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Designing for Responsible Behaviour

Plastic waste that is improperly managed (mismanaged) is at significant risk of leakage to the environment. Packaging waste, primarily consisting of single-use plastics, accounts for 44% of global plastic waste, and these single-use plastics pose one of the most significant environmental threats. They clog our water bodies, spoil our oceans, and damage marine ecosystems. Per capita mismanaged waste in the Philippines is 100 times higher than in the UK. When we multiply by population, India, China, the Philippines, Brazil, and Nigeria top the list.

While many innovators and policymakers are thinking about how to tackle waste collection through innovative new technologies and stringent regulations, respectively, we saw a gap earlier in the waste generation cycle. Could we help users dispose of the waste properly in the first place? Over the past few years, we have run multiple experiments to encourage behaviour change which have taught us many valuable lessons. We learned that keeping three design principles in mind in particular can have major impact on the likelihood of success:

  1. Make it easy – Research has shown that repetition and consistency are important to changing habits. In our experience, we have found that often well-meaning solutions fail to catch on because they are too confusing or poorly designed. Imagine how hard it would be to exercise regularly if the gym changed locations or the machines changed daily.
  1. Meet users where they are – People have developed routines and habits over the course of their lifetimes. Instead of forcing them to adapt to the solution, spend time understanding their behaviour and motivations and then adapt the solution to them.
  1. Make it fun – If possible, add an element of gamification to the solution. We are all young at heart and are more likely to do the right thing (i.e., exercise) if we can have fun doing it.

We will demonstrate the power of these principles by sharing an example of one of the projects we executed last year.

Case study: disposal of cigarette litter

Switzerland is one of the world’s leading champions of sustainability. However, cigarette littering remains an intractable problem in the country, which has a cold climate and an abundance of smokers.

We started a pet project to collect cigarette litter in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Geneva. Collecting litter every day for a period of one week showed how much cigarette litter gets accumulated on a daily basis. We had only one question – what stops people from disposing of cigarette litter in the ash receptacle? This question led us down a path of discovery that led to rich insights.

  1. Make it easy – existing solutions were poorly designed and confusing

Smokers didn’t like the smell.

We studied the existing solutions. CSR initiatives of companies were giving disposable ashtrays that smokers could use to dispose of cigarette litter. We spoke to a number of smokers and non-smokers. The smokers hated the smell of the cigarette, and they didn’t like carrying it in a disposable ash pouch or in their pockets. They didn’t want their kids to develop that behaviour.

Lack of a unified bin design

We mapped the ash receptacles at all the tram stations across two main tram lines. We noticed that there were so many different types of bins. Some of them had ash receptacles attached, and some didn’t have it. The ash receptacles were attached to the sides or on the top or came as a separate unit.

  1. Meet users where they are – even when the smokers tried to do the right thing, the solutions were making life difficult

We spent hours every week in the crowded tram stations at Geneva central train station observing smokers and their cigarette disposal behaviour. We found that there was not just one but four different segments of smokers. We classified them as Responsible (28%), Conscious (33%), Busy Bees (26%), Immobile (10%), and Rebels (3%).

Responsible smokers sought out appropriate places to dispose of their butts. Conscious ones made their best efforts to do the right thing but often ended up leaving butts on top of trash cans instead of putting them in ashtray receptacles attached to these trash cans. Apparently, the opening of the ashtray receptacles was too small and clogged up easily, or the ash receptacle wasn’t there. Busy Bees were either looking at their phones or talking to someone until the tram arrived and wouldn’t make an effort if a trashcan wasn’t nearby. The Immobile are either old or had physical challenges that didn’t allow them to move to the receptacles. The Rebels would throw the butts on the road even if the trashcan was next to them.

After some deliberation, we decided to focus on the Conscious segment. Not only did they represent the largest segment at 33% of the smoking population, but they were also the ones most likely to change their behaviour. They just needed the right supporting infrastructure. We hadn’t yet met them where they were and asked them to do too much.

Placement of bins

At every tram station there were trash bins, but they were placed at the two ends of the narrow platform, and there was one in the middle. During peak hours, it is just not possible for a smoker to reach out to the bin.

Small opening for cigarette disposal

The bin design was more focused on aesthetics rather than functionality. For example, some stations had bins where the ash receptacle was in the form of a cigarette attached to one side of the bin, with a narrow opening. For smokers, it was difficult to locate the bin and even more difficult to dispose of the ash.

Make it fun – we decided to have fun by gamifying the whole thing

During our research, we also found that in certain places in the UK, trash cans had logos of sports teams on them. Apparently, that was meant to encourage fans of opposing teams to throw their litter away in those trash cans. We recommended a similar approach in Geneva. Now smokers aren’t just throwing their cigarette butts away, they are throwing them at sports teams they dislike. Take that!

Tackling the problem

We ideated with a broad set of stakeholders, including smokers, non-smokers, sanitation professionals, and designers. We ended up taking a three-pronged approach. We proposed the following: 1. Increase the size of the opening of the ashtray receptacle. 2. Harmonise the bin design across the city. 3. Increase the density of trash cans 4. Introduce an element of gamification.

Designing for Behaviour Change

To sum up, when designing for responsible behaviour, it helps to stick to three design principles:

  1. Make it easy
  2. Meet users where they are
  3. Make it fun

As Leonardo Da Vinci famously said,”Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.”  This is more relevant than ever as we design solutions for wicked problems such as single-use plastics and cigarette litter.


Dheeraj Batra is the Founder of Propel Labs. Dheeraj is a serial entrepreneur who built the Edison award winning Healthy Heart for All, Arogya Finance, and a consultancy which he exited to EY. Dheeraj also held executive leadership roles at IDEO, Innosight, and EY. Dheeraj holds an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Vijay Raju is the Co-Founder of Propel Labs. Vijay’s innovation work has been featured in Lean Startup, Little Black Book of Innovation, and First Mile. Vijay has led India’s first Disney-style digital animation series for Cartoon Network. Vijay led impactful work at WEF, Innosight, and Crest Animation Studios. Vijay is a WEF Global Leadership Fellow.