Saving our planet; one bag at a time

November 12, 2008

Carrying a plastic bag is now socially unacceptable–on a par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after one’s dog.

An article today by Linda Stamato talks about how New York and New Jersey are examining the possibility of taxing bags. Her article talks about effectively this has worked in Ireland, where plastic bags were not outlawed, but carrying them became socially unacceptable–on a par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after one’s dog.

Social pressures of this nature, that reflect on an individual’s own public image and eventually their self-image can be one of the most powerful and effective means of influencing behaviour.

Here’s the article which I have reproduced from the NJ.Com website

The move is on in New York City to save the environment by eliminating plastic bags. By taxing plastic into oblivion, the mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, is following the lead of many European countries. If he prevails, NYC will become one of the first places in the United States to use a fee to encourage the use of alternative, non-disposable bags at the supermarket and pharmacy. He isn’t alone by the way; there are proposals to assess “plastic bag taxes” pending in Seattle, Los Angeles and Dallas.

Can New Jersey be far behind?

Bloomberg is proposing that a six cent fee be charged (one cent to the store; five cents to the city) for each and every plastic bag. Officials estimate that the fee could generate $16 million a year for the City, but, of course, the idea is not to raise money, it is to change behaviour.

This ubiquitous symbol of urban life, the plastic shopping bag, has all but disappeared in Ireland, or so Elisabeth Rosenthal reported from Dublin some months back in the New York Times. Rosenthal observed that within weeks of the imposition of a 33 cent per bag tax, collected at store cash registers, plastic bag use dropped 94 percent. And, within a year, nearly everyone had bought reusable cloth bags, keeping them in offices and in the backs of cars. Plastic bags were not outlawed, but carrying them became socially unacceptable–on a par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after one’s dog.

To put a finer point on this, consider the following from the president of who founded the company five years ago to promote the issue: ‘Using cloth bags had been seen as an extreme act of a crazed environmentalist… But, now, we see it as something a smart, progressive person would carry.’

In Ireland, that purpose has been accomplished.

So, the lesson on the one hand is this: Charge an unacceptable fee for a practice, a service, a product, and people won’t buy it. If substitutes are available–if alternatives can be used–they will be. Imposing an unacceptable charge, then, can change behavior.

There is a second lesson. Attaching values to an action can reinforce the policy and the behaviour the policy seeks to encourage. Using plastic bags has become something one simply does not do.

So, here we are. On two compelling counts, price and social acceptability (derived from sound economic and environmental values), we may find that the imposition of a fee alters behaviour.

It may take some more time, but, as far as I can see, voluntary efforts get us just so far. Creating incentives to discourage folks from engaging in environmentally harmful practices seems to be the way to go. And, for good measure, while we’re getting there, state coffers can use the funds generated by fees to get us there.

1 Comment »

  1. Hi,

    I am happy someone cares so much about the environment and promotes it through a website. Hope the world realizes its not too late before we suffocate on plastic.


    Comment by Suparna — January 8, 2009 @ 8:46 pm

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