Does the carrier bag charge make us more green?

Why does charging for carrier bags encourage environmentally-friendly behaviour, but other initiatives do not? This is the question being posed here by Lorraine Whitmarsh, Professor of Environmental Psychology in the School of Psychology, Cardiff University and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

You can also read this article in this month’s Society Now magazine, which is out later this week.

Lorraine Whitmarsh

Latest figures show that in less than a year, the English carrier bag charge has led to reductions in single-use carrier bags of around 80 per cent. This is similar to reductions achieved in other countries, including Wales (90 per cent), Scotland (80 per cent) and Northern Ireland (72 per cent), where similar charges have been implemented.Not only has this policy been extremely effective in changing its target behaviour, it has proven popular with the public – no doubt partly because the money raised goes to charity; but it also seems to be because most people believe action should be taken to address environmental issues, like marine pollution.

But public concern about environmental issues doesn’t typically translate into environmentally-friendly behaviour. The so-called ‘attitude-behaviour’ gap is well-known in this area – most people say they are concerned about the environment, but are reluctant to act accordingly. pablo (13)

So, why does charging as little as 5p for a carrier bag apparently work to get people to bring their own bags to the shops?

It seems the amount charged doesn’t really matter. Rather, the charge works because it disrupts habits. Without a charge, we typically take a new carrier bag without thinking about it. Habits are notoriously difficult to change and providing information alone tends to make little difference. But changing economic, physical or social conditions are likely to make us reassess our options and act differently. A carrier bag charge works because it forces people to think about whether they want a new bag or not. Unlike economic measures, like subsidies, which may be embedded within prices, the carrier bag charge is a separate and visible transaction, the purpose of which is well understood by consumers.

A carrier bag charge could act as a ‘foot in the door’ for broader lifestyle change

Critics of the charge ask how much impact reusing carrier bags has in the grand scheme of environmental problems. Carrier bags only make up 2 per cent of household waste, but they are a significant problem for marine wildlife and regularly washed up on beaches or discarded in the streets as litter.

pablo (14)

Neverthless, if we are to make a real dent in the amount of waste going to landfill or to rising carbon emissions, much more significant lifestyle changes are needed. Insulating our homes, reducing travel and eating less meat make a much bigger difference in the fight against climate change – but these behaviours are much harder to change. So, how can we move people beyond ‘simple and painless’ behaviours, like recycling or reusing carrier bags, to these more ambitious, impactful actions?

One tantalising suggestion is that a carrier bag charge could act as a ‘foot in the door’ for broader lifestyle change, by getting people to think differently about themselves. People like to act consistently with their self-image, so if doing something ‘green’ makes them feel they are a ‘green person’, this may have knock-on effects for other green choices.

pablo (15)This idea of ‘behavioural spillover’ is being explored in several projects at Cardiff University. So far, findings suggest a carrier bag charge may actually work to suppress behavioural spillover to other green behaviours, like using public transport, probably because it is externally motivated. In other words, people reuse bags to avoid paying, rather than because they care about the environment (i.e., an intrinsic motivation).

These findings, like those from values research, suggest framing green actions as being financially sensible may work against promoting ambitious low-carbon lifestyle change because it encourages self-interest. Rather, appealing to people’s desire to be green or waste-conscious, or stressing community benefits, may work better. Of course, achieving lifestyle change commensurate with the scale of the climate change challenge will take concerted and wide-ranging action by all societal actors. Reusing carrier bags is a step in the right direction, but now we need to apply our understanding of habits and motivation – along with other factors that drive and constrain behaviour – in order to achieve more ambitious lifestyle change.

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