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Breakthrough behavior change: lessons from Civic Response Team in India

December 2, 2020

By Shannon Bouton and Cynthia Shih

Sometimes modest adjustments to everyday habits can make an enormous difference. For COVID-19, wearing a mask, washing hands, and social distancing are our best hope of containing the pandemic. Condom use has been one of the most effective tools in reducing HIV transmission. In recycling, proper separation of waste materials at home preserves the value of those materials, enabling the entire recycling industry to function.

But lasting behavior change is also very hard to achieve, and most efforts fall far short of their goals. Developing a new habit always competes with other priorities, and often existing societal norms, environmental cues, and personal senses of identity serve as powerful motivators against change. In difficult socioeconomic contexts, where people face challenges meeting their basic daily needs like food, clean water, or physical safety, behavior change may be an even tougher ask.   

In the past, many NGOs took behavior change approaches from high-income countries and tried to apply them wholesale to middle- and low-income countries. Increasingly, however, organizations in emerging economies are developing behavior change strategies tailored to the people and communities they serve, achieving impressive results with a fraction of the funding and resources that wealthier countries spend on similar efforts. Earlier this year, countries such as Ghana and Vietnam emerged as global case studies in effective containment of COVID-19, using novel techniques such as drones to transport test samples from hard-to-reach areas, and crowd-sourcing “event-based” surveillance to focus contact tracing efforts. Such examples have much to teach the global community about how to effectively deploy behavior change programs and tools, especially in challenging socioeconomic contexts.

When we launched Rethinking Recycling in early 2018, we set out to explore and learn from community-driven behavior change programs around the globe. One exceptional organization we found was Civic Response Team (CRT) in India, part of a broader social impact firm that includes the Centre for Applied Research and People’s Engagement (CARPE) and EcoSattva Environmental Solutions. CRT has achieved durable changes in recycling behaviors in many municipalities (urban local bodies, or ULBs) across Maharashtra state. The insights CRT has shared about its approach have deeply informed Rethinking Recycling’s behavior change programs in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Bali, Indonesia. And we believe CRT’s approach holds important lessons for anyone looking to implement effective, rapid behavior change at scale for social impact.

Emphasizing motivation over information for more effective behavior change

Natasha Zarine and Gauri Mirashi, founders of CRT, on field in the early days of their pilot project

Like Rethinking Recycling, CRT’s aim is to increase recycling rates in local communities to divert as much waste from landfills (or worse, illegal dumping sites) as possible. For the economics of recycling to work, people need to separate out recyclable waste at home to keep it clean and preserve its value. Unfortunately, this is where most recycling systems struggle most; in 2018 China, the world’s largest recycling economy, stopped importing waste because contamination rates were too high. The culprits were primarily recycling programs in North America and Europe, where many cities only achieve 30-40% (or lower) of households correctly separating their waste, despite decades of education and awareness campaigns.

In India, CRT has reported getting 80% of households to separate waste correctly into wet and dry categories within two weeks of launching in a given community, and to 95% within the next two weeks. And according to CRT’s data monitoring, these results have also held across demographics and over time.

What is the secret of CRT’s success? We observed that CRT has shifted the focus from information to motivation: putting people’s personal experience of being part of a recycling effort at the heart of every aspect of the program. The following examples illustrate how CRT has embedded this motivation-above-all principle in every aspect of its programs: from the “why” to the “how” and the “who” of community waste management.

1) Create a compelling “why”: invest in activating residents’ emotional commitment to recycling.  

A resident shows off her correctly separated waste: dry recyclables and wet organic matter

Many recycling programs incorrectly assume that building awareness and providing information is enough to change behavior. In fact, residents who need to start separating waste at home have many reasons not to adopt this new habit, even if they are aware and understand what’s being asked of them. And while penalties for non-compliance like fines may work in some other parts of the world, these kinds of negative incentives are not feasible in India where CRT works. “The only way to engage with residents is to make them feel a sense of ownership,” explain CRT co-founders Natasha Zarine and Gauri Mirashi.

CRT’s insight is that while some barriers to behavior change are practical (for example, insufficient space within the home), the most important factor is social. When people sense a critical mass of buy-in for a new behavior in the community, and that adopting that behavior will be good for their social identity, they find creative ways to overcome other obstacles.

CRT’s insight: the most important factor in behavior change is social. When people sense that adopting a behavior will be good for their social identity, they find creative ways to overcome other obstacles

With this in mind, CRT works with each community and its governing body to ensure its behavior change campaigns resonate emotionally with locals and create a sense of shared commitment. Since recycling is often a “hidden” behavior that people perform in the privacy of their homes, CRT brings recycling into public spaces and widely consumed media: for example, by tapping college and high school students to stage high-energy rallies and flash mobs. Catchy local phrases reinforce the pro-recycling message and make recycling a part of daily life, and are featured at local events and festivities, even jingles on local radio and mobile ringtones. Many of these efforts are aimed at young people, who are still forming the habits that they will carry throughout life, to help foster a positive and inspiring identity around recycling.

Through repeated implementation across many municipalities, CRT has also developed pattern recognition for what needs to be tailored to each community and what can be replicated wholesale from elsewhere. In one city renowned for its mango production, for example, CRT made the program mascot a mango dancing to a catchy recycling song, set to the tune of a Bollywood hit. But some elements can be used again and again across an entire region, saving valuable time and resources. For example, CRT uses a hand symbol and catchphrase (“taka-tak”) as universal shorthand for its recycling program, after finding they were memorable and quickly adopted by each new community without further customization.

2) Bring the “how” to life: use hands-on recycling demonstrations and ongoing cues through collection service.

