Monday, June 18, 2007

The Plastic Bag is Not Our National Flower

Folks in South Africa used to regard plastic bags as their "national flower" because so many of those bags littered the streets. Well, not anymore. Just last month, legislation was passed to ban the distribution of plastic bags. If retailers are caught using plastic bags, they may be fined $13,800 or sent to jail for 10 years.

Geez, given those stiff penalties, I'm sure there's been a significant decline in using plastic bags!

Shoppers are now responsible for bringing their own reusable bags with them. Is it a big deal to ask folks to bring their own bags when they go shopping? Or put another way, would you like your national flower to be a plastic bag?


Experimentaholic said...

Wow...South Africa is being very progressive there! But reducing the waste of these resources requires a major change in the culture. We've always had disposable bags available, so we have come to expect them. If a store stopped having bags, then people would stop going to that store, it would go out of business, so no one stops having bags and so the cycle continues.

But I really believe that what IKEA is doing is the way to go. It is totally a Kahnemann and Tversky kind of thing. (For those outside psychology, Kahnemann and Tversky were psychologists who did a series of studies on judgment showing that people make irrational decisions based on the way information is presented...) The cost of that damn plastic bag is included in the cost of the items you purchase - stores aren't charities and simply giving them away as gifts, but include them in the overhead and are included in the price - but simply framing the cost differently could be one way to go.

From a psychological standpoint, one way IKEA could even do even better is do what my local Whole Foods does - they take off 8 cents for every bag I bring in. Ikea could both CHARGE for plastic bags and REWARD people who bring their own. In the end, the net loss for the store would be zero because they would be making a profit from the plastic bags they sell and giving that profit away to those who aren't economic dummies and bring in their own bags. In fact all stores could do this, and the economic incentive alone would be enough to make people start bringing their bags. At a certain point, stores would simply stop offering plastic bags because everyone would bring their own.

It would be like a free general coupon. Make it 25 or 50 cents a bag a heck of a lot more folks will be bringing in their own bags. There, Michelle, you semantically primed me to say folks.

Michelle Verges, Project Director said...

Actually, I wonder how long we've had this disposable lifestyle. The plastic bag wasn't introduced until 1977. Before that time, folks used paper bags.

But what came before the paper bag? Was there a time in which we did not have the expectation that stores should provide us with "free" bags?

Anyway, you're absolutely correct: Plastic bags are not free. Retailers spend approximately $4 billion dollars each year on plastic bags. So, clearly, this is a hidden cost that's passed onto consumers. I do like the idea of making this cost more explicit (i.e., charging folks for using disposable plastic bags).

But given our capitalistic market, I don't think stores are going to go out of their way to reward people for bringing their own bags.

I encountered this issue first-hand with a local grocery store. This store offers a 3-cent credit for every bag you reuse, which is a step in the right direction (though as you can tell, I'm not exactly doing cartwheels over this financial incentive).

But the problem is that many folks don't know about this program. (That's right: I have statistics to corroborate this claim, thankyouverymuch!)

When I spoke to a representative about this issue, they politely ignored me. They figured that they're doing more than enough by offering the program. Too bad not a whole lot of people know about it. But I think it just shows you how stores won't go out of their way to reduce their net income.


Experimentaholic said...

But when was it that paper bags were introduced? Apparently Patent 9,355 (US) issued October 26, 1852 is for a paper bag making it may not be the material per se, but the fact that stores have been handing out free bags for a long time. It is a shame that that first store that started offering free bags did so...if they only thought of the long term consequences! And the stupidity of it - they could have been making a profit all along selling bags along with their product.

You're right that stores won't go out of their way to reward customers for bags. In reality, the cost of a single plastic bag is not 8 or 25 or 50 cents. I just looked online and found 3000 bags for 40 bucks. That's about 2 cents. And if the store gives the person who brings their own bag 25 or 50 cents, that's going to eat into their profit for sure.

