I wanted to pursue a master’s degree outside of Canada because I suspected there would be a different culture of environmentalism in every country I visited. I am testing my critical and observational mind because I believe that in order to be a good policy maker you must have a plentitude of examples to draw on. I hope to find some interesting examples abroad.
Not surprisingly, within a few days in London I noticed that the culture of sporting a re-usable or cloth bag is not as common here as I have seen it become at home (in my province of Ontario).
Although this norm has only been around for a few years in Ontario, it gained a considerable amount of support relatively quickly.
Since the charge on plastic bags was introduced, I have noticed an insurgence of re-usable bags for sale at the counters of many stores, especially grocery store chains where the plastic bag fee was first introduced. I know many people who began to accumulate such re-usable bags by the dozens, often dedicating entire cupboards to their storage (my self, housemates and parents included).
I have become so accustomed to being asked if I want a bag that I was quite surprised that the first time I shopped at a popular London grocery store I was not asked. The cashier simply began to pack my things into a re-usable bag. Of course, I promptly corrected this mistake and used the knapsack that I had brought along with me.
Although I was ready to maintain my normal ‘bag-bringing’ activities here in London, I found that not being asked if I wanted a bag worked very well to disincentivise me from bringing one in the future. A very well known economic rule can be cited here: people respond to incentives.
In Ontario, I was responding to not only a financial incentive but also a social one. In my circle of ‘environmentalist’ friends the social pressure was more prominent. When shopping with someone whom I knew to be environmentally driven, or attending a class (in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo) after shopping, I made sure to bring a cloth bag. In a similar vein, I made sure to bring my re-usable mug to campus rather than passively take a paper cup.
The plastic bag case is a nice example of financial incentive meeting social incentive. The two combined to influence my behavior–especially my willingness to plan ahead.
This type of policy design is a common discussion in my course about behavioural economics. In the Ontario case I would argue that the financial incentive worked to create the social pressure. Since neither existed at the London grocery store I visited, I could walk away with no damage done to my wallet or my reputation. Without either incentive, will I still refuse a plastic bag? Having written a blog post about it now, I suppose I have to. What about you?
While the bag fee and reusable bag programs work relatively well overall in Ontario, things aren’t looking so great for Toronto’s outright bag ban, with 2/3 Torontonians polled opposing the ban. What do you think about the environmental arguments to reverse the ban?
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