The Real Alternative

1 Comment

Paper or plastic? How disposable bag bans, fees and taxes affect consumer behavior

Tatiana Homonoff, Cornell University

Last month, England became the latest government – and last among members of the UK – to pass a policy to combat the recent rise in the use of disposable plastic shopping bags, in its case a five-pence charge for each one.

While English newspapers warned that the new policy would create chaos, England is by no means the first to consider such a controversial policy. Several countries across the world and local governments have taken steps to address the environmental consequences of increased plastic bag use through regulation.

These regulations contain subtle but important design differences across different regions. Some banned their use; others just taxed them. In a few cases, companies began offering customers small bonuses for bringing their own bags.

Given the growing popularity of disposable bag regulations, this begs the question: have any successfully changed consumer behavior? And are all policies created equal?

Landfills are increasingly filled with plastic bags.

Impetus behind the bans

It’s obvious why cities, regions and countries want to reduce the use of disposable bags.

Americans, for example, go through 100 billion single-use plastic bags every year – or 325 per person – that end up in landfills, streams and lakes, where they take 10 to 20 years to degrade. The bags cost retail stores about three cents a piece, and since it’s normally incorporated into the price of everything else, consumers don’t see it and thus have no incentive to reduce their use.

Plastic bags made up almost half of the trash in Washington, DC’s tributaries, according to a 2008 study, while a look at the budgets of six major cities showed that they spent 3.2 to 7.9 cents per bag on litter control, which suggests total spending across the US could tally US$3.2 billion to $7.9 billion a year.

And even when the bags are recycled, they present problems by clogging up the machines.

Varying approaches

Bangladesh became the first country to regulate disposable bag use when the government banned single-use plastic bags in 2002. Shortly after, Ireland implemented an alternative regulation, a €0.17 tax per plastic bag (later raised to €0.33) called the “Plastax.”

The varying approaches don’t end there. Like England, China and South Africa do not levy a tax on disposable bags, but require that store owners charge a fee for bag use. Rwanda banned plastic bags in 2008, and agents at the airport not only confiscate any they find but also cut the plastic wrapping off of suitcases.

Similar variation exists across the US. In 2010, Washington, DC became the first American city to charge customers for the use of disposable bags when the City Council passed a five-cent tax on both paper and plastic bags. And last year, California became the first state to pass such legislation, which coupled a tax on paper bag with a ban on plastic, but that policy won’t take effect until voters approve it in a referendum next year.

Government regulations are not the only policies aimed at curbing disposable bag use. Several grocery store chains offer their own incentives to curb disposable bag use, such as financial rewards for customers who bring their own bags. For example, Whole Foods rewards customers with a ten-cent bonus for each reusable bag.

What works best to reduce bag use: a fee, tax or incentive?

Which ones work

In a recent study, I examined the relative effectiveness of two policies in the Washington, DC metropolitan area: a five-cent tax on paper and plastic disposable bags use and a five-cent bonus for reusable bag use.

If disposable and reusable bags are substitutes, the two policies are financially equivalent – each policy provides customers a five-cent incentive for using a reusable bag instead of a disposable bag. Standard economic theory tells us that individuals should have a similar response to the two types of incentives given that they are of the same monetary amount.

However, evidence from behavioral economics suggests that individuals are “loss averse,” meaning that they perceive losses more strongly than gains. If this is the case, then the tax may be more effective at changing behavior than a bonus.

My results showed just that. While 82% of customers used disposable bags prior to the tax, this fraction declined to 40% after the tax was implemented.

In contrast to the overwhelming impact of the tax, a five-cent bonus for reusable bag use had almost no impact on disposable bag use, evidence consistent with a model of loss aversion.

A related study found similar results after evaluating the impact of a policy in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The metro area that year imposed a ban on plastic bags in addition to a varying charge on paper bags. The study found that while the policy eliminated the use of plastic bags, it also generated an increase in the use of paper bags. This suggests that banning one type of disposable bag while leaving another type largely unregulated may lead to unintended consequences.

