Charge for Use or Nudge to Reuse? Suggestions for Policy Interventions to Discourage Plastic Consumption

>>>Charge for Use or Nudge to Reuse? Suggestions for Policy Interventions to Discourage Plastic Consumption

By Gauri Chandra
 
 
Over the past decade or so the perception around plastic bags has gradually shifted from a tolerated nuisance to a widely discourage vice. Traditionally, single-use plastic carry bags (SUCBs), commonly made from low-density polyethylene plastic, have been given to customers free of cost when purchasing goods in stores. It comes as no surprise then that the introduction of a mandatory charge of as little as 5 pence per bag in England instigated strong reactions from the consumers.

While some thought that they could ignore it . . .

others developed new, rather innovative strategies to avoid the charge.

(for those curious, this is a ‘bagket’ – a vest jacket with 22 pockets)

Charging a fee for single-use plastic carry bags is a common policy adopted by several governments worldwide to discourage plastic consumption. England was rather behind in jumping on this bandwagon, and only introduced a 5p charge per bag for all large shops starting 5 October 2015. Since the introduction of this scheme, the use of SUCBs has declined by over 80 per cent in England. However, while this policy has shown positive results initially, there is substantial literature to cast doubt on its long-term effectiveness.

Over time the decline in the use of plastic bags is expected to spring back up as the initial shock of the charge wears off and individuals get accustomed to the fee. This phenomenon is termed as the ‘Rebound Effect. It has been observed particularly in the cases of Ireland, Italy and South Africa, where governments were compelled to increase the charge after every few years to maintain low levels of bag use. Furthermore, a fee can sometimes crowd out the emotion of guilt in the consumers for purchasing the plastic bag, thereby reducing their sense of moral responsibility toward the environment.

What are the alternatives?

Short of everyone adopting a ‘bagket’ (see image 2 above) as daily attire, it is indeed a challenge to ensure that consumers carry their own bag to the store when they go shopping. Ideally, we need a policy intervention that brings about a behavioural change in consumers and simultaneously keeps their intrinsic motivation to act environment-friendly ways intact.

With this aim in mind, I designed and subsequently tested two non-monetary interventions to nudge consumers to bring their own bag to the store. As part of my study, I conducted a controlled experiment at the London School of Economics Behavioural Research Lab. A sample of 226 participants was randomly divided amongst different subject conditions and asked to complete a grocery shopping task on their computer screens. They were informed that five winners would be randomly selected from the participant pool. The winners would get the opportunity to collect their selected grocery items amounting up to £30, from a store on the university campus, free of cost. After adding items to their basket, the participants were presented with the choice of bringing their own carry bag to the store or taking/purchasing a plastic bag. At this stage, the interventions were introduced. The interventions across the six subject conditions, as well as the result of the experiment, are explained in the table below:

Subject Condition (SC)

Intervention

Question Framing

Percent Bag-Takers

SC1 Control Condition.

No charge for the bag.

“Would you need a plastic bag to carry your shopping home?”
a) Yes, I’d need a plastic bag from the store;
b) No, I’ll be carrying my own bag to the store”
38.2%
SC2 Question mimics the current framing used in grocery stores across England.

5p charge for the bag.

No Non-Monetary Intervention

“Please note that there will be a charge of 5p for every plastic bag that you purchase from the store.
How many plastic bags would you need to carry your shopping?
a) None, I will carry my own bag to the store;
b) One Bag;
c) Two Bags;
d) Three Bags”.
16.2%
SC3 Non-monetary intervention: Yes/No format

5p charge for the bag.

“Please note that there will be a charge of 5p for every plastic bag that purchased from the store.
Will you be bringing your own bag to the store to carry your shopping?
a) Yes, I will bring my own bag to the store;
b) No, I will need plastic bags from the store”
5.7%
SC4 Non-monetary intervention: Choosing option b generates special receipt with sticker.

No charge for the bag

“You could bring your own bag or take a plastic bag from the store. What do you choose?
a) I will need a plastic bag;
b) I will bring my own bag.”
32.4%
SC5 Question mimics the current framing used in grocery stores across England.

No charge for the bag.

“How many plastic bags would you need to carry your shopping?

a) None, I will carry my own bag to the store;
b) One Bag;
c) Two Bags;
d) Three Bags”.

62.9%
SC6 Non-monetary intervention: Yes/No format

No charge for the bag

Will you be bringing your own bag to the store to carry your shopping?
a) Yes, I will bring my own bag to the store;
b) No, I will need plastic bags from the store”.
17.1%

 
 
It was observed that a simple change in the framing of the question sparked changes in behaviour. For example, getting participants to respond to the question ‘Will you be bringing your own bag to the store? – Yes/ No” in SC6 had a stronger effect on nudging them to bring their own bag (only 17.14% opted to take a plastic bag from the store) than the question “How many plastic bags would you need?” in SC5 (62.85% of the respondents opted for taking plastic bags). In fact, participants that were exposed to the former question with a binary ‘Yes/No’ response option, were found to be just as likely to bring their own bag to the store, as the participants who faced a charge of five pence per plastic bag in SC2. This was found using a Z-statistic test, which revealed an insignificant difference between the proportion of bag takers in the two conditions.

This effect can be explained as a desire amongst individuals to say yes, and to adopt the yes behaviour.

Crowding out guilt

An analysis of the feelings of guilt reported by participants during the experiment showed that those who opted to take a plastic bag after paying five pence experienced lower levels of guilt on average than participants who chose to take the plastic bags free of charge. This result provides support for the theory that money crowds out emotion (in our case, specifically that of guilt). Further, it is argued that paying money for plastic carry bags can be perceived as a market exchange, potentially leading to the erosion of individuals’ intrinsic motivation to act in environment-friendly ways.

These findings are also in line with prominent academic studies that show erosion of intrinsic motivation with the introduction of a monetary intervention.

 What about the externalities?

In the words of Dolan and Galizzi, we must ‘capture all ripples of a behaviour when a pebble of intervention is thrown in the pond’. Thus, I tested for the spillover effect of the interventions on two other behaviours associated with being environment-friendly – energy conservation (turning off the lights while leaving the room) and recycling waste (throwing trash in the recycling bin instead of thegeneral waste bin). It was found the participants subjected to non-monetary interventions to have a higher score on each of the two behaviours observed, thereby indicating a positive spillover effect.

The findings from this study, corroborated by results from its large-scale implementation in actual stores, could have a strong bearing on upcoming policy as well as management practices to achieve and sustain low levels of plastic consumption.

 

This study was carried out by Gauri Chandra as part of her Masters’ Dissertation, under the supervision of Professor Amitav Chakravarti, at the LSE. The full paper can be accessed here.

Gauri Chandra

Gauri Chandra

Research Assistant at Marshall Institute, London School of Economics
Gauri Chandra works as a Research Assistant at the Marshall Institute, London School of Economics. She is endlessly fascinated by human behaviour and hopes to use the power of behavioural science to bring positive change in the world.
Gauri Chandra
By |2018-03-01T14:13:32+00:00February 28th, 2018|

2 Comments

  1. Adam March 8, 2018 at 7:59 pm - Reply

    One option that hasn’t been tried yet: require the addition of a mild skin irritant (such as capsaicin) to all plastic bags.

    This will provide a reason for people to avoid the using the bags and (more importantly) the “cost” of each used bag will linger for much longer than a small line item on the receipt.

  2. D'Anthony Chatsko June 23, 2018 at 4:06 pm - Reply

    Perhaps the 5p fee for the bags is too small to “nudge” consumers away from usage. Would an increase to 10p matter? Perhaps a fee of 25p would make a larger impact.

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