Stories: How Providing Rice Level Options Can Reduce Rice Waste

The menu card cutouts designed by the Yale-NUS student team.

Visualise a bubble tea store menu, where you can choose your preferred drink size and sugar level. A similar menu options card for rice levels could get people to choose less rice and waste less, a group of third-year Yale-NUS students found out.

The student team—comprising Bryan Timothy, Lindy Quek, Ryan Siew and Wah Tzy Hyi, all of whom are Psychology majors—tested a menu options card that indicated rice portion options for customers at NUS canteens to choose from. By providing the ‘less rice’ option, the team aimed to encourage customers to order rice portions that they can finish, thereby reducing rice wastage.

The Yale-NUS Student team, comprising (from left) Ryan Siew, Lindy Quek, Bryan Timothy and Wah Tzy Hyi

The project was undertaken in a Yale-NUS College module called the “Better Policy Lab”, in the second half of 2021. It was supervised by Assistant Professor Jean Liu, as well as mentors from the NUS Zero Waste Taskforce and Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment (MSE).

With the support and assistance of the NUS Campus Services Team and stallholders, the menu card was trialed at the Mixed Rice stalls in an experiment spanning four NUS canteens.

Identifying the problem

Before diving into the experiment, the student team first sought to better understand the food waste problems faced at NUS canteens, as a proxy for hawker centers in light of strict COVID-19 safe management measurements at the latter.

The students interviewed cleaning staff and examined the interiors of food waste bins to identify the food item(s) that was discarded frequently. Carbohydrates like rice and noodles were found to be frequently wasted, and hence the team then decided to focus their intervention around reducing rice waste at NUS canteens. They observed the behaviours of customers and stallholders at Mixed Rice stalls and found that customers simply ordered the default portion of rice. However, this default option was too much for some individuals, resulting in a lot of rice wasted.

The team then brainstormed possible ways to encourage customers to reduce their rice waste, of which the menu portion card emerged as the intervention strategy.

Drawing inspiration from bubble tea menu       

The menu cards that bubble tea stalls use to visualise sugar level and drink size options served as the inspiration for the student team’s intervention design. “The bubble tea idea came from one of our meetings with Prof Liu, when we were discussing possible solutions to the problem,” said Bryan. “We had other ideas like changing default rice bowl sizes, but after comparing the alternatives, the menu card stood out to us.”

“The customer will not likely order a drink that is too sweet or too large for them, which means fewer unfinished drinks are discarded,” said Ryan. “Likewise, customers viewing the rice level menu card will less likely order rice portions that they can’t finish, hence reducing wastage.”

The team also noted that servers at bubble tea stalls habitually ask customers to choose their desired sugar level and drink size when placing their orders, such that customers become inclined to do so without additional prompting. The team’s menu card was intended to cue customers towards such a behaviour for rice orders. On top of the menu card, the students encouraged the NUS Mixed Rice stallholders to actively ask customers about their desired rice level, to establish a norm for requesting rice levels.

“Since our strategy had been tried-and-tested by bubble tea franchises, I was excited to see it applied in a new and meaningful way,” said Ryan.

The final version of the team’s menu card came in the form of a brightly-coloured laminated cutout, featuring a digitally-drawn rice bowl with two different rice level options for customers to choose from—75% (Less Rice) and 100% (Normal). The menu card was captioned with the slogan, “Let Us Know What Rice Level!” and displayed prominently at the Mixed Rice stall fronts.

The menu card displayed at the Mixed Rice stall in Techno Edge Canteen

Takeaways from the project

To determine the effectiveness of their proposed intervention the team observed customer orders at Mixed Rice stalls across four different NUS canteens, between September and October 2021. After observing more than 4000 orders over three weeks, the team identified that the presence of the menu card had an impact in nudging people to order less rice. The results of the statistical analysis were promising: customers that viewed the menu cards were significantly more likely to ask for “less rice” compared to before the menu cards were implemented.

The team was heartened by the promising results of the trials and acquired invaluable learning points. For Lindy, the project not only honed her applied research skills in psychology, but also brought home the importance of change management and stakeholder engagement in community-based initiatives.

“This has been an immersive learning experience for me, applying behavioural science concepts that I learnt in class to a familiar real-life setting, and collaborating with different stakeholders to develop and test our intervention,” said Lindy. “We faced many challenges—busy staff, confused customers, our own conflicting schedules, complex data analysis methods–and I’m proud of how we pushed on, adapted and got useful findings! My fondest memory is having meals with the cleaning staff and stallholders after peak hours, understanding their concerns and thanking them for helping with our project. This turned out to increase their compliance to our intervention! It highlighted to me the importance of making intentional, thoughtful social connections to successfully implement public policy projects like this.”

To Ryan, the encouraging results of the project demonstrated that a simple and cost-effective nudge for rice portions could be effective in changing rice ordering behaviour. “My biggest learning point is that small tweaks can lead to behavioural changes, even at the level of public policy,” he said. “I’m interested to see how the menu card for rice levels works in larger community at hawker centres and food courts, beyond NUS campus.”

Next steps

Assistant Prof Liu emphasised the broader vision of this project,“This has been  an elegant showcase of how we can derive simple solutions through an understanding of human behaviour. Moving forward, we hope to change the norms of rice ordering in Singapore.”

Mr Sng Jin Soon, Director for Campus Services, expressed his appreciation at the project for yielding a simple solution to not only appreciate every grain of rice, but also to effectively ‘internalise’ that food waste reduction must be the next step in the pursuit of food sustainability. This change in norms can start from within NUS. By the end of 2022, NUS’s Campus Services Team hopes to roll out an enhanced menu card for rice-serving stalls acrossmore NUS canteens and food courts.

Enhanced menu card indicating rice level options

Meanwhile, the next time you go to a hawker centre, food court or canteen, remember to do the same, and tell the stall owners what rice level you want!

Find out more from the report prepared by the student team.