Staff are the primary generators of operational waste in an office building. They produce an average of 118 kg of waste per person each year. Much of this is avoidable items such as coffee cups, disposable lunch and beverage containers, paper towels and office paper. Now CitySwitch’s Choose.Reuse. campaign encourages employees to think about their waste practices, take actions to avoid and reduce waste, and improve recycling and stream contamination rates.

In this article, Zoe Baker, sustainability programs, CitySwitch Green Office, explains the thinking that led to the framework and how it just might be the answer to stimulating behaviour change.

Why coffee cups?

Many employees are disengaged from waste in the office, seeing it as beyond their influence. Waste is either “out of sight, out of mind”, or the problem feels too big to be solved.

Disposable coffee cups are an ideal waste item to engage office staff on: coffee is a personal decision often made with high frequency, and they are easily replaceable with a reusable alternative. Avoidance messaging can be framed as a positive call to action with an achievable goal, and habit retraining principles can subsequently be applied to other disposable items.

Coffee cups are topical, and are a highly visible but misunderstood waste item. While not the most significant office waste problem in weight or volume, disposable coffee cups are a frequent contaminant of waste streams.

Spheres of influence

Sustainability issues encompass a set of complex problems, and interventions to address them and prompt action can pose challenges. Best practice in behaviour change takes an interdisciplinary approach, matching different behaviours to best-fitting interventions for varying problems, targets audiences and stages – no single model will be appropriate for all problems

Behaviour change campaigns must consider the many influences on human behaviour:

  • personal – the individual’s knowledge or beliefs
  • social – how people relate to and influence each other
  • environmental – often seen as outside the individual’s control.

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In this campaign the individual is called to action to change a habit. The environmental (contextual) factors create the pre-conditions for success. The social factors maintain and embed the change.

Reflection of identity and values

The Choose.Reuse. campaign messaging ties the coffee cup decision/action to sense of self, professional identity and collective organisational identity and reputation.

The campaign materials ask “What does your cup say about you?”

They demonstrate that a reusable cup sends a signal about the drinker’s identity as a conscious consumer, while a disposable cup presents an unflattering image. Organisational values and reputation can be layered into this “sense of self” framework, echoing the individual professional identity with corporate values.

This draws on internal, external and social drivers. Internal drivers include identity and personal values. External drivers and social drivers include how individuals are perceived by peers and managers, how they represent their organisation to external contacts, and how the organisation is seen by the public and its competitors and clients. There is an emotional element to this approach, as well as social influences and the organisational and interpersonal environment.

This “sense of self” model is crucial to the campaign. Behaviours influenced by a sense of personal identity, reputation management and values, rather than attitude or information, are more likely to become ingrained. They have the potential to trigger spillover to other behaviours that also fit into this identity.

Call to action

Information and raising awareness are important to behaviour change, but habit and routine are a significant part of what we actually do. A simple and achievable call to action, with tangible and measurable outcomes, is more likely to have impact.

The campaign’s simple call to action is to choose a reusable coffee cup. No single type of reusable cup is prescribed, as different people get their coffee in various modes and times of day, and will have their own preferences for cup style. That element of choice is emphasised through the Choose.Reuse. logo, which includes different cup profiles.

Positive and negative framing

This campaign initially provokes action with a negative message about the individual’s unconscious coffee cup choice (“disorganised”, “lazy”). It then rewards them with a positive message for their subsequent conscious choice (“love a big idea”, “everyday hero”).

Engaging staff on waste issues is best framed in positive terms, with a clear communication of the right thing to do. This approach links to the mounting research around sustainability and climate change messaging needing to offer clear actions and a sense of beneficial and achievable solutions.

Behaviour change through habit change

Much of what people do in their daily routine is not based on deliberated or conscious choices, but on heuristic decisions – mental shortcuts or default settings. These can be the path of least resistance, or what everyone else is assumed to be doing. Or they can simply be formed habits – actions made automatically, that can even be in conflict with personal intentions.

People have a tendency to keep doing what they’ve always done. This can make behaviour change intervention difficult. That is why this campaign addresses a single and simple habit change task: choose a reusable coffee cup.

If a desired behaviour can become habitual, it will be more likely to be retained after initial motivation levels drop. A commonly referenced timeframe is that “it takes 21 days to break a habit”. Although this is often repeated, it is from a single 1960s research paper. Psychologists at the University College London published a more recent study on habit forming. This showed that on average a new habit can become “automatic” after 66 days. However some habits are easier and faster to pick up than others.

