The advent of the food-delivery app has left a bad taste in the mouths of governments, environmentalists and others left wondering how to cope with the mountains of plastic waste produced in the pursuit of culinary convenience.

One answer to the problem, according to a new study, lies in a technique that has stirred debate: the behavioral nudge.

Examining consumer behavior on a popular food-delivery app in China, a team of scientists based in Asia has found that messages nudging users to forgo single-use cutlery could be effective enough to reduce plastic waste in the country by more than 3 million metric tons a year—the equivalent weight of 10 Empire State Buildings—if rolled out nationwide.

Rather than ordering people to act a certain way, limiting their choices or using monetary incentives to influence them, nudges seek to change decisions by altering the way choices are presented. Evidence is mixed as to how effective nudging is as a solution to societal problems, but the gentle approach proved effective in this instance, according to the study.

“People generally prefer to be empowered rather than simply being told what to do,” said Albert Park, professor of economics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, one of the authors of the study, which appears in this week’s issue of Science magazine.

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