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Waste Reduction

The carrier bag fee of 5p has opened the door to other policies for waste reduction

In an effort to reduce the use of plastic bags, England introduced a five-penny charge on them almost a year back.

In 2014 alone, British supermarkets used 8 billion single-use bags. It is estimated that 58,000 tons of plastic were used in 2014, with most of it ending up as litter on roads or in waterways. This has clear environmental implications: Synthetic plastic bags take hundreds of years to decompose, while those that block drainage and waterways have an immediate impact on wildlife.

The use of these substances is a growing problem, and governments around the globe have attempted to reduce it through mandatory charges or bans. But have these strategies been successful?

According to our research, the five-penny charge is effective at reducing the use of plastic bags across the nation. It has also prompted people to think about the environment, and, as a consequence, they are more supportive of environmental policies.

Popular policy
The public is in favor of mandatory bag charges, as they believe that reducing their use will benefit the environment. Frank Convery, an economist with colleagues at the University of Oxford, has called the Irish plastic bag tax “the most popular tax in Europe.” The “plastax”, they say, is so popular that it would be politically damaging to remove it.

In the UK, the environment is a policy area that has been devolved to the regions. As a result, regional governments introduced charges in different ways over the last five years. Wales introduced a five-penny bill for single-use carrier bags in October 2011. Northern Ireland followed in April 2013 and Scotland in Oct 2014. In October 2015, England introduced its bill for single-use plastic carrier bags sold by major retailers.

Plastic bag usage in England has fallen by almost 80% over the past year. sumire8/
Plastic bag charges are a great example of how devolution is an opportunity to test policies in one area of the UK before rolling them out elsewhere. The UK is a natural laboratory that can be used to test policies. This idea was used to investigate how the English plastic-bag charge changed shopper behavior. We asked participants to write a journal and then interviewed them on their shopping habits. Also, we observed shoppers exiting supermarkets. This was done before and after England introduced the plastic bag fee. We then compared results in Wales and Scotland, where the charge had already been implemented.

We found that the charge was very effective. After the order, the majority of English supermarket shoppers (57%) stopped using single-use bags. This is the same as the level in Wales (18%). After the policy was implemented, most shoppers switched from single-use plastic to reusable “bags of life.”

The speed of the change was astonishing. One month after the introduction, the use of plastic bags in England and Wales was virtually identical. How did this small charge have such an impact on changing behavior?

Charge ahead
The plastic bag tax is often seen as an economic tool. That is an incentive for incorporating environmental costs into household budgets. We found that people altered their behavior to avoid the charge. If they had paid it, this would have led them to increase their spending. The cost was a “habit-disruptor” for most people. Many shoppers forgot to bring their bag to the store before its implementation. The charge caused people to stop and consider the waste they were creating and whether or not they needed a single-use bag.

Also, it appears that the plastic bag charge becomes more popular once they are introduced. In England, 52% of people supported the plastic bag charge before its introduction, but support increased to 60% a month later. In 2011 Wales, a similar effect was observed. People became more positive because it was easy to adapt to this charge. People quickly developed new routines, such as storing bags in the trunk of their car to remind them to go to the supermarket.

Other unexpected effects also occurred: people became more supportive not only of a charge for plastic bags after experiencing it, but they were also more supportive of charges that reduce waste. The support for a hypothetical water bottle charge increased in the UK from 34% up to 40%. Those who changed their mind about the plastic bag fee also changed their minds about other charges.

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Jane S. King

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