Approximately 500 million to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide each year, according to Conserving Now. That means that in the time it will take you to read this article, 1 to 2 million plastic bags will be used. On average, each of those will be used for about 12 minutes, and only 1 in 200, 0.005%, of them will get recycled.
Most of us are aware that this is a big problem in the fight for sustainability and bad for the environment. That’s why tote bags and reusable shopping bags are increasingly popular. That is to be encouraged.
However, the last line of defense for this is still the cash register, where most businesses either offer plastic bags free of charge, or at a small fee.
Based on my experience in retail, there are three possible scenarios that can play out from here. The first: the customer pays for the bag. Second: the customer complains about having to pay for a bag. And third: the customer turns down the bag.
What This Accomplishes
Charging for plastic bags unfortunately doesn’t accomplish much. It often feels like it’s more about businesses letting the public know that they “care”, as opposed to a genuine attempt to lower use. This isn’t to say that charging for bags don’t lower use, but more often than not the fee for plastic bags is negligible.
The fight against plastic bag use has to be fought before the customer receives the bag. If businesses want to get serious about lowering plastic bag consumption, this is what I’m proposing: instead of charging customers for plastic bags, give them discounts for not using them.
It may seem like an insignificant change, but it would make world of difference. We, as humans, don’t like being punished, but we do love rewards, and discounts. That’s why store points and loyalty programs are so pervasive.
Why This Will Work
Many psychologists lean towards the use of positive reinforcements instead of punishments (which is not the same thing as “negative reinforcements”). Part of the reason behind this, and why this plastic bag discount would be successful in the long-run, is because positive reinforcements will often condition the receiver to exhibit the behavior that results in that desirable reward.
By rewarding customers for not using plastic bags, rather than punishing for using them, the exchange of money and plastic bags is re-framed as a desirable goal for both the business and customer, and eventually customers will prefer getting that discount over the benefits of getting a plastic bag.
For businesses, if the 5 cents that stores charge for bags is too steep to be sustainable, even a 3 cent discount would suffice. Who turns down a discount? What you should turn down, however, is that plastic bag.