Commentary: Plastic bags at shops and supermarkets should be charged per bag rather than per customer
A per-transaction fee for plastic bags can trigger consumers to take as many plastic bags to get the biggest bang for their buck, says Zhang Kuangjie from Nanyang Business School.
The grocery retailer was the first supermarket chain in Singapore to implement a plastic bag charge. The charge is S$0.20 per transaction at supermarkets and S$0.10 per transaction at convenience stores.
Retail store BHG Singapore has also recently announced a similar per transaction fee for the use of plastic bags. This is a significant move from businesses to discourage consumers from using plastic bags.
DO PLASTIC BAG SURCHARGES WORK?
Based on consumer psychology, there are two clear benefits of charging fees for the use of plastic bags.
First, supermarkets and retail stores giving out plastic bags used to be the default, which consumers tend to stick to. Charging a fee for plastic bags removes them as the default option, effectively nudging consumers to explore more eco-friendly alternatives such as reusable shopping bags.
Second, a theory known as operant conditioning suggests rewards reinforce a specific behaviour while punishments decrease that behaviour.
A tax on plastic bags is a classic form of punishment, which should discourage consumers from using them, since incurring a financial cost is aversive.
In line with this notion, a study in the UK shows that a nationwide plastic bag charge has reduced the use of plastic bags in supermarkets by over 90 per cent since 2015.
Similarly, in Singapore, NTUC's plastic bag surcharge has saved more than 30 million plastic bags in the past two years.
SHOULD THE CHARGE BE PER TRANSACTION OR PER BAG?
A recent survey by the Singapore Environment Council shows that every day around 2 million plastic bags are taken from supermarkets, which accounts for about two to four plastic bags per shopper per visit.
The per transaction charge on plastic bags at NTUC FairPrice is a great step forward in that regard. However, this charge scheme has also raised concerns among environmentalists that it may create a potential buffet syndrome.
Consumers might fork out the 20 cents but take a lot of bags at once to get the biggest bang for their buck.
This is because paying for plastic bags can activate a transactional mindset where consumers engage in a cost-benefit analysis: Is the number of plastic bags I take worth the price I paid?
Such thinking leads consumers to take more bags than necessary just to justify the fixed price paid. This defeats the purpose of the charge as a way of discouraging the use of plastic bags.
NTUC FairPrice previously said that charging consumers on a per transaction basis would be “administratively easier.”
Perhaps another reason why NTUC FairPrice has imposed the charge per transaction rather than per bag is the concern that the surcharge will increase overall shopping expenses.
Singaporean consumers are still used to getting plastic bags for free and might see them as an entitlement. Many Singapore households also use them to line garbage bins.
But this can lead to excessive plastic bag usage in Singapore where some customers use more than they need at self-checkout counters, even taking extra bags as “freebies”.
Thus, a per-bag charge scheme is likely to be a fairer and more effective way to discourage consumers from taking these disposable bags, compared to a per-transaction charge scheme. In fact, several retailers in Singapore such as H&M, The Body Shop, and Pet Lovers Centre have adopted this method to charge a S$0.10 fee per plastic bag.
Other retailers go so far as to no longer provide single-use plastic bags at their stores. Ikea, for instance, charges 90 cents per reusable bag – enough to make some customers refuse the bags and carry their wares straight to their vehicles.
Moving forward, as Singapore is now developing a model for disposable carrier bag charges, we are likely to see more retailers joining the fight against plastic waste.
CULTIVATING GREEN CONSUMPTION HABITS AMONG SINGAPOREAN CONSUMERS
The war against plastic waste requires collective effort across society, and certainly, consumers should take an active role.
But behavioural change takes time. How can retailers and relevant organisations help consumers cultivate green consumption habits?
First, we need to start with changing consumers’ attitudes and perceptions toward using plastic bags. For example, consumers tend to believe that plastic bags are “convenient” whereas reusable shopping bags are not.
This perception needs to be tackled. Relevant government agencies and organisations need to raise public awareness that using plastic bags is not only costly in financial terms but also costly for environmental and societal well-being.
Importantly, such messages should appeal to consumers’ feelings and emotions. It will allow consumers to connect to the cause at an emotional level, motivating them to refuse plastic bags.
Second, we can create more incentives for consumers to use eco-friendly carrier options. For example, retailers should reward consumers with discounts and bonus points when consumers bring their reusable shopping bags.
Consumers will then feel that it is an easy change, and they will be proud to use the reusable bags because they are making a positive impact on the environment.
Third, while top-down policies like incentives or bans are effective, we should not underestimate the power of social influence. Conformity and social norms play an important role in shaping behaviour, especially among Asian consumers.
Reusable bags that are stylish or exclusive can be seen as covetable items, not just for holding groceries. For instance, a BTS tote bag (which can go for US$33 on their online merchandise store) will appeal to fans, enough for them to use it daily to carry their essentials.
Just spotting everyday people use these at the store or supermarket goes a long way in nudging more to use tote bags and refuse single-use plastic carriers.
To conclude, a per-bag surcharge informs consumers that using plastic bags has a financial cost. This is a good start, but not a silver bullet.
In the meantime, making the psychological and social costs of plastic bags clear to consumers is crucial for encouraging more sustainable consumption.
Zhang Kuangjie is Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.