A simple nudge to stop staff “stealing” cutlery

By focusing on ‘making it easier’ rather than ‘awareness raising’  we succeeded in increasing the number of pieces of cutlery returned by staff  to a cafe by 1,400% with a simple nudge.

The issue

Here at the London Borough of Hounslow we have a nice cafe on site, which does eat-in and takeaway food. There are about 2,000 staff in the building and lots use the cafe for lunch.

Hoarding cutleryHowever recently the cafe found that lots of their cutlery kept going missing. They realised staff were coming to the cafe, taking the cutlery with them back to their desk to eat their lunch and then not returning it.

Consequently, they kept running out of cutlery and having to buy more.

To address this, they first tried some awareness raising

awareness 1However this didn’t work. Nobody returned any cutlery.

In fact there was a suspicion that it got even worse. Making it seem like everyone was doing it made it seem normal. (Apparently cutlery is the new petrified wood. )

Next they tried an amnesty in which they promised to give a donation to charity for returning cutlery


This generated a grand total of 12 pieces of cutlery being returned through the amnesty, which lasted a month, triggering a £1 donation.

(FYI: Generally we are a charitable bunch but clearly this had very little effect on cutlery return.)

Designing a nudge:

Working in the Public Health team we do a lot of work to design and test behaviour change interventions.

So during a lunch break,  working  with the cafe team, we analysed the situation and using a couple of behavioural insight led frameworks we set about observing what was going on and designing a nudge.

Our main observations:

  • Clearly people weren’t actually stealing cutlery, it was simply easier for them to keep hold of the cutlery than return it.
  • There wasnt an obvious way to return the cutlery. There were racks for trays to be placed on when finished but no separate place to put cutlery.
  • When staff finished eating at their desk, it would require them to get up, walk back to the central staircase, across the reception area and back into the cafe, then back up to their desk. Approximately 2-3 minute walk each way. Far too much effort for no immediate or personal reward.

We came up with several suggestions:

  • Stickers on the cutlery to increase salience that they were cafe property
  • Boxes for people to drop the cutlery in
  • Social norms messaging “most people return cutlery”
  • Rather than an amnesty, organise a lottery to incentivise returning cutlery.

Working through the options, the most practical was to place collection boxes on each of the 8 floors in the building, in the communal kitchen areas.

nudge3Cafe staff suggested using cheap plastic cereal holders which cost about £1.50 each. They enabled staff to drop the cutlery in easily, but were slightly harder to get cutlery out off.

The cafe tested this for a month and the impact was instantaneous. The boxes on each floor filled up quickly and the cafe staff emptied them each week.


Comparing the traditional interventions (information giving and an amnesty) with the impact of the nudge after the 1st month and 2nd month) showed a big difference.

The nudge worked well in the first month with 100 pieces returned, (approximately 8 times better than the amnesty) and in month 2 as people got used to using the collection boxes it increased again to 180 (a 1,400% increase on the amnesty approach). Return rates have stayed stable in months 3 – 5 averaging between 180 – 220 pieces per month.

With cutlery costing about £2.60 for a dozen pieces, the nudge is currently saving approximately £40 a month which over the next 12 months should save over £450.

As this was an opportunistic intervention, the evaluation is limited and we weren’t able to test with a control group.

However the simple solution we came up with demonstrates the benefit of focusing on ‘making it easy’ for people to do the behaviour you want  them to do.

We take a similar view, in our day-to-day work in public health, when it comes to addressing the big lifestyle issues of increasing physical activity, stopping smoking or eating healthier.

Don’t rely on raising awareness or giving information to impact on people’s daily lives. Focus on giving them tools and resources to make small changes, and when you can, change the environment so the healthy choice is the easy choice.

We used the Behavioural Insights Team ‘EAST framework‘ and the Rotman ‘Practitioners guide to nudging‘ in designing this nudge.


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