Behavior Change and Plastic Bag Legislation

plastic bag nightmare 006

plastic bag nightmare 006 (Photo credit: Zainub)

Baltimore is one of a growing number of U.S. cities considering either imposing a tax on plastic bags, or banning them outright. Baltimore City Council has been debating the issue for almost 10 years now, most recently proposing adding a 10 cent tax. If the tax passes, Baltimore will join around 100 communities nationwide that have banned plastic disposable bags or banned them outright. But what would happen if this bill passed?

The Environment

Bag the Ban, a campaign to stop the taxes and bans nationwide that is run and paid for by a bag recycling company, claims that 90% of plastic bags are actually reused by consumers for other household purposes. Yet, in Chicago, which recently passed a ban on the bags, it is estimated that 3-5% of the 3.7 million plastic bags that are used daily, which translates into around 150,000 bags daily, end up as litter in storm drains or landfills. In Washington, D.C., where a 5 cent tax has been in place since 2010, a recent survey found that 80 per cent of residents reported behavioral change in the use of plastic bags, a very significant number. If the tax went through in Baltimore, around $1.5 million is expected to be raised in the first year, which would go towards cleaning up the city’s parks, streams and harbor.

The Cost of Doing Business

Business that are against the tax say that it would raise the cost of doing business, as they would have to offer paper bags, which are significantly more expensive. They argue that this increased cost of business would only raise prices for customers, hurting low income families. To address these concerns, the proposed bill in Baltimore would let businesses and merchants keep 3 of the 10 cents per bag to cover increased administrative costs. One would think this might make businesses and consumers angry, but in Washington, D.C. a study found that only 8 per cent of businesses and 16 per cent of residents reported negative feelings about the law.

Behavioral Change and the Bigger Picture

There is clear evidence that a tax on plastic bags would change the way people behave and result in decreased use of plastic bags. But, Baltimore City Council President Bernard “Jack” Young, who is against the bill, says that this is not going to clean up the bay, that it is a people problem around the behavior of littering; the bags themselves are not the problem, but the fact that people throw them away without caring. While the tax would be a move in the right direction, Councilman Young hints at the bigger issue of changing the way people behave and interact with their environment. Getting people to change the way they think about energy consumption and use is something that behavioral scientists have struggled with in the climate change community for quite some time. The difficulty is to translate financial incentives or disincentives and increased knowledge into actual behavioral change and energy conservation. One of the hardest areas to get people to change their behavior is around household energy use. Financial incentives often prove unpopular with retrofitting and saving money around heating and cooling. People simply fail to see the long term benefits or fail to be motivated by such small incentives as saving a couple of dollars a month on heating and cooling homes. But good work is being done to figure out what exactly is needed to get people to change the way they think about their environment and behave. This has been figured out for plastic bags, but there is still a long way to go. For more information:

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James McComas

I bring a background in researching and writing to the Campaign Consultation team for my role as Administrative and Project Assistant. Prior to joining Campaign Consultation, I was a research intern for BUS 52, a year-long project which sought out organizations and individuals across the continental United States who worked to positively change their communities in innovative ways. I also assisted a journalist researching climate change issues. Read more.

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