This is why a program must charge people for plastic bags. The money made by selling a 2 cent bag for 50 cents can go to the person who brings their own bag. Once the point is reached that everyone is bringing their own bags, the stores stop this offer of giving people money to bring in bags (because they are only losing money at this point). But at the same time, they can also stop offering bags at all. You either come to the store with your bag, or you'll leave with an armfull. Of course, capitalism sucks for one reason: what's to stop a competitor to start offering free bags again? As we Italians say here in South Philly, Maddona Mia!

I trust that you of all people have the data to back up your claim, Ms. Empirical Data.

And another plus perhaps of charging for bags is that perhaps people would be less likely to double or triple bag their groceries (Yes, I saw this today...triple bagging a gallon of milk. A gallon of milk that already has a friggin handle on it!) and perhaps try to fill those bags up a bit more.

Meghan said...

experimentaholic- you postulate that people would not go to a store that doesn't have bags. Was that sarcasm? Surely you can't be serious?

It's my opinion that many in our society may initially bristle, but that they wouldn't stop going to a store over such a silly issue! I mean, there are countries all over the world that don't have plastic bags. People take their own bags shopping all the time!

Am I just that obtuse? Is it really that bad out there? Sure, I get funny looks sometimes at the grocery store when I whip out my own bag. But that's because it's a rarity to reuse products in our disposable society. If a store marketed that they were going green & avoiding plastic bags, do you really feel that our society would punish them for it?

Wow...that doesn't give me much hope for the longevity of our society. I'd say humanity, but it just isn't true - humans in other countries don't appear to be nearly as affronted as us "American's" at the idea of not killing the earth.

Michelle Verges, Project Director said...

Excellent post, Meghan!!

You raise a very good point, which reminds me of the importance of framing. (And experimentaholic, I think this goes back to your Kahnemann and Tversky reference, too.)

If stores were to ban the "free" distribution of plastic bags by framing it as a "Green" decision, I think folks would be more accepting of this change.

Furthermore, stores could really be strategic by selling reusable bags at the check-out counter, making this product an ultra-convenient alternative for shoppers. :0)

I'd like to think this isn't rocket science!!

I'd also like to think these changes don't warrant a cultural revolution.

Ah, but I have been accused of being a Pollyanna at times!

Great discussion, guys!!


Experimentaholic said...

Meghan -

I think that people will change once they are made aware of the enormous impact of waste on themselves. How do you get people to change behavioral patterns that have been part of one's life? Michelle says that plastic bags were introduced in 1977...I was born in 1976, so I have no memory of a world - or experience in a world - in which plastic bags were not an integral part of my consumer experience.

There was a guy named Bartlett who back in the 1930s published a book on memory where he introduced the concept of schema. A schema is a kind of script you follow in a particular situation. For instance, when you go into a restaurant, you expect that someone will come up to you and ask you how many people are in your party, then will seat you, then someone will come in with a menu that you select things from, and so on. Well, I think we have a shopping schema. We go into the store, place the items on the counter, etc. It always ends with being handed a plastic bag. Changing that script - one which I have experienced countless times over the course of the past 30 years - may be quite difficult.

However, there is hope. There is this thing in cognitive psychology called conceptual revision. Since I stumbled upon this blog, I have not accepted any plastic bags when I go to the store. I bring my own. It was simply the fact that this blog brought the issue to my attention, and that I had never thought about the enormous waste produced by these bags. I revised my conceptual schema of what it means to go to the store, and have since refused over 100 plastic bags. That's nothing compared to the number in the counter above - ticking off billions of bags, but it is a humble start. So I have hope for humanity. I hope they all come to this page and revise their own schemas. I just feel that too many folks are motivated by convenience over thoughtful analysis of the impact of our consumption upon the world.

Experimentaholic said...

And you're right, Michelle...Green is gold. I think many people find Green to be the in thing - and hopefully permanently. If you frame it carefully as a "Green initiative" then it may even increase sales. But what happens when we accumulate too many reusable bags???

Meghan said...


Hmm, I re-read my comment & hope it didn't come off as condescending. That's not how I intended it at all. It was really more frustration with our culture, because I bet some people actually would stop shopping at stores that stopped carrying plastic bags. I don't understand people who stomp through life just thinking we're never going to run out - of space, of oil, of clean air, etc. They are the worst kind of "users" in my opinion!

