News Release

“Green nudges” greatly reduce single-use cutlery waste in China’s food delivery industry

Peer-Reviewed Publication

American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

Defaulting to “no cutlery” options on food-delivery app orders and rewarding customers who chose to forgo plastic utensils significantly reduced single-use cutlery waste, according to a new study across 10 major cities in China. These “green nudges” increased the share of environmentally friendly orders placed to China’s second-largest food-delivery service by 648%. The findings suggest that incorporating such nudges – small approaches designed to promote pro-environmental behaviors – is a cost-effective policy tool for reducing unnecessary single-use cutlery (SUC) waste in the growing online food-delivery industry. The recent increase in the use of food-delivery services, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic, has resulted in a surge of plastic waste generated by SUC. Reducing this waste is particularly important in China – the world’s largest producer and consumer of SUC – where more than 50 million sets of SUC are consumed and not adequately deposed of each day. This not only generates a large amount of plastic waste, but also consumes many trees in discarded chopsticks and napkins. Chinese policymakers have set a target to reduce SUC use in food deliveries by 30% by 2025, and online food-delivery platforms are required to make plans to achieve the goal. Guojun He and colleagues collaborated with Alibaba’s online food-ordering platform Eleme – similar to Uber Eats and DoorDash, with more than 753 million users – to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions added in the company’s mobile app. Leveraging the concept of green nudges, the app changed the default to “no cutlery” and required customers to explicitly choose the number of SUC sets with their orders. Additionally, customers who decided to forgo SUC were rewarded with “green points,” which could be redeemed in exchange for planting real trees in China. Using detailed customer-level data from 197,062 randomly selected users’ food ordering history from 2019 to 2021 and across 10 major Chinese cities, He et al. found that these green nudges significantly decreased SUC consumption. According to the findings, the share of no-cutlery orders increased by 648%. If applied to all of China, such interventions could save more than 21.75 billion sets of SUC annually, eliminating 3.26 million metric tons of plastic waste and saving 5.44 million trees, without undermining Alibaba’s or individual restaurants’ business performance or revenue.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.