Behaviour change in the time of coronavirus

Emily Rayner, Strategy and Planning Lead and behaviour change specialists 23red, explores the impact Covid-19 is having on changing waste and recycling behaviours

While lockdown life has been an extremely challenging time for people, we’ve seen some new and positive behaviours emerge as we adapt to a new way of living. Many have the potential to impact positively on the environment and the sustainability agenda – for instance a reduction in food waste and increase in homegrown produce, composting and recycling. These behaviours not only bring environmental benefits but benefits to us as individuals.

In the case of food waste, people are saving money, eating more healthily and spending more time eating together. For those engaging in gardening and spending more time outdoors, the benefits to physical and mental wellbeing are well documented.

Emily Rayner
Emily Rayner
The reasons for these changes in behaviour can be framed using Michie et al’s ‘COM-B’ model which recognises that in order for a person to carry out a certain behaviour, they need to have the capability, opportunity and motivation to do so. Capability is about knowledge, skills and abilities and opportunity is about external, environmental factors. Motivation is the mental process that energise and directs the behaviour. Lockdown has been responsible for influencing all three aspects to some degree, for example, in the case of food waste.
  1. Capability – More time spent at home has enabled individuals to learn new recipes, organise their fridges and freezers, explore alternative food sources and think more carefully about leftovers and portion sizes.
  2. Opportunity – Restrictions on where and when to buy food and the types of food available have left people with reduced choices and less flexibility. Those out of work as a result of lockdown measures, have had to be more careful with food – making it go further and last longer.
  3. Motivation – People are realising that in order for their local community of shops and restaurants to survive the crisis, they need to be supporting them now as they’re the ones hit hardest by the current situation. They’re buying from local farm shops, supporting independent grocery stores and getting takeaways from non-chain restaurants. Food has also become a focus and form of escapism or pastime – both in terms of cooking and growing – encouraging people to be more creative and conscientious about food.

As lockdown measures start to be reduced and some semblance of ‘normality’ resumes, it will be interesting to see whether people continue to have the same degree of capability, opportunity and motivation to keep up these positive behaviours. Whilst people may still have good intentions to maintain more sustainable habits, if other barriers start to appear (such as less time at home, more time spent travelling to and from work and greater access to convenience foods), motivations are likely to fade and we may struggle to follow through with the behaviours that during lockdown, seemed so straightforward.

It’s unlikely that people will be able to achieve this on their own. Fortunately, there are ways that public and private sector organisations can and should help to make it easier for people to keep up their good efforts and there are some positive examples of this taking place already.

Councils such as the London Borough of Hackney have already begun to limit their rubbish pickup to fortnightly, while recycling and food waste pickup remains weekly, encouraging people to properly engage in recycling behaviours. Others are pushing for people to try home composting in an effort to reduce food waste and pressures on waste pickups.

Where food waste is concerned, start-ups like Oddbox have provided customers with a less wasteful option for their weekly shop, providing odd or surplus fruit and vegetable boxes to customers weekly. Not only does this new way of shopping actively reduce food waste, it also strips out the packaging waste that would regularly result from a supermarket shop.

Companies and public sector organisations that continue to operate in these ways, can help to provide a more enabling environment for customers – helping them to keep up the good work that they started during lockdown. As well as offering practical services like those described above, messaging which highlights the benefits to individuals, communities and even the planet will also help to motivate people to act more positively. Audience insights and the application of behavioural science are key to this – utilising principles such as collective efficacy (showing the difference we have and will continue to make) and social norming (making it now, more than ever, unacceptable to return to more wasteful behaviours).

It isn’t just individuals that need a helping hand in conducting more sustainable behaviours. Research from the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) found that food waste has  increased in UK takeaway restaurants from an average of £111 per restaurant per week to £148 – a £16.7m rise for the sector as a whole since lockdown. This has been caused by difficulties in planning and purchasing the right amount of food to serve customers in lockdown.

In 2019, 23red launched the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) Guardians of Grub campaign, which provides professionals in the Hospitality and Food Service Industry with practical tips and tricks to reduce food waste in every level of the business – from the supplier, to the kitchen, straight to what the CEO can do in the head office. With the reopening of business, a focus on reducing food waste will not only be crucial for the sustainability of these businesses but also the successful financial operation, especially after long periods of closure. Alongside this campaign, apps like Karma and Too Good to Go are there to help restaurants and cafes who may have over-prepared meals as they deal with the continuing unknown levels of footfall. Apps like these can serve to create a win-win for consumers – providing them with good value, tasty food while reducing food waste and ensuring businesses don’t waste resources.

And beyond restaurant waste, Olio is encouraging neighbours to share food and other household items with each other, and has seen a spike in altruism with their recent #Cook4Carers campaign, encouraging local residents to prepare meals for key workers.

It remains to be seen whether the ‘new normal’ sees individuals and businesses revert to old habits or keep up the positive behaviours they’ve started to adopt but there is definitely more that other organisations can do to help people engage in more sustainable resource behaviours which make good business-sense for them too.