Municipal staff and CRT lead an in-street education event for residents

Once people are inspired to adopt a new behavior, they need first-hand knowledge and supportive cues to put it into practice. For recycling, this means providing practical education on how to separate waste at home – and, just as importantly, integrating this behavior change with the waste collection service itself. 

To that end, when CRT helps launch a municipality’s recycling program, it works with waste collectors to host street events along their collection routes. These include live demonstrations of how to separate household waste into the appropriate categories, using actual waste that people bring out from their homes. Through this hands-on learning experience, recycling goes from an abstract concept to a tactile experience, something people can easily picture themselves incorporating into their daily routines.

After initial launch, the design of the collection service reinforces the behavior change. Here the emerging-economy setting plays to CRT’s advantage. In most higher-income countries, recycling programs rely on standardized, different colored bins to prompt residents to keep waste separated, with mixed results and at high equipment cost. In Maharashtra, most households have someone at home throughout the day, and residents bring their waste out to the collector for pickup. This creates a regular human touchpoint as they work to build a new habit; each collection stop provides an opportunity for residents to ask questions and get helpful tips on how to separate waste correctly, thus creating a positive feedback loop that sustains compliance over time.

Waste collectors host street events along their collection routes, including live demonstrations using actual waste that people bring out from their homes. Recycling goes from an abstract concept to a tactile experience

Waste workers themselves become more motivated through these hands-on education activities for residents, since they vividly illustrate the importance of their own work and how it connects them to real people in the community. According to sanitation supervisors who have worked with CRT, after these community education efforts, waste collection workers were significantly more engaged in their work, and 81% reported better relations with residents. 

3) Highlight the “who”: make every waste worker a recycling ambassador.

Waste workers take a tea break

CRT recognized early on that local waste management staff are the face of the recycling effort, and therefore critical to building credibility and fostering behavior change in the community. Waste collectors who visibly keep waste clean and separated are sending a clear signal to residents: when you make the effort to recycle correctly, the sanitation department upholds its end of the bargain. Workers who can speak knowledgeably about which kinds of waste go where, and educate residents on mistakes they observe when picking up waste, are serving two purposes: they improve recycling behaviors and the value of recovered materials, and they signal that someone is paying attention to what each household is doing, reinforcing the message that everyday behaviors matter.

Workers who can speak knowledgeably and educate residents are serving two purposes: they improve the value of recovered materials, and they reinforce the message that everyday behaviors matter

When working with waste management staff, CRT goes well beyond traditional capacity building. Its deep investment in worker capabilities includes training in leadership skills, public speaking, team building and problem solving, design thinking, and techniques for community partnership building and resident engagement. This holistic curriculum empowers workers to become respected and skilled change agents in the community, and to find their own creative solutions to challenges and setbacks throughout implementation of the recycling program. After CRT hands off the program to municipalities, they continue to perform well in the national Swachh Survekshan annual assessment of cleanliness and sanitation. 

CRT also fosters a motivating work environment for waste workers. One example is the “lucky draw.” In one municipality, after an initially successful launch, the volume of dry recyclables like paper, plastic, and glass coming into the sorting facility began dropping. As an experiment, the CRT team introduced a “lucky draw” incentive system, where individual waste workers could earn chances to win valuable prizes like cookware and bed linens by improving residents’ waste separation in their collection zones. (Through trial and error, CRT found that a randomized “lucky draw” among high performers works better than a straight “top performers” award, which incentivizes workers to question the fairness or accuracy of the ranking.) More dry recyclables began coming in on municipal collection vehicles again – and the incentive program served the dual purpose of improving the municipal staff’s relations with informal waste pickers, who worked at the sorting facility and were able to recover and sell more recyclables. 

Together, such efforts have resulted in waste workers in CRT’s programs reporting a 94% uptick in better understanding of their roles and 75% increase in their ability to problem-solve. In Rethinking Recycling’s programs in Indonesia and Argentina, we have also invested in deep training and performance-based incentives for our partners in the recycling workforce.

A template for broader social impact

As CRT’s methodology shows, focusing on motivation – in awareness campaigns, designing collection service and how-to education, and building worker capabilities – can yield dramatic results for recycling outcomes. And it disproves the often-held assumption that people won’t adopt recycling behaviors in low-income countries because they have “bigger things to worry about.” In fact, when provided with low-cost supports and reinforcing mechanisms, communities and workers in emerging economies can significantly outperform those in wealthier countries when it comes to forming good recycling habits.

Recycling is also emblematic of behavior change challenges in social impact more generally. Separating waste at home is a habit that requires consistent, ongoing practice, with benefits that are largely invisible to the person changing behavior, and which competes with many other urgent priorities. Just as organizations working on public health issues like HIV, vaccination, and teen pregnancy have contributed a great deal to our knowledge about effective behavior change globally, environmental sustainability organizations like CRT are bringing new insights that have broad applicability. 

What other issues have invisible behaviors that could be modeled more publicly? What other habits are tied to a service with regular touchpoints? Where else could we invest more deeply in front-line workers?

What other issues have “invisible” behaviors that could be modeled and celebrated more publicly, in locally meaningful ways? What other necessary habits are tied to a service with regular touchpoints, that could be used for hands-on demonstrations and reinforcing feedback? Where else could we invest more deeply in elevating front-line workers to become respected ambassadors of the cause, who are rewarded and recognized for their successes?

The Civic Response Team, The Center for Applied Research and People’s Engagement & EcoSattva Environmental Solutions Pvt Ltd. are sister organizations that provide evidence driven systemic solutions to pervasive civic challenges with multiple government, industry, community partners. For more information, visit www.ecosattva.in or www.carpeindia.org