Fewer bags and better people

As I scanned my trusty £3 Sainsbury’s meal deal at the counter last Friday I realised the fateful day had come. No longer could I rely on glorious plastic bag to carry my every whim, at no extra charge. No more could I walk blindly on by whilst costlessly packaging my almost edible food within an orange plastic cocoon.

One could apply classical (read “dull”) economics to this most important of policy issues for our lunchtime pontifications. Increasing their cost will lower demand for plastic bags; research showed that after Ireland instituted a plastic bag charge in 2002 usage declined by 90 percent. This, in turn could reduce the prices of other items as fewer ‘free’ plastic bags lead to lower production costs for Sainsbury’s & Tesco, though I don’t see the £2.95 meal deal catching on. Any A-level economics student could tell you that we’ll follow our Irish sisters and buy fewer plastic bags within which to place our humous (we managed a personal best of 8.5 billion bags in 2014), but what good does charging for bags do beyond reducing the amount of plastic in circulation.
The important question here is one of psychology and ethics: could charging for plastic bags make us morally better people, or could it make us worse? The bag charge could alter our perceived self-worth, and how we help the world. 
Unless there are plastic bag charges bringing your (undoubtedly great-looking) “eco-bag” may well have a net bad effect due to moral licensing.

Moral licensing is a behavioural change that occurs when doing something that, while beneficial, has a relatively small effect. Due to our finite “moral willpower”, we indulge ourselves after making some minor virtuous act, and neglect to make a difference in bigger ways that might affect other areas of our life. When our moral willpower is depleted at least in the short term we feel that, because of our righteousness, it becomes acceptable to indulge ourselves in other ways. Rescuing a cat could lead us to skip filling the dishwasher or eat an extra snickers bar.
“So what” I possibly hear you cry dear reader – someone does a good thing then wants to chill out so buys herself some pic’n’mix. Big f***king deal. But this effect is also present in the large and important world of plastic bag policy studies. One study, entitled “BYOB” (no relation to Arzoo), showed that eco-shoppers were more likely to buy sweets, ice-cream and crisps than people who did not bring reusable bag. The presumed mechanism for this increase in unhealthy indulgent products was that by engaging in a consciously green action, people felt morally licensed to indulge themselves, though I presume that a healthy dose of the bourgeois staples of humous, pak choi and rocket were also present in record numbers among our eco-warriors. Introducing bag charging, however, could mitigate the moral licensing effect by making reusable bags the norm, rather than a product used only by the righteous and exceptional.

While charging for plastic bags may have a direct impact on demand, it will also diminish the moral licensing effect by nudging us into sustainability rather than forcing eco-warriors to expend their moral willpower and become rather rounder physically. Perhaps these environmentalists, and others, can then focus their good work on actions of even greater consequence.