Usage of single-use plastic bags dropped over 80% after the introduction of a 5p charge last October. In the first six months, 640 million plastic bags were used in seven major supermarkets in England, compared to the 8.5 billion single-use plastic bags used in 2014, according to WRAP. To get a sense of scale, 6 billion bags laid end-to-end it would stretch about 75 times around the world. Through the levy, £29.2m has been raised for good causes, and the government estimated that fall in use of single-use carrier bags would save £60m in litter clean-up costs.
It is tempting to ask what took so long, but more fruitful to ask why it was so effective, and where else is a little nudge long overdue. In the same week, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s latest War on Waste hit our screens railing against the mountains of coffee cups from large corporate chains littering our cities. As I watched Fearnley-Whittingstall’s BBC programme, I was struck by the many similarities between coffee cups and plastic bags. Both involve large corporate companies, familiar brands from our high-streets, providing pernicious solutions to take away perishable goods at no obvious, or immediate cost to the consumer.
But first the problem, whether a nation of tea-drinkers or coffee-addicts, the British are taking away more than 7 million cardboard cups a day, or 2.5 billion a year, and less than 1 in 400 are being recycled. We think paper cups are a green option, but they are typically neither made of recycled material nor practically recyclable. The cups have a polyethylene liner to make them waterproof. As the thin seam of paper inside the cup comes into contact with the hot drink, cups must be made from virgin paper pulp to avoid leaching of any dyes from recycled paper.
The cups can technically be recycled (and may be labeled as such), but only specialist recycling facilities can separate the liner from the paper. There are two such facilities in the UK, reports Fearnley-Whittingstall, one has never recycled a paper cup and the other has processed a tiny number. For example, Costa sends less than 1% of its cups for this treatment. A cardboard sleeve may be labeled as recyclable, and would be, if it were separated from the actual cup. The misinformation and misunderstanding compounds the problem as well-meaning customers throw their cups into recycling bins, inadvertently contaminating them.
Some coffee chains offer a small, money-off incentive for bringing your own reusable cup. The incentive is rarely advertised, staff often do not know about it, and the onus is on the customer to ask. Unsurprisingly take up is limited. I see a few more reusable cups, helped by the arrival of colourful KeepCups from Australia, but the occasional 10p or 20p discount has had far less impact than the 5p levy for a bag.
So why has the little nudge over plastic bags led to an outsized shift in customer behaviour? Behavioural science offers an explanation. Unlike the “economic man” or homo economicus characterized in classical economic theory as consistently, rational and self-interested, we are not always rational, or fully-informed when making decisions. In their book, Choices, Values and Frames, Kahneman and Tversky argue that humans respond differently to charges and discounts because of framing: the discount is considered a gain, and the surcharge as a loss. Humans are loss averse, the pain of losing is psychologically estimated to be twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining. So penalty frames can be more effective than reward frames, a charge more effective than a discount. Other effective drivers for behavioural change include the fact we are strongly influenced by the behaviour of others, that we are often influenced by subconscious cues, and we try to act in ways that make us feel good about ourselves.
So if large (or indeed small) coffee-chains are serious about reducing the waste mountain, their efforts could be cannier. Making any discount incentive prominent at the point of sale, along side a reusable cup available for purchase would be a start. Charge more for a coffee served in a not-so-disposable paper cup. Tweak existing marketing tactics to transition more customers on to reusable cups, for example, offer a free reusable cup with your tenth coffee. The cup would of course be branded, and by parading it in the street we would be subconsciously signaling our own virtue and that of the coffee chain. The reusable cup is also perfect corporate gift, or secret Santa.
Where there is no alternative to take away, better options are available from suppliers, such as Frugalpac. The food service industry needs to up its game and ensure packaging is actually composted or recycled. A quick break at a motorway service station or stroll down a city street will highlight just how far there is to go here! If self-regulation and industry collaboration fail, then this week’s statement from the Liberal Democrats hints at what might follow.
Sometimes, in the words of the environment minster, Therese Coffey, “small actions can make the biggest difference”, and there is much to be said for taking the time to savour the coffee in situ.
Gächter, S., Orzen, H., Renner, E., & Starmer, C. (2009). Are experimental economists prone to framing effects? A natural field experiment. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 70, 443-446.
Picture credit: the Liberal Democrats