Behavioral Insight- a Nudge towards circular economy

UNDP Bhutan
6 min readFeb 25, 2021
The mounting waste problem has become not just an eyesore in otherwise pristine Bhutan but also one of the major national concern.

Bhutan witnessed rapid economic growth in the past two decades. As people’s income improved and urban population grew coupled with change in production and consumption patterns and habits, the country has been seeing another growth, albeit an undesirable one. Waste management, a scourge troubling many countries the world over, has become a growing national concern.

In a bid to tackle the challenge with lasting solutions, the Government has identified waste management as one of the flagship programs for its 12th Five Year Plan (2018–2023). The program seeks to promote circular economy and implement targeted interventions aimed at reducing landfill waste disposal from over 80% to less than 20% by end of 2030. The country’s Waste Management Strategy 2019 aims to achieve ‘Zero Waste’ by 2030’

The emphasis of Bhutan’s waste management efforts has been on putting waste disposal infrastructure in place. The waste flagship blueprint found that 88 percent of waste flagship budget is concentrated on constructing waste facilities. Only 12 percent of the budget is dedicated for soft components, such as advocacy, awareness and integrating waste education in the curriculum. However, little has been done to understand people’s interaction and attitude towards waste, which is important for existing infrastructure to effectively function.

And this is exactly where the Accelerator Lab interventions come into play. The Lab has identified waste management as one of the frontier challenges with a focus on the human behavior side of the issue. In partnership with the National Environment Commission Secretariat (NECS) and Thimphu Thromde (municipality), the lab has launched a social experiment to understand households’ behavior in waste segregation at source as the first step in waste management strategy and a key component to effectively reduce the amount of waste going to the landfill.

The social experiment is being carried out to gather key insights from the citizens and households for the roll out of the waste flagship program. The approach provides a structured and robust method in understanding households’ values, beliefs, and individuals’ attitude towards waste, to help identify favorable attributes to nudge households to segregate waste at source.

Although the scale of social experiment is enormous, the following approach was adopted:

Step 1: Semi-structured Ethnographic Study

Step 2: Behavior Insight Experiment/Trial

Step 3: Policy Note on Behavior Insight Intervention

Semi-structured Ethnographic Study

A quick awareness survey of enumerators was also carried out on 14 December 2020 after the ethnography survey.

A semi-structured ethnographic study was carried out in partnership with NECS and guided by the Behavior Insights Team, Australia to understand household’s waste segregation practices. The study was carried out to understand two research questions.

Q1. What are the ways in which households/people are handling their waste?

Q2. In actual practice, what are the obstacles to and factors driving effective waste management? This part concentrated primarily on understanding the behavior of segregation.

20 young Dessups (National Volunteer) supported the two- week long ethnographic study conducted in Changzamtog area within the municipality. The area was identified since it will be the first locality to witness the roll-out of the waste flagship program. Also, the locality has a good representative of households with different needs and socio-economic status. Enumerators collected information door-to-door and took pictures of bins in the 93 randomly selected households.

The ethnographic study reiterated the graveness and urgency of the waste issue. Four key findings strongly emerged from the survey: limited knowledge especially regarding hazardous waste, absence of three colored bins at the household level, limited feedback households receive on their waste segregation habits and inconsistent waste collection services, which is disrupting good segregation behaviors.

Additional insights reveal the following:

Waste segregation is not an issue, but quality of waste segregation is.

While, there has been practice of waste segregation into “dry” and “wet” bins by households, there are clear issues around quality of segregation. Many households were not able to correctly classify hazardous and dry waste. For instance, during the study, most households mentioned that they discard baby diapers and sanitary napkins together with their dry waste. Existing waste collection practices of dry and wet waste on dedicated days has encouraged people to segregate. However, the study found services related to hazardous waste lacking. Households in general seemed to be unaware of three categories of waste segregation.

Poor quality of waste segregation and lack of bins

Waste creating enmity

Illegal dumping has been found to a cause of dispute between neighbors, and between household and waste collectors. There were many accounts where neighbors complained against each other’s waste dumping practices. It was also reported that often households would get into a spat with waste collectors or vice versa for not segregating waste. On deeper reflection, the issue boiled down to people’s ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude towards waste.

Lack of space in apartments

Most apartments in Changzamtog store their dry waste in balconies and corridors owing to limited space in their apartments. Households also re-use old sacks, cartoons and plastic bags as it does not take up space and can be discarded along with the waste.

Waste and gender disparity

Households’ waste is primarily managed by family members who stay at home. The respondents reported that usually mothers and wives staying home segregated, discarded and managed their household waste. In some households, it was the grandparents who took care of the chore.

Role of scrap dealers and waste pickers in household waste segregation

Informal waste pickers and scrap dealers also play a key role in waste recovery. Some households were seen segregating and giving waste of some value to the informal waste pickers. Waste such as pet bottles, cardboard boxes, beer bottles were picked up by the informal waste pickers. However, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the scrap dealers have stopped collecting waste as they are unable to access scrap market across border due to movement restriction.

Waste issue is deeper and requires a systemic approach: a collective intelligence effort

Are households’ to be blamed exclusively for not segregating waste? No, issues with waste segregation is a systemic challenge which requires a portfolio of solution. Ethnographic survey also demonstrates that while segregation of waste is an issue, this behavior is not only driven by internal factors like mindset and attitudes. External factors, such as timely and effective collection, confidence and trust in the system for effective recycling and waste recovery downstream also shape the household behaviors. An example could be households complaining about infrequent waste collection timing and the capacity of garbage trucks which gets filled soon. Consultations with waste collectors revealed much more deeper issues. Delays of garbage trucks were attributed to traffic congestion, breakdown of garbage trucks, inadequate number of garbage trucks and lack of manpower in terms of truck drivers.

A stakeholder meeting was also organized to seek a holistic picture of the waste system and to understand issues from the service providers’ perspective. The meeting further helped map out the role of informal scrap dealers and waste pickers in the waste system. A need for a waste recovery facility was felt since all waste from drop-off centers, transit stations (Greener Ways) and households are being dumped at the landfills.

What Next?

The lab will work on step 2 and 3 of the experiment. Having learnt what triggers people to behave in a certain manner through stage one, the lab will now focus on the following two learning questions during the trial/experiment phase:

What are the hypotheses we are testing through the experiment/trial?

What decision will be made post trial/experiment and how would the trial/experiment help decision makers in making those decisions?

Randomized Controlled Trial will be applied for the experiment/trial towards understanding household waste segregation behavior.

Accelerator Lab Bhutan hopes to complete the social experiment by April 2021. We would like to extend our gratitude to the NECS, Thimphu Thromde and Desuung in partnering with the lab in the learning cycle and look forward to co-creating ideas and solutions for effective and sustainable waste management system in the country.

Contributed by UNDP Bhutan, Accelerator Lab Team (Tshering Wangmo, Head of Solutions Mapping, Kunzang Wangmo, Head of Experimentation, Tshoki Zangmo, Head of Exploration, Bishnu Chettri, Innovation Solution Mapper and Explorer, Sonam Choki, Innovation Solution Mapper and Explorer.)



UNDP Bhutan

Empowering lives and building resilient communities to leave no one behind.