Single-use plastic bags in supermarkets were charged as per the law implemented by England earlier in October 2015. Immensely supported by the population, the charge resulted in a considerable reduction in the usage of plastic bags, and expedited a broader support for analogous measures focused on dealing with plastic waste.
A mixed-method longitudinal study performed by international researchers established the extent to which the UK people accepted this policy initiative, and also ascertained whether they were willing to lend their support to other similar environmental charges. The study results have been reported in the journal, Frontiers in Psychology.
Since their introduction in the 1980s in the United Kingdom, single-use plastic carrier bags have turned out to be a standard aspect of shopping. In fact, in 2014, the UK supermarket shoppers used more than 8.5 billion plastic bags, which generated about 58,000 metric tons of plastic waste. In order to reduce the pollution generated by plastic bags, the UK’s local governments began to levy a compulsory five pence (US$0.06/€0.06) charge to all customers for each single-use plastic carrier bag provided by retailers. The cash thus obtained from this charge is generally sent to numerous charity projects associated with social care and environmental protection. Such a policy was introduced by Scotland in 2014, Northern Ireland in 2013, and Wales in 2011. Consequently, the usage of single-use plastic bags decreased by around 80%, and the public developed a new routine of bringing their own shopping bags to stores.
In the meantime, the reasons behind the achievement of the plastic bag charge in changing consumers’ behavior continued to be slightly unclear. A few researchers considered the charge as an economic instrument, while others believed that five pence is an insignificant amount, which, in addition to improving awareness among consumers, can act as a catalyst for decreasing the automatic habit of using the single-use plastic bags.
In an effort to check both theories, a research team from Cardiff University, UK, and HSE University, Russia performed the first longitudinal study to examine the effects of the bag charge on changing consumers’ behavior.
The study involved three parts—a longitudinal survey study; a longitudinal interview study, as well as a longitudinal observational study, all of which were performed prior to the introduction of the plastic bag charge in October 2015 in England and following its introduction.
The longitudinal survey was performed in three phases among respondents from Scotland, Wales, and England. In September 2015, the first stage was initiated that involved more than 3,000 people, among which 1,802 were from England. Then, the second stage was initiated in November 2015, that is, a month following the introduction of the bag charge. Around 2,000 people responded in the survey. In April 2016, the final survey was conducted which involved 1,230 participants, with 728 respondents being from England, 231 from Scotland, and 271 from Wales.
Three questions interested the investigators. The first was how often plastic bags are used by people? The responses were evaluated on a five-point scale, from 1 being Never to 5 being Always. Second, whether the bag charge policy is supported by people, and third, whether the people are willing to lend their support to other analogous policies to cut down the environmental pollution: a) a 5p charge contributed to the purchase of products packaged in plastic and also plastic water bottles; b) raising the fuel duties for diesel and petrol so as to lower the amount of emissions created by burning motor fuel. For such kinds of policies, people can demonstrate their support on a five-point scale ranging from 1 (Strongly oppose) to 5 (Strongly support). In addition, the team gathered data on the socioeconomic status of respondents.
Two stages were involved in the longitudinal interviews. The first stage occurred in September 2015, one month prior to the introduction of the charge on single-use plastic bags, and involved 52 participants. In November 2015, the second round of interviews was performed in which 43 participants from Scotland, Wales, and England were interviewed.
Again, the investigators were keen on the same three topics:
- whether the people’s attitudes to the charge varied before and after its introduction
- whether the usage of plastic bags in England varied before and after the introduction of the charge
- whether the people’s attitudes to other comparable environmental charges varied before and after the introduction
Longitudinal Observational Study
The longitudinal observational study was carried out at four different supermarkets located in Wales and England. The team watched shoppers who were exiting the supermarkets at different periods of time and recorded the number and type of bags they utilized.
The initial round of observations was performed in July 2015, when the English plastic bag charge was not implemented, but the Welsh carrier bag charge was already in effect. The next round was performed one year later in July 2016, when both charges were in effect. In total, as much as 3,764 shoppers were observed by the researchers—1,803 in England and 1,961 in Wales.
According to the survey results, the average frequency of the use of plastic bags reduced from ‘sometimes’ to ‘very rarely’. This result was confirmed by the observational study—48% of shoppers in England made use of single-use plastic bags prior to the introduction of the bag charge, while their share reduced to 17% in less than a year after the introduction of the charge. Based on the interviews, it was observed that all respondents either significantly reduced or fully discontinued the use of plastic bags. Furthermore, the interview data demonstrated that the charge served as a catalyst for decreasing the automatic habit of using plastic bags. According to a majority of respondents, it was not difficult to bring their own bags to stores and supermarkets, and now in terms of the use of plastic bags, they were more responsible. The age, gender, and income levels of the respondents did not have a major effect on the outcomes and nor did the socio-economic profile, location, or size of supermarkets. Such data demonstrate that the latest policy made a psychological impact more than an economic one.
The latest policy was seen as a sensible measure to cut down plastic waste, and was supported by representatives of different age, socio-economic groups, and gender. The results also demonstrated that the introduction of analogous charges on products in plastic packaging and also plastic bottles were supported by respondents. According to the respondents, a policy like that can possibly help in reducing plastic waste and contribute to an improved environment. In the interim, a majority of the respondents were not prepared to support an increase in fuel duties for diesel and petrol.
In spite of the fact that this initiative had comparable pro-environmental motives, the public believes that a policy like that would hurt the entire population (especially low-income groups) as well as businesses. According to them, governments must seek sustainable alternatives, like renewable energy sources, instead of increasing fuel taxes.