In October 2015, England introduced a charge for single-use plastic bags in supermarkets. The charge was largely supported by the population, led to substantial reduction in plastic bag use, and catalyzed a wider support for similar measures aimed at tackling plastic waste.
An international research team, including Elena Sautkina from the Higher School of Economics, has conducted a mixed-methods longitudinal study and determined the extent to which British people approved of this policy initiative, and whether they were ready to support other environmental charges. The results were published in Frontiers in Psychology.
In the UK, single-use plastic carrier bags have become a common feature of shopping since their introduction in the 1980s. In 2014, over 8.5 billion plastic bags were used by UK supermarket shoppers, which produced around 58,000 metric tons of plastic waste. To decrease the pollution caused by plastic bags, local governments in the UK started to introduce a mandatory five pence (US$0.06/€0.06) charge to customers for each single-use plastic carrier bag issued by retailers. The money collected from this charge is usually directed to various charity projects related to environmental protection and social care. Wales introduced this policy in 2011, Northern Ireland in 2013, and Scotland in 2014. As a result, the usage of single-use plastic bags has fallen by about 80%, and people have formed a new habit of bringing their own bags to stores.
Meanwhile, the reasons behind the success of the bag charge in changing consumers’ behavior remained somewhat unclear. Some researchers regarded the charge as an economic instrument. Others considered that five pence is a nominal amount, which, by simply making consumers more aware, is a catalyst for reducing the automatic habit of single-use bag use.
In order to check both hypotheses, a team of researchers representing Cardiff University, United Kingdom, and HSE University, Russia carried out the first longitudinal study of the impacts of the bag charge on consumer behavior.
The research had three components: a longitudinal survey study; a longitudinal interview study; and a longitudinal observational study, which were carried out before the introduction of the plastic bag charge in England (in October 2015) and after its introduction.
The longitudinal survey was carried out in three stages among respondents from England, Wales and Scotland. The first stage took place in September 2015, involving over 3,000 people, with 1,802 of them being from England. The second stage took place in November 2015, i.e. a month after the introduction of the bag charge. The number of respondents was about 2,000 people. The last survey was carried out in April 2016, with 1,230 participants. They included 728 respondents from England, 271 from Wales and 231 from Scotland.
The researchers were interested in three questions. First, how often people use plastic bags. The responses were assessed on a five-point scale ranging from 1 (Never) to 5 (Always). Second, whether they support the bag charge policy. And third, whether they are ready to support other similar policies to reduce the environmental pollution: a) a charge of 5p added to the purchase of plastic water bottles and products packaged in plastic; b) an increase in fuel duties for petrol and diesel in order to reduce the amount of emissions caused by burning motor fuel. People could indicate their support for these policies on a five-point scale from 1 (Strongly oppose) to 5 (Strongly support). The researchers also collected data on respondents’ socioeconomic status.
The longitudinal interviews were organized in two stages. The first stage took place in September 2015, a month before the introduction of the single-use plastic bag charge, with 52 participants. The second round of interviews was carried out in November 2015, with 43 participants from England, Wales and Scotland interviewed.
The researchers were interested in the same three topics:
- whether the bag use in England differed before and after the introduction of the charge;
- whether the attitudes to the charge differed before and after its introduction;
- whether the attitudes to other similar environmental charges differed before and after the introduction.
Longitudinal Observational Study
The observations were conducted at four different supermarkets in England and Wales. The researchers observed shoppers exiting the supermarkets at different time slots and recorded the type and number of bags used. The first round of observations was conducted in July 2015, when the Welsh carrier bag charge was already in effect, but the English plastic bag charge was not. The second round was conducted a year later, in July 2016, when both charges were in effect. A total of 3,764 shoppers were observed: 1,961 in Wales and 1,803 in England.
The results of the survey demonstrated that the average frequency of plastic bag use fell from ‘sometimes’ to ‘very rarely’. The observational study confirmed this result: before the introduction of the bag charge, 48% of shoppers in England used single-use plastic bags, while less than a year after the charge introduction, their share decreased to 17%. According to the interviews, all respondents either completely discontinued or considerably reduced the use of plastic bags. The interview data also showed that the charge acted as a catalyst for reducing the automaticity of the plastic bag use habit. Most respondents said that it was not difficult to start bringing their own bags to supermarkets, and that now they were more responsible in terms of plastic bag use.
The respondents’ gender, age, and income levels did not have a significant impact on the results. Nor did the size, location or socio-economic profile of supermarkets. This data shows that the new policy had not so much an economic, but rather a psychological impact.
Representatives of different age, gender and socio-economic groups saw the new policy as a reasonable measure to reduce plastic waste, and supported it. In addition, the results showed that respondents supported the introduction of similar charges on plastic bottles and products in plastic packaging. They thought that such a policy could lead to a reduction of plastic waste and environmental improvements. Meanwhile, most of the respondents were not ready to support an increase in taxes on petrol and diesel. Despite the fact that this initiative had similar pro-environmental motives, people thought that such a policy would hurt the whole population (particularly low-income groups) and businesses. They believed that, instead of raising fuel duties, governments should seek sustainable alternatives, such as renewable energy sources.