Nudging Tashkent households to sort their waste

April 16, 2021

Photo by Askar Yakubov, UNDP Uzbekistan

UNDP Uzbekistan piloted a new way in 2020 to motivate people to sort their waste in preparation for recycling.  The new approach applied an old psychological construct in behavioural science known as “nudge theory,” which uses positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions as ways to influence people’s behaviour and decision-making.

UNDP’s piloting of this approach in Tashkent’s Mukimi mahalla (neighbourhood) was a  big success, leading to a Presidential Decree that later expanded the initiative throughout the city and to other urban centers of Uzbekistan. Furthermore, the same nudge theory principles are being considered for use in other social programmes which need public cooperation to succeed. 

Process of coloured bins distribution to the residents of Mukimi makhalla. Photo by Askar Yakubov, UNDP Uzbekistan

Waste management poses a challenge for many countries, as it requires close partnership between people, governments and service providers. In line with its national waste strategy for 2019-2028, the Government of Uzbekistan is seeking to improve waste treatment by limiting the creation of refuse and encouraging recycling whenever possible. In so doing, the country is moving towards a circular economy, which integrates a systemic approach to economic development that is designed to benefit businesses, society, and the environment. In contrast to the 'take-make-waste' linear model that aims to gradually delink economic growth from the consumption of finite resources.  A circular economy, also known as a green economy, is regenerative by design, meaning the resources for production, and their economic benefits, become available to future generations, ad infinitum.

The main principles of the circular economy.

As the world emerges from the worst pandemic in a century, and as governments put forward their economic recovery plans, there is much discussion at UNDP about the opportunities now to support a “green recovery” that is more sustainable, and which has a better chance of leaving no one behind.  A recent UNDP publicationCOVID-19 and Human Development: Assessing the Crisis, Envisioning the Recovery, calls for a major rethink of how governments allocate their fiscal resources during the recovery.  The report, issued earlier this year, states that decisions made now could either further lock us in or finally break us free from carbon intensive and wasteful patterns of production and consumption.

Uzbekistan’s waste collection and recycling systems have a strong foundation to build upon in this effort to move in the right direction.

While the right infrastructure needs to be in place, recycling rates will only improve if citizens are willing to participate, and if they feel that this participation is valued. There is a need for greater engagement between state services, particularly the ‘Makhsustrans’ waste collection enterprise, and the public. This is where UNDP Uzbekistan’s ‘Public administration reforms and digital transformation’ project implemented jointly with the Ministry for Development of Information Technologies and Communications of Uzbekistan, has stepped in to make a difference.

The motivation needed to change routines

From January to April 2020 UNDP worked with the Khokimiyat (Mayor’s office) of Tashkent City and Makhsustrans to encourage households in the Mukimi mahalla of the Yakkasaray district to sort their own waste. A gentle ‘nudge’ was designed to change people’s waste disposal routines: more than 200 families were each given three coloured containers for different waste types, with instructions for their use provided at public awareness events and made available online.

Green footprints leading up to the coloured bins, reminding people to sort their solid waste.

Green footprints painted on the street showed the way to communal garbage bins, because it is not always easy to do the right thing when you are hurrying to discard your garbage or running late for work. As the UNDP team explains: “the footprints work as a visible reminder for people who aren’t fully aware of their actions when they litter, and so they end up being a far more effective tool than empty threats or penalties.”

Meanwhile, waste collectors were trained to keep the carefully-sorted refuse divided while being gathered and transported to recycling facilities, to ensure the good work done by households was not wasted.   

A centre, with workers busy separating solid waste.

I was amazed that there were already signs of positive change in a very short period of time. The amount of waste collected from the Mukimi mahalla increased from 8 tonnes each month in January and February, to 10 tonnes in March and April. At the same time the amount of sorted waste collected weekly gradually stabilized, indicating that households had made sorting waste part of their schedule. Most promising was that between January and April the percentage of sorted waste within total waste collected from households increased from 14.5 percent to 46 percent.

The percentage of sorted waste within total waste collected from households. 

A subsequent survey of the mahalla residents found that 56 percent thought that all or most of their neighbours would keep sorting their rubbish in the future, while 23 percent thought the practice would continue to at least some degree. Likewise, 63 percent of people surveyed thought the practice of sorting waste at home could be introduced effectively across Tashkent City.  

The survey furthermore revealed that people are willing to sort their own waste if they have the right equipment and know how to use it.  This insight should enable us to nudge the project in the right direction to achieve the outcomes of the national waste strategy for 2019-2028.

From a neighbourhood to a city, and beyond towards green economy?

Yellow for plastic wastes. Photo by Askar Yakubov, UNDP Uzbekistan.

The success of the nudge approach in introducing waste sorting in the Mukimi mahalla was not at all surprising, given that it has been used to address similar social issues in more than 150 countries, and also that Uzbekistan’s people have always taken pride in the cleanliness of their neighbourhoods. The approach’s planned replicating throughout Tashkent could entirely change how the city’s residents think about their waste and recycling as besides saving energy it also reduces greenhouse gas emissions, which helps to tackle climate change.

This experiment shows that people can readily adopt new habits -- when they are easy to implement and when the advantages are clear. The Mukimi mahalla’s residents not only changed their own routines but also encouraged their friends and relatives to do the same, motivated by the knowledge that they were helping protect the environment and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

The success of a new recycling system relies on the goodwill and commitment of every player involved, including the homes discarding waste, the services collecting that waste, and the government bodies orchestrating the whole process.  

End of project and lessons learned.

Manual sorting of plastic waste.

The COVID-19 pandemic prevented us from implemented this initiative to the intended scale, but we were able to extract some valuable lessons that may later provide a foundation for expansion:

 - Conducting the baseline survey ahead of starting any experiment is crucial.  One must fully understand  existing knowledge and capability before any practical works starts.

- The weather is important when approaching people with new ideas. People perceive the information better and are open for contact in warm weather. So, it’s preferably to start any new innovations that require public engagement in the Spring.

- Constant nudging is crucial for a successful experiment. You can’t expect people to keep sorting the wastes with the same enthusiasm all the time if you abandon them after the initial meeting. Continued awareness raising is key.

- Setting clear operational mechanisms and expectations within waste collecting firms and local authorities is important. 

- Ultimately it is critical that everyone feels their efforts are valuable and not for naught. As such, there should be some methods to motivate people to recycle more: certificates of appreciation from the government, symbolic prizes or medals to acknowledge their input in reducing CO2 emissions and cleaning environment. When this happens, recycling will no longer be something that we need to stop and think about, but will rather become a part of our natural, daily habits.

The Sustainable Development Goals are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for everyone, everywhere, leaving no one behind. The 17 Goals address the global challenges we face, including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice. This initiative showed that most people really do want to be a part of the solutions, when they know how, and when their efforts are appreciated.  This is important, because the achievement of the SDGs, in Mukimi, in Uzbekistan and around the world, depends in large measure on all of us to getting involved in any and every that way we can.

Are you ready to do your part?