We looked at several points to develop an intervention to change disposable cup habits:

  • A “low-cost” simple habit is easier to integrate into a routine than a more complex or effortful one, so the proposition is simple
  • Habit formation or change works in cycles of cue, routine and reward, so the campaign includes use reminders, and a structure that measures and communicates the impact of new habit
  • Most people already have a coffee routine, with cues for getting their coffee, so the existing action and routine remains, with a small adjustment to develop a new response to the “cue”
  • Habitual behaviours are learned through context-dependant repetition, so the campaign links goals to various situations and specific contexts, with many ways to Reuse, including drink-in, travel and kitchen mugs.

Through the small shift in this existing habit and communicating the impact of that change, sustainability managers can begin to foster a wider waste behaviour conversation and recycling culture within the office.

The power of collective action

While behaviours are often considered in individual terms, people are shaped by their social world, and we are responsive to conformity and compliance. This campaign has been developed by CitySwitch to amplify the efforts of individual organisations and buildings.

Environmental factors are addressed by setting the culture through organisational goals and having senior management reiterate the messaging, and by addressing perceived and practical barriers.

Group goals and group effort

The Choose.Reuse. campaign is designed as a challenge to staff over a set period. The toolkit suggests a timeframe being between six to 12 weeks. The challenge is modelled on proven health interventions such as 10,000 Steps Challenge, the Global Corporate Challenge and Dry July.

These health challenges are designed to provide a sense of shared goal and achievement, while demonstrating that the new habit can be low effort and have a positive outcome for the individual.

The elements borrowed from the health challenge model are:

  • Commitment: the organisation makes a commitment to work towards a waste reduction goal
  • Achievability: the call to action is simple and does not deviate far from existing habits and routines
  • Timeframe: the challenge runs over a specific timeframe that seems attainable, rather than asking for a significant permanent change in behaviour
  • Measurement: coffee cup avoidance is measured by waste assessments and/or punchcards
  • Competition: individual or floor/team prizes can be used, but the gamification of the reduction goal can also help in building a sense of a group effort, as well as city/national and social movement via the CitySwitch network

This model of an organisational challenge uses social structures and group dynamics through the social obligation of making a collective goal, the group observation or tracking of participation, and developing new norms. By creating a reduction target and working towards it in the “public” setting of the office, the “conscious scrutiny” of the original and new habit is shared. On a practical level, as the group addresses the problem together, they can also provide cues and reminders to each other, as well as monitoring, sanctions or social pressure as they develop the new behaviour.

Addressing other barriers – real and perceived

Removing the barrier alone will not automatically change behaviour or habits, but within a campaign design it is important to address the existing barriers. This includes through looking at where “environmental” or contextual barriers outside the individual’s control can be removed, and where perceived barriers can be answered with information or clarification.

During the development of the toolkit we collected data from a range of sources including CitySwitch signatories and multiple staff surveys. Knowing what the various concerns around misunderstandings around reusable cups helped us develop the approach and materials targeting individual behaviour on reusable coffee cups.

Common barriers identified included having to carry the cup around; purchasing a coffee while in transit, travelling to work or in and out of the office; having to wash the cup; and not being comfortable using communal cups.

Measuring and tracking success across campaign

The campaign in the toolkit emphasises measuring waste performance in the office through a full CitySwitch waste assessment (or a simple coffee cup audit), to work out rates of disposable cups, and the bins staff are putting them in.

For a lighter evaluation, punchcards are available to assist businesses to count participation rates and create mini competitions and incentives. The project plan and tracker template enables the weekly input of punchcard participation counts and includes calculations to extrapolate observed savings up to annualised figures.

This data can then be used to further engage participants and even inform displays of used disposable cups to connect each small decision to a collective achievement.

One reply on “The war on coffee cups – and how to win”

  1. We did some interesting waste audits of educational facilities & our own offices and noticed that the best way to avoid re-useable coffee cups was to have our own branded mugs or mandate in the lease agreements the use of good quality screw top coffee cups.

    A recent waste audit showed us that our large customers’ commingled bins across a campus were contaminated with liquids, that were left in the other bottles & drinks containers. The best way to avoid this is only drink good coffee..

    We have also looked into packaging options with some of our larger customers during consultation and now understand that new brands of recyclable coffee cups are in development, (I.E. not made up of two different materials, both biodegradable materials for organic waste streams or even better commingled waste bin disposable made of better quality plastics that you might get many uses out of).

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