I was born in '79 and never knew about life w/o plastic bags, either. My revelation on the reusable bag deal was recent. I'm not criminalizing people for not knowing. I'm more criminalizing those who know and ignore.
To use the lingo in your comment, I think there are a significant amount of "us" who are aware that they can alter their schema and have a positive effect but refuse to do so. Those people are icky. But I have hope that as the word of the evil plastic bag is spread (slowly, oh so slowly), people will change their schema and refuse plastic bags. And I'd really, really hope that any store brave enough to make a stand would not be punished by the market for doing so.
What it really comes down to, I think, is to effect a big change, should we rely on our government, our society, or our corporations? S.A. used the government - not too shabby, if you ask me! I've got significant concerns that we can't rely on our society here to effect the change. That leaves me with hope that some corporations will make some landmark decisions that will have a domino affect.

Michelle - my fave grocery store sells reusable bags. I picked one up to support the cause. I get funny looks from some of the employees, but whatever! It's a big grocery chain around here, and they sell tons of local and organic food. With the addition of reusable bags, I'm in their cheering section! If it can happen here in the midwest, I won't throw my hands up and walk away yet.

Michelle Verges, Project Director said...

Oh, I can relate to your shopping woes! If I got a nickel everytime someone gave me a funny look for using a reusable bag, I wouldn't have anymore student loan debt!! ;0)

Yes, it's most frustrating when people know about an issue, but they just don't care to do anything about it.

I've been puzzling over this frustration for sometime now. Intuition tells me this is a complicated issue. For instance, why would someone care about their consumption of plastic bags when they're trying to figure out how to feed their family, pay high gas prices, pay the rent, and so on?

And why care about the effects of consumption at all? Isn't it all about me, me, me, anyway? What's in it for me??? Gosh, that's another question that really irks me.

Despite these complaints, I remain true to my convinction that what I do in this world matters, and I am responsible for doing my part to make this world a better place.

(ah hah! You hear that Pollyanna talk coming out again??)


Meghan said...

Ha! Yes, Pollyanna - I hear you. ;)

It's really just about what motivates us, I guess. I really do try to understand the other side, but I'm in that horrid category of people who just don't get where anyone else is coming from. It's not a good quality, and I despise it in those that disagree with me. :)

I'm not poor, but I'm not wealthy. I'd be a lot better off financially if I ate cheap, processed foods, used disposable plastic bags, etc. I'd be a lot better off financially if I consumed, consumed, consumed, and never worried about re-use. I'd be cleaner if my apartment wasn't littered with recyclables waiting to be handed off to my pal that can recycle from her home (because my apartment doesn't participate in a recycling program - it's too expensive).

What motivates me to go through this? I find it hard to put in words, but it has something to do with coming to see what is really important as I get older. We all have problems, but those of us that are happiest consistently are the ones that find value in their friends, family, and time spent together. Money doesn't make us happy.

I'm not downplaying the hardships that people who can barely get food on the table go through. I'm just shifting the focus. It's my experience (and therefore belief) that by intentionally making a "cause" important in your life, you shift what you value. Shopping at the farmer's market, using re-usable bags, etc is harder for me. But even though it takes more time, results in weird looks, and requires a lot more prep work than this convenience driven girl is used to dealing with, I've found it to be an enjoyable and rewarding experience. I wear my weird look badge with pride, and I find my life fuller for it.

And at this point, I'm just rambling. Which I'll continue to do until everyone agrees with me, but I'll stop doing it on your blog post!

Michelle Verges, Project Director said...

Meghan, Ramble on! I really enjoy reading your comments because they keep me thinking and puzzling over these issues.

Right now, you got me thinking about value importance and conservation. I'm also thinking how value importance, framing, and rhetoric may apply to conservation. Geez, there's so much to explore from a psychological standpoint!!

Coherent thoughts will follow, perhaps I should stop rambling for now...


Meghan said...

Must be ramble Friday. :)

I think the point is, the more of an effort that we make to be aware of our surroundings and to improve them, the more value we place upon them. And then one day, we wake up and realize that we're happier now than we ever were before.

Then we try to help wake other people up, generally by starting a blog. :P

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