Plastic Waste Separation Experiment

How small interventions change large systems

January 30, 2023
Photo: UNDP Georgia/Irakli Dzneladze
Photo: UNDP Georgia/Irakli Dzneladze

A year after the original experiment, the Accelerator Lab team summarized how a small behavioural study created a positive effect on the system. From expanding the project area to scaling it up to new locations to high-level policy dialogue – the experiment created the evidence that might accelerate the paradigm shift towards at-source waste separation in Georgia. The blog is structured in three parts. First, the blog introduces a summary of the experiment and its immediate results. Secondly, it discusses the sustainability of the project focusing on why the project continued. Thirdly, it explores the indicators that point to the experiment’s impact at the system level.

Experiment set-up and immediate results

We ran a behavioural experiment to test approaches that would incentivize Tbilisi and Batumi residents to separate plastic waste. The experiment studied whether the residents would begin sorting plastic waste if an accessible, user-friendly infrastructure and relevant information were provided. To do so, we established and tested such infrastructure. Additionally, we employed a 2 treatment × 1 control group behavioural experiment design and conducted a targeted awareness-raising campaign to identify which awareness-rising messages would help increase plastic waste collection.

During the experiment, the Accelerator Lab undertook the following initiatives:

  • Designed highly functional transparent collection bins and placed 40 of them in Batumi and Tbilisi in residential areas next to the existing municipal waste containers.
  • Tested two messages for the awareness-raising campaigns which were effective.
  • Collected nearly two tons of plastic during the eight weeks of the experiment, which accounted for 2 percent of the annual plastic waste produced by the targeted cities.
  • Covered 40,000 people, mostly middle-class citizens, and mobilized more than 50 volunteers thereby establishing an eco-minded community.
The experiment showed a significant positive difference between residents exposed to intervention compared to those under control conditions. It proved that targeted cities are ready to implement source separation of domestic waste if adequate infrastructure and relevant information are provided.

The experiment was the easy part. To sustain the impact, we looked more widely.

Both Tbilisi and Batumi have continued the separate collection of plastic, but Batumi municipality decided to take it to another level. The decision was largely possible due to such factors as the high participation of the local community, infrastructural preparedness, and economic feasibility. Below we discuss how the Accelerator Lab targeted each category to sustain the positive effect of the experiment:

Community as a driver for change

The experiment attracted environmentally conscious residents, who signed up to volunteer and who supported the project by directly spreading information, typically by word of mouth, and by monitoring the plastic collection bins. To further support the local community’s enthusiasm, the Accelerator Lab organized social events in the targeted neighbourhoods. At the events, UNDP top management gave recognition to, thanked and awarded the active volunteers for their contributions. The community continues to be active.

Challenges included building and maintaining the public’s trust that the collected waste would be properly treated and recycled. To address this challenge, the Accelerator Lab organized a study tour of the municipal waste processing facility for volunteers and activist citizens. The participants learned about waste treatment processes, saw the equipment, and discussed the possibility of shifting Batumi to a circular economy, as well as what roles the community could play in the transition. 

Infrastructural readiness

Based on the feedback from activist citizens, the well-maintained infrastructure and smooth operation were the main indicators that the collected waste would be properly processed and recycled, meaning that the individual effort of each citizen was valued. Consequently, we believe that these components contributed to building trust among citizens, which in turn resulted in high collection indicators.

A good example of such a connection between public trust and the adequacy of infrastructure was the case with the waste collection vehicle. At the early stage of the project, one of the volunteers followed the waste collection vehicle to the municipal waste-sorting facility to make sure that the recyclables would not end up in the landfill. The reason for doing so was the general design of the car: although it was dedicated to recyclables, it was not branded accordingly. To avoid such future misunderstandings and to build trust among the public, Sandasuftaveba (the Batumi Municipal Waste Management Company) and the UNDP Accelerator Lab collaborated to brand the vehicle.

Another case was the purchase of the press machine. Although Batumi Municipality already runs a waste sorting facility, the increased plastic waste collection overloaded the facility, causing malfunctioning of some of the equipment thereby creating a risk for the continued waste collection and jeopardizing the sustainability of the project. To avoid any loss of public trust in the process, the UNDP Accelerator Lab purchased a press machine with a larger capacity.

Economic feasibility

Sandasuftaveba sells its collected recyclables at public auctions, which represents an additional source of income for the municipality. For example, one of the private Georgian companies announced a tariff of 1 GEL/KG of PET plastic. The cleaner the collection, the less manual labour it requires for re-sorting and processing, thus is more feasible. Consequently, when the municipal company received the results of the experiment, it decided to expand its area and purchased an additional 30 bins. To support the initiative, Accelerator Lab provided tested communication materials (fliers and posters) and organized a communication campaign in the new areas.

Under UNDP Accelerator Lab’s guidance, Sandasuftaveba continued to monitor waste collection via two factors, amount and quality, to compare the effectiveness of the Accelerator Lab-designed transparent bins with the cheaper, non-transparent containers they purchased. The goal – evaluate the return on public investment and collect new behavioural insights.

The observation showed a slight decrease in collection quality (from 74 percent to 65 percent). however, the total collection remains high – 200 kg of PET plastic per week, which is four times more than a year ago for off-season months, and 800 kg for the high season. 

And just like that – the system began to change

Based on the results of the experiment and the following interventions, Batumi City Hall approached UNDP to support the elaboration of the Municipal Waste Management Plan. Under the leadership of the UNDP Government Reform Fund project, the Accelerator Lab supported the creation of a policy document, which incorporates the findings of the experiment and scales it to the entire city. Once the plan is approved by the city assembly, Batumi will become the first city in Georgia with a four-fraction at-source waste separation system. Batumi authorities are in discussions with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) to secure favourable loan terms for the prompt implementation of a separation system.

Batumi's example became an inspiration for other municipalities that have been requesting support to replicate the approach in their communities. The city even won the Best Practice Award from the Georgian National Association of Local Authorities in a nomination for municipal waste management and circular economy development.

The unprecedented success of the experiment also caught the attention of the private sector, which has been struggling to set up an adequate system for collecting recyclables. Through the UNDP project “EU Innovative Action for Private Sector Competitiveness in Georgia,” which supports the implementation of the Extended Producer Responsibility principle in Georgia, the Accelerator Lab shared the data with the packaging cluster. As a consequence, one of their largest member companies, Efes Georgia, placed transparent bins near neighbourhood shops to collect plastic.

In conclusion, the experimental approach, which is a core concept of the UNDP Accelerator Lab, proved to be successful for data-based policy planning. It demonstrated that we do not necessarily need to wait for access to very large resources or for perfect conditions to emerge for a development process. Instead, when co-designing experiments with local communities, workable solutions can be discovered faster and more cost-efficiently.

When we co-design and experiment in partnership with local communities, workable solutions come faster and are more efficient.

UNDP Accelerator Labs operate in 116 countries, striving to tackle long-standing development issues using innovative approaches and technology. Georgia joined this rapidly expanding network of problem-solvers in 2020. The network is grateful for the support of its founding investors - the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development of Germany and the Qatar Fund for Development, as well as for the contributions from UNDP core donors.