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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.
For my PhD, I am looking at the impact of incentives on increasing recycling rates. So far, I have focused on Windsor and Maidenhead Borough council which launched the first incentivised household recycling scheme in the UK, operated by an American company Recyclebank.
Let’s cut to the chase. According to Windsor and Maidenhead’s own data, offering incentives – reward points to redeem at local businesses – for recycling does increase recycling rates. In a sense, this is not really surprising. Who wouldn’t want to be paid for doing the right thing? Particularly in the current economic situation, anything that helps with running a household can only be good thing.
And yes, the notion of incentives does recognise that we are not purely righteous beings, that we do have a selfish side. The problem with incentives is that it only focuses on our selfish nature, when the real barrier to recycling was that our righteous side is not being massaged enough.
According to the Waste and Resource Action Programme (WRAP), the problem with recycling rates is not that most people aren’t recycling but that most people aren’t recycling enough. Most of us are convinced of the argument for recycling, but we’re not provided with either the information or the environment that will help us to recycle, and so we resort back to what we know – the residual waste bin.
Today’s edition of Dispatches, the cleverly-titled ‘Britain’s Rubbish‘, provided examples of how information overload is leading to paralysis. There is no industry standard for recycling labels – seven were counted – and facilities for unusual types of plastic packaging may not always or easily be available. I know that my own local authority states that it cannot recycle Tetra Packs, even though the packaging themselves say that it can be recycled. And what about bottle tops? They don’t have any recycling labels, even though the bottle does. What do I do? Put it in the green bin anyway or throw it in the brown bin.
Another problem is food waste, where two-thirds of what we throw away is still edible. There are three different dates which appear on packaging – ‘Best Before’, ‘Sell by’ and ‘Use by’. The latter ‘Use by’ was found to be a conservative industry estimate, although this is understandable in light of health and safety – in fact, a lot of food is still OK to eat 10 days after this date. ‘Sell by’ dates, which has been the subject of recent government guidelines to phase it out, is more an indication to the supermarket as to when to reorder and restock. And, of course, it is possible that consumers buy too much in the first place, under pressure from the array of special offers.
Without information clarity, it is not surprising that – even though we believe in the importance of recycling – we can find it a challenge to figure out quite which bin to put stuff in, especially if there are bins for different type of recyclable packaging. The residual waste bin is the devil we know. It has been argued that mixed recycling, where we throw recyclables into one bin, is convenient and the solution to contamination. The problem is that the sorting is carried out by machine and technology, which look for certain criteria, so things are always missed. Although self-reported recycling industry rates are 3-4%, the Environment Agency say that it is closer to 11%. While mixed recycling collections might help the government achieve the headline target of 50% by 2020, 15-20% of that may still end up back in landfill.
Mixed, or co-mingled, recycling may be convenient, but it means that councils are not able to profit from a proportion of what’s collected. In times of public sector cuts, they could do with all the money they can get. Household sorting or even kerbside sorting would actually be more beneficial for councils and their constituencies. But that can only work if the information provided is clear.
What I found particularly interesting from the Dispatches documentary is that mixed recycling collections could actually be illegal, because the EU’s own rules stipulates that separate collections should be carried out for different types of packaging. This is the subject of a Judicial Review claim at the moment.
Of course, the lack of information clarity can also become an excuse for laziness on the part of the consumer. In the documentary, when one woman with a fair number of kids, agreed to be deprived of her residual waste bin, she was forced to think about how she could reuse or recycle. In the space of three weeks, her residual waste went from 13 kg to just 5 kg. So perhaps the residual waste bin is like a security blanket. This raises a question about the government’s latest policy to provide a fund to help councils provide weekly collections.
Finally, in one scheme run by a charity, the residual waste was collected in a seethru bag, so that people couldn’t hide behind the lack of transparency of the black bag. In other words, concern about what others would think and peer pressure was a big motivator.
In encouraging incentivisation, the government is right to recognise that we are complex individuals who don’t always do what’s right. We are creatures of our environment. However, it fails to take into account that, despite our flaws, we still remain moral beings who want to do what’s right. We just need the right environment.
Recyclebank operates incentivised recycling schemes on behalf of local authorities in order to encourage households to recycle more. It clearly believes in its mission but I think it’s great that it is willing to accept that its staff are not perfect environmentalists but are human like the rest of us.
What I find really odd is that, when talking about incentivisation, everyone from government ministers down to the administrators of a particular recycling schemes, refer to it as the “carrot and stick approach”. Here’s the thing: literal carrots are nice and good for you but I can think of a lot tastier things to eat. Indeed, the carrot and stick approach seems to emphasise the necessity of a course of action, rather than its appeal. If I was hungry and there were only sticks and carrots in front of me, I know which one I would choose.
Of course, the origin of “carrot and stick” comes from the time when horses and donkeys were used to carry out work. The farmer would either drive the horse forward by beating it with a stick from behind or hold out a carrot in front and just within reach. So, if incentives are the carrot, does that make us (as recyclers) beasts of burden?