Toronto city council is considering going back on a measure to reduce the use of plastic bags by consumers. The previous council instilled a response cost where consumers were expected to fork over five cents for each plastic bag they used to pack away their groceries or other purchased goods. A response cost is a form of punishment where the person is “fined” for engaging in a certain behaviour and that behaviour decreases. It is the premise behind speeding tickets or losing points in a game for making a “bad” move. In this case, plastic bag use is the behaviour targeted to decrease. Seen as an eco-friendly move on the part of previous council, many people are criticizing the current council for considering removing the bag fee. My question before evaluating whether or not the fee should stay or go: did it work?
If the goal was to decrease the use of plastic bags, was the five cent charge enough to decrease bag usage? Was data taken before and after the costs were put into effect? And if so, does it support the continuation of charging consumers for their plastic bags (i.e., plastic bag use has gone down)?
Whenever a method with intent to change people’s behaviours is put into place, some measure of behaviour is necessary to evaluate its effectiveness. In other words: show me the data (behaviour analysts love saying this)! What should TO council do? Put public opinion aside ever so slightly and look for a real measure of success. If the bag fee did little to curb others from requesting bags from the cashier then we need to look for other methods to change people’s behaviour e.g., reinforcement in the form of discounted prices for bringing in your own cloth bags.
Data is our friend. It does not lie. It cannot argue. It is what you see or hear and from it, decisions based on evidence can be made. Even a decision as simple as bringing an extra nickel or two on your next shopping trip.