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Nudge Study – promoting the use of litter bins

How can nudges be used to influence behaviour and encourage people to use litter bins?

Nudge theory (or Nudge) is a concept in behavioural science, political theory and economics. It argues that positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions can influence the motives, incentives and decision making of groups and individuals at least as effectively – if not more effectively – than direct instruction, legislation, or enforcement.

In 2011 in Copenhagen, Nudge was used to encourage better use of street litter bins. Footprints were painted on the ground leading up to the bins and the bins were ‘wrapped’ in a bright colour. An experiment was designed to test the effect of the nudge, which involved distributing free sweets before and after the footprints and wraps had been applied, and counting how many of the wrappers ended up correctly in the bins. 

A 46% decrease was reported by the experiment team in the proportion of wrappers which ended up on the street.

The experiment team claimed that the nudge worked in two ways:

  • first, it made it easier for people to find the bins because they were more visible
  • second, the footprints prompted them to infer the intended, correct action - that is, to use the bin. 

The experiment, however, had not been replicated in a peer-reviewed study. Its replicability and claimed effectiveness in a different context had not been tested.

Scottish Nudge project

In 2014/15, we funded a project delivered in partnership with Keep Scotland Beautiful (KSB) and the University of Stirling, Institute for Social Marketing (ISM). 

The aim of this study was to replicate the anti-littering nudge intervention carried out in Copenhagen and to extend this work by examining the impact of longer term exposure and variations on traffic flow density on bin use. 


Overall the findings look promising and support the research proposition that discarding behaviour (i.e. dropping litter on the ground) was affected over the course of the intervention.

ISM are conducting further analysis, the results of which will be published at a future date. In the meantime, a project overview has been produced by Keep Scotland Beautiful.

The report also contains a toolkit for delivery of your own anti-littering nudge project. The toolkit includes information on tasks to be included in both the design and delivery of the project, a project checklist and templates for the monitoring required to assess its impact.

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