Reducing single-use cutlery with green nudges: Evidence from China’s food-delivery industry


Plastic waste is a global environmental threat that endangers marine and freshwater ecosystems worldwide. More recently, as food-delivery services became increasingly popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, the surge in plastic waste generated by single-use cutlery (SUC) has become a key environmental concern. Yet effective policies that control SUC waste are largely nonexistent, and it is important to find ways to encourage individuals to reduce their SUC consumption. Using data from China, the world’s largest producer and consumer of SUC, we investigated how green nudges can affect individuals’ cutlery decisions when placing food-delivery orders.

From 2019­ to 2020, three Chinese cities (Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin) introduced regulations that prohibited online food-delivery companies from including SUC unless it was explicitly requested. To comply with the regulations, Alibaba’s food-delivery company, Eleme, changed its app in the following ways: (i) by adding a pop-up window that required customers to explicitly choose the number of SUC sets to be included with their orders, (ii) by setting the default for this pop-up window to be “no cutlery,” and (iii) by providing a small nonpecuniary incentive––several Ant Forest green points­­––to those who chose the “no cutlery” option. The green points do not have a monetary value, but if one accumulates enough points (roughly by placing more than 1000 online food orders), they can be redeemed in exchange for planting a real tree (under the customer’s name) in a desert area in China. The changes in the app’s user interface embody the concept of “nudging” from behavioral economics and social psychology, which describes approaches that change the choice environment (or choice architecture) or provide indirective information to influence the behaviors and decision-making processes of individuals. Using customer-level data from Alibaba in 10 cities from 2019 to 2020, we compared behavioral differences between the customers in the “nudged” cities and those in the control cities before and after the introduction of green nudges.

The green nudges, on average, increased an individual’s share of no-cutlery orders by 20.1 percentage points, which was a 648% increase relative to the baseline group. Meanwhile, the green nudges incentivized a large portion of individuals to somewhat change their behaviors rather than encouraging only a small portion to change their behaviors substantially. Women, older individuals, frequent food-delivery-service users, and wealthy individuals were more responsive to the green nudges. Importantly, Alibaba’s business performance was not affected by the green nudges, suggesting that this could be a highly cost-effective way to reduce SUC waste. Additional mechanism analyses revealed that the default change and increased salience of the no-cutlery option were the main drivers of the observed behavioral changes, whereas the incentive to accumulate green points to plant trees played a relatively muted role. We estimate that if green nudges were applied to all of China, more than 21.75 billion sets of SUC could be saved annually, which is equivalent to preventing the generation of 3.26 million metric tons of plastic waste and saving 5.44 million trees.

Our study provides compelling evidence that nudges can be a powerful tool for changing behaviors. It also suggests that private sector and platform companies can provide highly cost-effective solutions to promote prosocial behaviors among their customers. In this study, the costs of implementing the green nudges were almost negligible (i.e., several hours of work to redesign the user interface), yet the aggregated environmental benefits were tremendous. We thus recommend that other online food-delivery platforms, such as DoorDash and Uber Eats, try similar green nudges to reduce global plastic waste.