Psychological box of tricks for a more sustainable world

She is fighting the disposable economy. Delta spoke to Conny Bakker during the week of the circular economy. “They lack an exhaust pipe, but baby strollers still emit a lot.”

Prof. Conny Bakker is studying how people can be encouraged to be more careful with shared and leased products. (Photo: Conny Bakker)

To limit climate change we not only need to stop being slaves to fossil fuels, but we also need to move to a circular economy with closed loops of goods, water, energy and nutrients. Symposiums are being held all over The Netherlands on this topic this week. Very positive, believes Conny Bakker, Professor of Sustainable Design at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering. She believes that greater awareness about circularity is badly needed.

Bakker heads one of the research projects into circularity at the Climate Action Programme that TU Delft presented last year. In the next 10 years, the Programme will disburse EUR 22 million for more research into climate change and many related subjects.

Do you have a particular focus?
“We need to use our products for a longer period of time and manufacture them so that they can be reused. Our baby strollers and washing machines may not have exhaust pipes emitting dirty gases, but all the products that we use are responsible for a lot of CO2 emissions. We just don’t think about it. The emissions are in the production, distribution and – if you do not recycle them – in the waste processing.

“What is happening in the car industry should be happening in a lot of other areas, and that is leasing. If users wear out products that are leased, it is a powerful stimulus for manufacturers to make them strong and long-lasting and to design products so that the parts can be reused. This business model is called product as a service. We are now concentrating on how to disseminate this business model and scale it up.”

Can you give an example of a research project?
“We recently had a project with the children’s stroller manufacturer, Bugaboo. We designed a business model in which customers can lease strollers. The strollers easily last for nine years, but most people only keep them for a couple of years as the children get too big. That is a shame. In our pilot, Bugaboo took back the strollers after a few years, gave them an overhaul and stuck a guarantee certificate on them. They also reused certain parts when the strollers had reached the end of their lives. This reduced a lot of waste.”

It sounds quite easy.
“Yes, but it isn’t. One challenge is trying to make sure that consumers handle the product with care. You’ve heard the expression ‘Don’t be gentle, it’s a rental’, haven’t you? If people don’t feel sympathetic towards the business model it will not work. And that can be bad for the environment. Just look at the shared electric scooters all over Paris. People are so careless with them that they only last for one year on average. They should last for at least two years if you look at the number of kilometres that they have driven.

“Another major challenge is to get companies to change their roles completely. We saw this with Bugaboo too. They are used to selling products, but may now become service providers. They are not used to this. What you do see is that start-ups are taking on this role. There are several examples, such as Swapfiets that leases bicycles and Homie that leases fridges and washing machines.”

Can you encourage a more loving treatment of the goods?
“This is what we are studying and we have some ideas. It seems that if people have the feeling that something belongs to them, at least a little bit, even if that is not true, they are more careful. This feeling of ownership needs to be encouraged.”

And designers have psychological tricks for this?
“Yes. You know that feeling when you go to the theatre and choose a seat, that that spot is yours? If you come back into the theater after the break and someone else is sitting in your seat, you feel a little shocked. You have lost ‘your’ seat. But it was not your seat, of course. You can use this psychological mechanism. The Student Hotel (a Dutch chain of hotels and student accommodation) experimented with shared bicycles that were parked in different coloured spaces. This made it easier for users to keep taking the same bike. As every parking space had a different colour, they could easily find the same bike that they had already used. This study was recently presented at a conference. It seemed as though the guests were more careful with the bicycles.

“Another way is to use punishment to encourage more sustainable use, such as using deposits. If people damage the item it will be balanced out with the deposit. In the case of shared bicycles, scooters and cars, you are dependent on users that state in an app the condition in which the previous user had left the vehicle. I wonder how effective this approach is in reality.

“It is important that there is a change in culture. At the moment there is little social pressure to treat shared things carefully. If you handle a shared bicycle roughly, nobody tells you off. We need to move to a situation in which this kind of behaviour is not tolerated by society anymore.”


The Climate Action Programme
TU Delft intends to intensify research into circularity in the years to come. This research is part of the Climate Action Programme that TU Delft presented last spring.

The Climate Action Programme encompasses four themes. Climate Science (measuring and modelling show what is happening to the climate); Climate Change Mitigation (what can we still do to limit climate change); Climate Change Adaptation (what can we do to adapt to a changing climate); and, Climate Governance (how can we support politics and society in taking climate action).

Under these four overarching themes more scientists are being appointed to work on these so-called flagship research programmes on climate solutions. This will include regional monitoring and modelling of climate change, climate engineering, negative emissions, circularity, addressing urban heat islands and water security.

Editor Tomas van Dijk

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