be applied to waste, which might seem strange but then so are thrift shops that do exactly that. (One man’s trash might be another man’s treasure after all)

Credits-The Verge

The second change depends on design and habit and what is called attribute-behavior gap. While it might seem mundane the simple design in the way people are made to dispose of waste has a lot of impact on how the waste is disposed of. Which is to say the impact here is to how to make the habit of waste disposal automatic rather than conscious. As people take time in disposing of, especially segregation the question that we can explore, especially in a time in which waste disposal services and intermediaries are limited, it is imperative to note that the manner in which people approach their waste management is critical.

If there is visibility of automatic habits of disposal i.e. a set method in which people can dispose their waste which is not impacted by any situation. As such Covid 19 is a situation in which it is highly recommended that consumers can directly create benchmarks for the waste they generate and how waste management can be more streamlined and resilient. The way to do this fall under the attribute behaviour gap or to be more precise correcting it. What this gap refers to is the cliched — what’s one more polythene bag in a mountain and negative incentives- if everyone’s doing it , then so can I. The point being that insights into how these gaps can be filled are much more insightful now due to the proximity and the visibility of the need for resource efficiency.

To summate, What we can do is personalize the 3R’s. The reason why a pandemic has bought the issue of waste to the forefront is because we have lesser food to eat, fewer ways to throw out and of course, there is the far more visible impact of hygiene and disposal. This has once again brought out a desire to paradoxically automate and be conscious about waste management.

Waste management should be as efficient as possible but also be visible enough to assess that the person whose waste is being thrown out can see the improvement their behaviour has brought about and motivate others and themselves further the process.

Works used –



The Ashoka Behavioural Insights Team’s flagship publication.

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