Say when! Understanding waste separation through a field experiment in Argentina

  • Date: Dec 4, 2019
  • Time: 17:00
  • Speaker: Anna Pegels
  • German Development Institute (DIE)
  • Location: MPI
  • Room: Ground Floor

The Argentinean Municipality of Trelew is a good example of the dual potential and challenges in moving towards a more circular economy in the developing world. With a system of differentiated curbside collection and a waste separation plant, the city has all the necessary infrastructure in place to process its recyclables. Yet, only a mere 3% of waste is recovered, with the remainder rapidly filling up the local landfill.

In tackling this issue, the role of households is central. By separating materials at the source, they avoid contamination of recyclable resources by food waste and other non-recyclables. This preserves the material value and substantially improves the working conditions in the waste separation plant. There, workers currently have to sift through mixed and at times hazardous waste to extract recyclables, which in turn further hampers the plant’s ability to increase recovery rates.

To address this issue, the Municipality, the German Development Institute, and the World Bank joined forces in 2019 to apply behavioral insights to improve consumer waste separation. In a randomized controlled trial, we sent behaviourally informed letters and magnetic calendars to approximately 4,800 households and small businesses with the goals of i) improving source separation into two waste categories, and ii) increasing recyclables disposal only on the day they are due. A week after materials distribution, we collected the waste of about 900 randomly selected participant households. The intervention more than doubled the rate of households performing the target behaviour to about 25% in the treatment blocks, with all treatments performing similarly well. A second data collection after 6 months showed that the effects were sustainable.

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