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Why Charging for Plastic Bags Makes People Give Them Up

It’s all about setting up psychological tripping blocks

(Photo: Patrick Lane/Somos Images/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Across the world, plastic bags are losing popularity. The European Union has called for an 80 percent reduction by 2019; Italy, Wales, Ireland and France have already begun either charging extra for plastic bags or eliminating them altogether several years ago. In the U.S., some states have banned the bags outright (California and Hawaii) or set up a bag fee system (Washington State).

Anti-bag activists feared that bag fees wouldn't do much—people would just shrug and pay the five cents for the bag. According to new research, however, that has not been the case: bag fees do indeed reduce their overall usage. 

The authors reached these conclusions after studying Buenos Aires, where some grocery stores in certain parts of the city charge for bags, and others do not. They interviewed people about their bag use and also measured bag use before and after the new rules were instated. 

The researchers found that it's not that people are worried about wasting money on the bags, the Washington Post reports. It's that the fee forces us to recognize the problem. That lone is enough of an incentive to get us to either carry our groceries or bring our own reusable bag. "This small change disrupts habitual behaviors and helps people draw a tighter linkage between the environmental awareness that they already possess,"  the Post writes, "and actions in the world that actually advance that consciousness and their values." 

In other words, we don't need to go so far as banning all bags, at least not in the beginning. To get the movement starts, the Post concludes, "You can just give people the slightest push, and let them fix the problem themselves." 

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