How to make people buy reusable water bottles

BJL's Charline Fressy wrote this essay as part of the IPA's Applied Behavioural Economics course.

We are spotlighting some of the best essays from our MIPA qualifying courses and qualifications. Here, BJL's Charline Fressy looks at how behavioural science could be used to help encourage consumers to use reusable water bottles as part of the IPA's Applied Behavioural Economics course.

Creating new habits

Reusable water bottles are becoming more popular than ever, but more often than not we tend to see them sat on the shelves of retailers or in households’ cupboards, rather than used by people on the go. We are going to identify ways to encourage more people to buy reusable bottles and get them into the habit of using them every day, which will contribute to reduce their overall plastic usage.

How could we make more people buy reusable bottles?

An effective way of achieving this would be to associate the process of buying a reusable bottle to an existing behaviour, making it simple and reaching out to them at the most timely moment.

Currently, reusable bottles can be found in retailers’ interior or home accessories sections, requiring people to adopt a new behaviour: buying an empty bottle and filling it up from the tap.

We need to look closely at the behaviour we want to change and at what reusable bottles are trying to solve. 

Essentially, we want people to stop buying plastic bottles and replace them with their reusable equivalent.

When do people most often buy plastic bottles? When they are thirsty, and out of home.

What if we gave people the opportunity to associate the purchase of a reusable bottle to an existing behaviour and need? The answer would be to sell the reusable bottles already filled up, on the same shelf than the usual 50cl plastic bottles. That way, when people are in the process of buying a plastic bottle they will have the choice to buy a slightly more expensive bottle of water, but reusable. They will be able to satisfy their original need - which was buying a bottle to drink on the go - and as a result own a reusable bottle.

Popular brands such as Evian, Buxton or Volvic could lead the way by creating their own branded reusable bottles filled with their own spring water, boosting their brand image by showing their involvement in reducing plastic consumption. 

But how would we motivate people to choose a full reusable bottle over the usual plastic option like they have been doing for years? 

By making this desired behaviour as attractive as possible and by harnessing the power of social proof to make it more popular.  
We could imagine the creation of a movement called Planet Heroes that the brands mentioned above could take part in to co-create their reusable bottles. These bottles would have a sleek and modern design, making them appealing and noticeable, each having the Planet Heroes label along with a tagline such as “I am saving the planet”.

This will further motivate those wanting to feel like they are contributing to a more sustainable world, whilst helping them showcase that they are indeed contributing to saving the planet.

How could Planet Heroes reach a maximum of people?

When using their bottle at work, at the gym or even in public transport, people will hopefully influence others to join the movement and buy their own bottles, as some of them will likely be thinking “If he’s saving the planet, I want to save the planet too”.

The Planet Heroes movement could also create an advertising campaign, targeting people on social media and encouraging them to buy their first bottle with a 10% discount to make it more attractive. For maximum impact the messaging should tap into the power of social proof to encourage people to join the movement “Like your friends, be a Planet Hero”.

They could also re-gram posts of current users using the hashtag #PlanetHeroes, demonstrating the popularity of the movement and encouraging others to join.

How do we get reusable bottle owners into the habit of using them every day?

There are two key elements to consider. First, we need to create a new habit: making people use their bottle regularly once they have bought it and for it to become part of their day to day life; just like grabbing your work badge before leaving in the morning, or putting your lunchbox in your bag. Then, we need to make it easier for people to fill their bottle on the go, tackling the fact that a lot of us still find it challenging or even embarrassing to ask for tap water.

21 days to form a new habit

We know that it takes about 21 days to form a new habit. The Planet Heroes movement could tap into this insight to help reusable bottle owners to form the habit of using their bottles on a day to day basis. To do so, Planet Heroes could create an App that users could programme to receive a daily alert every morning, reminding them to take their bottles to work with them. For instance, if a user usually leaves home at 7:30am in the morning, he could set up an alert for 7:25am for 21 days until this becomes part of their daily routine. To make it easy for people to download the App there could be a QR code on each reusable bottle redirecting to either the App Store or Google Play.

Sharing commitment 

To allow users to see how much plastic they are saving and encourage them to carry on using their bottles, there could be a functionality on the App allowing them to check-in every time they refill their bottle. Every time the user checks-in, he would be served with an updated stat such as “Congratulations, you have refilled your bottle 44 times, and have saved 1.1kg of plastic. This is the equivalent of 100 trees saved”. The user would then be offered the possibility to share this stat on social media, spreading the message with their friends, showing how committed they are to reduce their plastic consumption and inviting them to join the movement. Users could also invite friends on the App and compare stats with them, creating a community of Planet Heroes but also a healthy competition which will motivate them to carry on. All of this contributing to a new behaviour becoming part of their day to day life.

Geo-targeting to showcase involved retailers

Then, to make it simpler for people to refill their bottle on the go the Planet Heroes App could use geo-targeting to showcase every retailer registered to the Refill initiative in the user’s area. Users could opt-in to receive alerts every time they get close to a registered Refill member, keeping the momentum going.

Another more obvious initiative would be for councils to install more refill stations in towns and cities. Taking inspiration from international cities like Vienna, leading the way in terms of sustainability with over 900 water stations, we could spread them around city centres, parks, train stations, markets, etc, making them more accessible to the public.

Each of these stations could have an interactive screen, showing a live estimation of how much plastic has been saved in this specific city, along with how much water has been distributed. The screen could also display the top 3 cities that are leading the rankings in the UK, creating both a sense of community and a sense of pride, showing how the city itself is contributing to a better planet, as well as a playful competition to motivate each citizen to take part and help their city rank first.

Bonus idea

The easiest way to help people reduce their plastic consumption is to stop selling them single-use containers. When it comes to water bottles, this would mean to stop selling plastic bottles completely. The following initiative would request a significant investment from retailers but would make a big impact on people’s plastic consumption.

Taking inspiration from refill stations we can already find in some grocery shops allowing people to stock up on everything from cereals, grains, rice and even pasta with no single-use plastic at all, retailers could introduce barrels of water to replace individual plastic bottles.

Each of their listed brands, i.e. Evian, Volvic or Buxton, would have a big barrel of water that people could use to refill reusable bottles. Shops could put empty bottles of 1.5L at customers’ disposal through a bottle deposit scheme and give 50 cents back for every returned bottle.

Charline Fressy is a Planner at BJL. This essay formed a part of the IPA's Applied Behavioural Economics course, which is next running in London in May and champions a different social cause in each city.

Find out more about the Applied Behavioural Economics course
Last updated 28 February 2020