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Why did the 5p bag tax work?

Plastic bags are still hanging around years later. Adrian S PyeCC BY-SA

Danielle Tucker, 7th January 2021

“I’m constantly surprised that the 5p charges made such a difference because it is such a nominal amount of money and yet it seems to have had a huge effect”

Phil Ward, Eastern ARC Podcast

In July 2020 Defra, published research showing that the distribution of single use plastic bags is down 95% since the government’s 5p charge was brought in.  With the UK government recently announcing an increase the charge of single-use plastic bags from 5p to 10p by April 2021, we review some of the ways that the 5p bag tax, introduced in 2014 have changed behaviours of UK shoppers.

  1. A behaviour nudge which had been a long time coming

In our 2014 article in Journal of Business Ethics we found that a lot of people had the drive to be more ethically conscious – they wanted to use less plastic bags, but lacked the mechanisms to nudge that intention into actual behaviour change. The 5p charge created a tipping point to change small behaviours which have led to more sustained behaviour change. For example, shortly after the introduction of the charge it became common to witness people carrying single items out of shops in their hands or apologising to cashiers for not bringing bags. Bringing your own bag became the default.

2. Plastic bags have become a commodity that you spend money on

Our research found that people often reused single-use plastic bags within their home for some other purpose (e.g. bins, storage). When bags were free this was a good idea but when the 5p charge was introduced plastic bags became something that you had to pay for and think about as having a value. When there was no cost associated with it, people took for granted the constant replenishment of bags in their home. When they ran out, householders had to make decisions about how else to get that utility. Many coming to the conclusion that an alternative would be better quality, value for money, easer to obtain and more ethically conscious than continuing to pick up single use bags when they shopped.

3. It brought the objectives of supermarkets and consumers together

Our 2014 article argued that both individuals and institutions play a significant interactive role in becoming ethically conscious and it was very positive to see that since then public awareness about single use plastic has increased public awareness has increased. In our recent research we have found that the influence of influential policy interventions, such as the UN SDGs, the Ellen MacArthur circular economy model and the UK Plastics Pact, have shaped institutional interventions to help support consumer decision making.

Photo taken by participant in our diary study (2020)

Whilst there are still debates about what types of plastic are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ there has been a nudge towards consumers becoming more proactive in findings solutions to plastic waste in their home (for example reusing plastic tubs as storage containers or plant holders).

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