Has the single-use carrier bag charge succeeded in changing consumer behaviour, or are the retailers themselves reaping the rewards? In this blog, Nnamdi Madichie, Associate Academic in Business at the University of Derby Online, explores the impact of the levy.
In our recent study, Are retailers ‘bagging’ the carrier bag levy in England? An exploratory enquiry, we examined the business impact of the single-use carrier bag legislation in England requiring retailers to charge consumers.
We found that retailers are using the collected revenues to promote their image in the marketplace, presenting themselves as corporate socially responsible entities. The charge gives them an avenue for bolstering their carbon footprint as consumers are expected to reuse their plastic bags – the “bag for life” – as they now have to pay for them. At the same time, there is a risk that some retailers may be using the proceeds to shore-up their coffers.
How does the levy work?
The legislation states that there is a legal requirement on retailers with 250 employees or more (at a company rather than branch level) in England to charge 5p for all single-use plastic carrier bags.
The goal of the levy is to reduce the consumption of single-use plastic bags. It is hoped that paying for bags will cause customers to reuse them and reduce their impact on the environment. Shoppers can avoid the charge altogether by purchasing thicker, reusable ‘bags for life’ which can be exchanged for free when they wear out. In the long term, the UK government intends to roll out the plastic bag charge to all UK retailers, not just the big ones.
Since the levy is not a tax, the government does not collect it, but there is an expectation that retailers will give the proceeds to good causes. The government asks retailers to report the usage of the money in an annual summary. Between April 2016 and April 2017, for example, nearly two-thirds of retailers donated £66 million to good causes. Through these reports, the government and retailers can track the usage of plastic bags and the effectiveness of the charge.
A plastic-free future?
The levy is just a tax surcharge and nothing about changing consumer behaviour. And what’s more, UK Plc is reaping the rewards. What’s next remains the million-dollar question. As one recent article, Why can’t all plastic waste be recycled?, put it: “Could we just get rid of all plastic packaging?
Sadly, no. Some of it is considered unavoidable. Plastic prolongs the life of produce. It provides a barrier to bacteria, a film to lock in protective gas and a convenient waterproof layer. It would be difficult to imagine buying products like raw fish without it.”
But there are solutions – consumers can take their own reusable containers to shops, and retailers can use more recycled (and recyclable) materials. Considering that 2025 (the target date for the UK Plastics Pact) is a long way off when plastics are in food chains now, eliminating single-use materials is possible but it’s going to involve a consolidated approach – from businesses, government and society. Plastics are not a disposable commodity; they last hundreds of years in our environment and until now their true lifecycle cost has not been reflected in the price at the till.
Businesses are talking about the issue, but they need to innovate. The public could be forgiven for impatience over the lack of choice and commitment. Consumers also need to be prepared for a little inconvenience. The government, meanwhile, has made some positive changes, but these have been easy wins so far. They need to provide funding and legislation which supports alternatives to single-use plastics.
The fact that customers now have to pay for bags doesn’t guarantee they will reuse them. There is limited research about customers’ attitudes and preferences regarding the use of plastic bags, but some studies suggest that customers would like to use and reuse paper shopping bags rather than plastic ones. Some researchers provided evidence of contexts which have had positive effects on customers’ bag-use behaviours, including bringing one’s own bag. There is also research supporting the use of normative messages that encourage shoppers to use fewer free plastic bags, in addition to the supermarkets’ standard environmental approach aimed at reducing plastic bags.
In Ireland, the effect on consumers’ behaviour with the introduction of 15 cent tax on plastic shopping bags has been significant, with the tax resulting in a 90% reduction in plastic bag usage. However, there are some studies showing that the extra cost attributed to the plastic bag levy may not be as effective in inducing customers to be more environmentally friendly as was envisaged by advocates of the levy.
Where do we go from here?
Retailers have earned a great deal of goodwill through donating the proceeds to charitable causes, but some are finding creative ways to bypass the levy and possibly maximise their profits. For instance, certain stores are discouraging the purchase of the 5p carrier bags in favour of more durable but higher-priced ones.
As carrier bags in the latter category are not covered by the legislation’s definition of ‘single-use’, proceeds from their sale don’t have to be donated to charitable causes. In other words, retailers may consider such sales as an extra source of income. This means, therefore, that the main beneficiaries of the carrier bag levy in England may well be the retailers, who have been, inadvertently, granted the license to exploit the gaps in the legislation.
Ultimately, businesses should not portray themselves as ‘parasites’ to the communities within which they operate, but as positive contributors to the wellbeing of such communities. Therefore, a judicious use of resources from the carrier bag levy should give retailers the opportunity to contribute to the common good of society and position themselves as sustainable environmental partners.