Despite recent calls from environmental groups for a plastic bag tax in England, the UK government’s reluctance to legislate for it is a sign of its dominance over us.
This application of the ‘polluter pays’ principle in this instance makes complete sense. As the user of single-use bags, the individual is also the producer of bag waste. So, as with household waste, the state has recognised the importance of changing behaviour. A number of local authorities (Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, Halton Borough) have seen an increase in recycling rates as a result of reward-based incentive schemes run by Recyclebank and others (Bromley, Barnet, Islington) have had success by imposing fines on people who do not separate recyclables from waste. Similarly, when the Welsh Government introduced a 5p charge for single-use carrier bags in October 2011, a study carried out in conjunction with retailers revealed that bag usage fell by between 40-96%, depending on what was being bought. Furthermore, it claims that the fall was even greater than it was in England where some retailers do charge for single-use bags. These figures on their own seem to suggest that a single-use bag charge does have the desired effect of changing individual behaviour. After all, no-one likes to lose out, even if it is only 5p.
But negative and positive incentives (or law in general) do not change behaviour per se. Well, as Hegel would point out, it does and it does not. Of course, the rational consumer does not want to lose 5p. But, as Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler have argued, there is no such as thing as a purely rational individuals – homo sapiens (human beings) are not the same as homo economicus. That is perhaps why, in their book Nudge, they distinguish incentives from the more relational nudges, which are tools that the content architect (or lawmaker) uses to change the content architecture or environment. Libertarian paternalism indicative of a father as traditional metaphor for the state, raising the metaphorical child (household or individual). But in reality, according to Hegel, the relationship is more like a mother and father, where both the state and non-state actors are responsible for the protection of children, or future generations. (Indeed, when Hegel said that ‘the real is rational, and the rational is real’, he was indicating it is rational to be real or relational.) Therefore, a nudge can be viewed as a physical act of the state, which interacts with the body or environment individual to which the individual responds. If an incentive were purely a rational instrument, everyone would have responded to a single-use bag charge equally in all circumstances. But, in keeping with libertarian paternalism, the single-use bag charge does not take away a space for opposition.
I would argue that incentives, such as a plastic bag tax, are nudges precisely because they are changes to the environment to which the individual responds; that is, they are rational because they are relational. As a result, the plastic bag tax is not the only thing in the environment which would call for a response; whether an individual chooses to take a bag depends on the prioritisation of environmental factors (or nudges). The Welsh government’s data showed that bag usage depended on what was bought and where. The food service sector recorded a smaller reduction than retailers because the product is less likely to require bags. In other words, a nudge is about an ability to respond, or be responsible in a particular situation. But, the significant reduction in single-use bags – in some contexts, as much as 95% – suggests that there are or were situations when individuals were using single-use bags when they did not really need them. If this is the case, then using a plastic bag is more than just simple behaviour; it could be argued to be a habit or even an addiction, which we think we need even when we don’t and holding on to it can be damaging. In other words, we have a responsibility to the environment but we do not know we are able to respond to the environment. Even if we we can recognise our responsibility on an intellectual level, our ability to respond is based on how much the content architect allows us to respond.
The state, in this respect, is not only a metaphorical father and content architect but also a doctor specialising in addictions trying to make us better. The physicality of a nudge is like the swallowing of medicine. An incentive – whether positive or negative – is like a spoonful or sugar to help the medicine go down. The problem is that sugar is also addictive if we become accustomed to it. Government research into incentives for household recycling found that incentives only led to an increase in recycling up to an extent. The Greater London Assembly has cast doubts on the effectiveness of incentives in the long-term – we either get used to the loss or want more and more – and there is a lot of psychological research which supports this. Making it more difficult to have something – and ultimately going cold turkey – is arguably just as effective at encouraging desired behaviour. According to House of Commons research, over 59% of local authorities have reduced residual waste collection, which has led to an increase in recycling, because households were forced by a changing environment to think about what to do with their waste. Similarly, when WH Smiths stopped handing out plastic bags automatically to customers, it saw a 12% fall in bags handed out; because customers had to ask, they had to think about whether they needed it. It was as if WH Smith and councils had been feeding an addiction before. Incentives are not necessary to change behaviour but it definitely speeds up the process. Anything that helps us come off a drug can only be a good thing but to stay off, the drug has to be removed. In that sense, the UK government’s reluctance to adopt a plastic bag tax is only enabling our addiction and keeping us weak. It denies us the opportunity to be grown up and responsible; it does not mean that we have to do always comply – not use a plastic bag – if it is not appropriate to situation.