The law-enforced 5p charge on plastic bags being introduced in England tomorrow may alter our wider consumer mindset
From tomorrow, 5th October, England will finally introduce a charge for plastic carrier bags.
All large supermarkets will legally be required to charge 5p per bag as part of the UK government’s environmental push to reduce the use of single-use plastic bags, and encourage the use of re-usable bags or “bags for life”. Similar laws have been in place in Wales since 2011, Northern Ireland since 2013 and Scotland since 2014.
The success has been dramatic. A Welsh government review found 71 per cent less plastic bags being used in Wales in 2015 compared to the same period in 2011, before the charge was introduced. In Scotland, large supermarkets like ASDA and Morrisons reported similar reductions of 80 to 90 per cent in the quantity of plastic bags used by consumers.
Aside from its objective success in changing our behaviour from a “throw-away” mindset to a more environmentally conscious one, the initiative raises interesting issues about how to influence human behaviour.
The Zero Price Effect
Why does such a small charge of 5p have such a big impact on our behaviour? If the average shopper uses four plastic bags in their weekly grocery shop, they only spend an extra 20p per week. Yet this amount is big enough to cause us to shift from our life-long habit of using previously free, single-use plastic bags, to remembering to bring a reusable bag each time we visit the supermarket.
The answer may lie in the effect a free product has on our minds. Marketers have long exploited the powerful effect that the word “FREE” has on us, for example, by offering us “buy one get one FREE” deals to encourage us to buy more. If a retailer wants to increase the sales of an add-on product worth £4 by discounting it to £2, a pricing strategy of £10 for the initial item plus £2 for the add-on is not advised. Instead, a £12 item “plus FREE add-on” will be significantly more effective in getting sales. The word “FREE” implies our purchase has no negative side, only an upside. It influences us on an emotional level. We are receiving something in return for nothing. In behavioural economics, this is known as the Zero Price Effect.
The case of plastic bags is the Zero Price Effect in reverse. An item that was previously free is now only available for a charge. We can’t bear the thought of paying 5p for something we used to get for free, so we are prepared to change our behaviour. However, this only works when a price of “zero” is involved. If tomorrow the price of our regular pint of milk is increased from 45p to 50p, we may grumble at the minor extra cost, but we are unlikely to switch en masse to alternative brands, or stop drinking milk altogether. Thus, the gap between 5p and 0p is psychologically far greater than the gap between 50p and 45p, and we are therefore significantly more motivated to change our behaviour when FREE is involved.
Questioning forces us to think
A second mechanism contributing to the success of the 5p plastic bag charge is the new question we are asked at the checkout every time we do our grocery shopping: “how many bags would you like to use?” Previously, we never had to think twice about how many plastic bags to use – after all, they were free. The environmentally conscious among us may have voluntarily considered using fewer bags, but the vast majority of us would use as much as we like. Now we are faced with a choice.
A field study by an Argentinian psychologist attempts to quantify this effect and suggests that, as well as the economic incentive of wanting to avoid the tax-like plastic bag charge, our behavioural change is also influenced by the mere fact that we have to consider the options of using two, three or four-plus bags at the checkout.
“After the introduction of the plastic bag charge, customers had to explicitly approve or request to obtain a bag and pay for it,” reports the study. In other words, we had to think before acting. The thought of changing our behaviour would not have crossed our minds before we were asked the question.
Visible doesn’t always mean significant
By introducing this charge, the UK government intends to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill sites. It is staggering that in England alone, it is estimated that 7.6 billion single-use plastic bags were used in 2014. This is equivalent to an average of 140 bags per person, per year.
However, reducing our plastic bag usage doesn’t necessarily mean we are reducing the overall waste we generate. In fact, it is not even making a dent. England produces approximately 22 million tonnes of household waste each year. The government expects that the new 5p charge will prevent approximately 61,000 tonnes of plastic bags being disposed of annually. That is under 0.3 per cent of the total.
Surely there are bigger streams of household waste we should be tackling? Most definitely, yes. However, human behaviour is not all about what is factually significant. The visibility of plastic bags in day-to-day life, from grocery stores to our homes to litter on the street, means there is immense psychological value in tackling them. Encouraging us to use plastic bags more wisely may positively influence our behaviour towards the use of other finite resources, and shift our mentality away from a throw-away culture. Maybe 5p really can change the world.
Image from: http://www.scotsman.com/news/environment/scots-use-130m-fewer-plastic-bags-after-5p-charge-1-3839752
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