Why we should all welcome the 5p carrier bag tax..

... but is it the best way to achieve long-term behaviour change?

Today’s introduction of a compulsory 5p carrier bag levy is good news for environmentalists.

At Unpackaged, we really don’t mind admitting that we hate (yes, strong word) single use carrier bags and get pretty annoyed by the businesses that give them out without asking, but ultimately its great marketing for them so why would they stop? When the average use time for a plastic bag is about 20 minutes, but it takes 1,000 years to biodegrade, it’s simply financially and environmentally irresponsible to waste resources in this way.

It’s heartbreaking to see the great plastic soup in the Pacific, to know how many seabirds, fish and organisms in the sea are ingesting the broken down plastics; not even taking into account the fact that all this plastic is ultimately ending up in our food, with all the problems that poses for human health.

Today the English government has finally followed Wales (2011), Ireland (2013) & Scotland (2014) by introducing a levy in the hope of reducing the 8.5billion plastic bags used each year. Seriously – that’s about 23million a day in the UK – can you even imaging what that amounts to globally?

Businesses can decide what to do with the funds raised from the 5p levy – most are expected to donate monies to local or environmental charities. The levy is hoped to raise over 700 million pounds for good causes which, added to a potential 60m reduction in litter-picking costs and associated 13m carbon emissions savings, is good news all round. And especially good for the Government as the bags carry VAT meaning 1p for every bag goes to the Treasury.

Retailers will have to provide annual reports on the number of bags supplied, the monies raised and where the funds end up, so it will be fascinating to see how the big retailers stack up against each other in a year’s time – they’ll be simultaneously trying to show how few bags they gave out, but how much money they raised for good causes – because ultimately its designed to reflect well on them.

But, whereas the other nations introduced a blanket ban, our government seems to have made it insanely complicated. Various products are exempt, it only covers 0.007mm plastic bags (so not paper bags) and small retailers are exempt – which is crazy given that the Association of Convenience Stores and the Federation of Small Businesses show that their members want to be included – many of who will do the right thing and introduce it voluntarily. Our position is that it should have been all bags, all retailers. Wales and Scotland both report an average 80% reduction in disposable bag use since their taxes were implemented, but the complications and exemptions in England mean that the reduction is likely to be significantly less and play into the hands of those who oppose any government intervention.

We read a lot of packaging industry press and, unsurprisingly, the pro-plastic lobby are vociferous in their opposition to any ban, charge or government intervention. Typical arguments include the fact that thin plastic bags are resource efficient and have comparatively lower environmental impacts WHEN PROPERLY RE-USED AND RECYCLED but with the average house having a minimum of 40 bags stashed away, and only a fraction of supermarkets and local councils offering bag recycling, this argument just doesn’t stand up. And what do we want to do – put our efforts into educating consumers about recycling bags, or about reducing and re-using durable bags (i.e. the ultimate aim of the waste hierarchy)?

Whilst we recognize the reality that these are businesses that employ thousands of people who are trying to make a living, its time to move on. There is so much innovation to be had with sustainable design and materials – the packaging industry needs to lead on re-use solutions, inspired by circular economy thinking, for a resource-dwindling world, not try and maintain a status quo that no longer works.

The concept of a levy itself is interesting – plenty of studies have looked at ‘nudge’ economics and whether a ‘carrot/bonus’ or ‘stick/tax’ approach is most likely to yield results.  And this is what we really care about at Unpackaged – how to bring about long-term positive behaviour change.

A study by Tatiana Homonoff at Cornell University looked at retailers in Washington DC finding that a five-cent bag tax “significantly decreased plastic bag use, while a comparable policy offering five-cent bonuses for reusable bag use had negligible effects”. Traditional economics suggests shoppers should react, rationally, in the same way to a five-cent tax or bonus but behavioural economics shows that people “are affected more strongly by perceptions of loss than perceptions of gain” which is why a tax is more effective than a reward.

However, an interesting blog at The Conversative.com develops this argument suggesting that whilst “people modify their behaviour to avoid the stick…the underlying attitudes haven’t changed… fiscal disincentives for environmental issues… are inherently problematic as they do not address attitudes (the problem), they simply address behaviour (the symptom).”

The vision behind Unpackaged has always been to offer an alternative way to shop…

The reality is that refilling requires a different thought-process to convenience shopping, often for no immediate reward other than a knowledge of ‘doing the right thing’. Whilst shoppers save money by only buying the quantity they need, often the prices don’t work out cheaper compared to the supermarkets’ economies of scale (which is why our ultimate dream is to have an Unpackaged in every supermarket!) But, in behaviour change terms, it definitely works as we know that over 60% of our shoppers report shopping more sustainably in other shops because of their experience refilling with us and, with an average in-store refill rate of 80%, we know our shoppers really do want to refill, despite the challenges.

So we welcome England’s carrier bag tax, but we must remember it’s a very small step on a very long road to the real attitudinal change we need in the face of our global environmental challenges.