Which should come first, the carrot or the stick? Bag taxes actually change behavior.

Which should come first, the carrot or the stick? Bag taxes actually change behavior.

A fee at checkout for plastic bags is more motivating than a reward for returning bottles.

Last night, I was driving home through our wooded neighborhood. As the car in front of me slowed down, I wondered why at first, then I saw the family of deer munching the grass in an open area near the road.

We’ve learned to slow down in our area, in case one of the deer runs into the road. Just a few feet down the road, I saw a white plastic shopping bag hanging from a branch about 20 feet in the air.

Those pesky things really do end up everywhere. They’re in creeks, roadsides and empty lots. And of course they don’t biodegrade. Every year, Americans use more than 100 billion of them, less than 1 percent of which are recycled.

San Francisco went so far as to ban the bags in 2007. Seattle, Los Angeles and Hawaii – the first and only state to do so – followed in 2012.

Back in 2009,  so many plastic bags were clogging up the Anacostia River as it flowed past Washington, D.C., that District residents voted for a 5 cent disposable bag tax, which took effect Jan. 1, 2010.

The effect on behavior was immediate: Before the law, stores gave away around 22.5 million bags each month. In January 2010, that number dropped to 3 million.

The lion’s share of the money collected goes to the Anacostia Cleanup Fund. The irony of a successful sin tax is that, the better it works – that is, as consumers use fewer bags – the less revenue is collected. But no one is complaining. A lot fewer plastic bags are making their way into the Anacostia.

Lots of commentaries on “sin taxes” dismiss the power of a few pennies at checkout, citing studies about alcohol use, cigarette smoking and driving that show that a tax needs to hit a certain “pain level” to change behavior.

In fact, a charge for a disposable shopping bag presents a completely different behavioral scenario. At checkout, retailers know that pennies count. Shoppers love those coupons, and they are conditioned to panic at the thought of losing the “with card” savings if they’ve left their card in the car.

Likewise, there is strong motivation to avoid the 5 cents per bag charge. The charge is seen immediately. It’s completely avoidable. And – unlike alcohol, cigarettes or a family trip – the shopper derives no benefit whatsoever from the bags, and he or she is reminded of this while crunching up the bags and stuffing them in a trash can or recycling bin after putting away the groceries.

This is the “stick” approach: You get a punishment of sorts for using the disposable bags. It is a completely different from the “carrot” approach of bottle bills, in which shoppers pay a 5 cent deposit on bottles and cans of soda and beer at checkout, then have the opportunity to return the bottles and cans and be rewarded by getting that 5 cents back.

The 5 cents paid at checkout is a given. There is nothing the shopper can do about it. So the motivation of the bottle bills comes from rewarding the good behavior of returning the bottles.

While the nickels of punishment at checkout are immediate and real enough to shape behavior, the nickels of reward for gathering up the bottles and taking them back to the store are distant and abstract. They require effort that a person often calculates and decides “isn’t worth it.”

A few years ago, on a July 5 morning in Massachusetts, one of only 10 states to have bottle bills, I came upon the remains of a July 4 beach party.

Those remains included dozens of empty cans of Natural Light, along with a dozen or so still in their box, unopened. I realized that the youngsters probably weighed the other activities available to them that evening, and deemed it “not worth it” to gather up the cans and take them back to the package store.  (That haul brought in close to $8.)

My observation as a jogger is that the promise of that 5 cent reward is not enough even to keep many motorists from tossing bottles and cans out their windows.

Nor – sad to say – it is enough to compel many of my grown siblings at family get-togethers to remember to put empty beer and soda bottles and cans in the return boxes rather than throwing them in the trashcan. It helped a little to put a sign on a return bin saying we took the bottles and cans to the battered women’s shelter, where the folks were happy to get the 5 cent returns.

Nonetheless, as reported by Shelton Insights writer Meghan McDonald in a companion article to this one, bottle bills do elicit many returns, they do increase the percentage of bottles gathered for recycling, and they do help to cut down the litter. In a nice way.

Bag taxes, on the other hand – like stern Sister Borgnine from sixth grade – are not so nice and a lot more effective.

Right now a state senator in Pennsylvania is introducing a 2 cent bag tax. Though New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was unsuccessful a few years ago, he’d like to try it again. Many other states are thinking about it.

In Oregon, AT&T has launched its “Skip the Bag” campaign, in which it will donate 10 cents to the Nature Conservancy for each checkout bag its retail store customers choose to forgo. This carrot approach will probably get the same pretty good response from motivated people that bottle bills do.


Posted on

September 4, 2013

About the Author

Brooks Clark

Brooks is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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