However, the effect of the policy on total disposable bag use (paper and plastic bags combined) was still quite effective – the proportion of customers using any type of disposable bag decreased by roughly 50%.

A federal solution?

Should the United States consider taxing or banning disposable bags?

The results from the two studies above suggest that while a small tax on disposable bags has a substantial impact on bag use, roughly 40% of shoppers continue to use disposable bags anyway. If the policy goal is to eliminate disposable bag use altogether, these results suggest a need for a stricter regulation.

But in spite of environmental concerns, it is not obvious that the optimal policy is to reduce disposable bag consumption to zero, through a ban. The environmental costs may not always outweigh the benefits some shoppers receive from the convenience of getting a disposable bag at the store. If they are willing to pay a higher tax or fee in exchange for that convenience, it could offset the costs to the environment.

So while a ban or a larger tax may be successful at reducing disposable bag use even further, policymakers should carefully weigh the benefits of that reduction against the burden shoppers would face from the inconvenience or financial costs of the policy. In contrast, less restrictive policies, such as nominal fees for bag use, change the behavior of only those customers who are almost indifferent between using a disposable bag or not.

A tiny tax had an impressive impact on behavior, suggesting that a policy that focuses on consumers on the margin could still have a lot of bite. And maybe that is a good place for policymakers to start.

The Conversation

Tatiana Homonoff, Assistant Professor of Policy Analysis and Management, Cornell University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Leave a comment

Saving the Earth with unsavory science?

English: Edward O. Wilson

Edward O. Wilson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Michael Clark, PhD

The other day I saw a documentary on TV about the sociobiologist and environmental spokesperson, E. O. Wilson. So intrigued by this video, I dug into our public library to try to find it. Regrettably, it wasn’t there, but I did find another DVD about E. O. Wilson called Lord of the Ants.

Now don’t get me wrong, I care about the environment just as much as the next person. And Wilson seems like a congenial fellow fighting for a good cause—namely, saving the Earth from mankind’s destructive activities.  But oh, my God. While watching this otherwise enjoyable DVD, there were a few scenes I just couldn’t believe.

Here’s the first one.

Animation created from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

Animation – 1 – from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

In this sequence, Wilson demonstrates how fire ants vigorously defend their turf. He disturbs their nest to purposely irritate them. Worker ants suddenly emerge, mad as hell. Wilson puts his hand on top of the angry ants, and in about a second, it’s covered. He’s now getting stung by the ants, which he can only tolerate for a moment or two.

Okay, all very interesting. But what surprises me is how Wilson, with a casual smile, hurriedly wipes the ants off his hands. I’m no expert but I think that if I wiped a carpet of ants off my hand in a second or two, I’d mangle them pretty badly. Not necessarily kill but most likely mutilate the poor devils before they fell to the ground.

Now, some might think that ants don’t really matter. After all, they’re just tiny insects, right? Well, this film argues that our bitsy neighbors do, in fact, matter. They’re very much like us, Wilson tells us. And cutting edge photography and computer graphics magnify the micro environment to drive the point home. So if ants matter, why does Wilson mutilate them with a smile?

Animation created from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

Animation – 2 – from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

By now you might think I’m a fanatical bleeding heart, dead against experimental scientists. Well, before coming to that conclusion, let’s take a look at the next sequence.

Animations 2 and 3 show Wilson holding a defenseless, living ant in something that looks like a pair of metal pliers. Wilson wants to demonstrate that ants communicate through chemicals. So he’s going to literally force a chemical out of this ant’s abdomen to show that other ants will follow a chemical trail to food, even when the first ant, itself, did not leave the trail.

Animation created from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

Animation – 3 – from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

A few moments later it gets pretty sad. The test ant is showing less signs of life as Wilson prods it with some kind of science probe. Eventually, after poking away at it, and apparently damaging the abdomen, the desired chemical oozes out of the squashed insect.

Wilson spreads the chemical out on the ground and sure enough, the other ants follow its trail to the food.  Again, all very interesting. But was it really worth this disquieting scene? Remember, Wilson says that ants are quite like us.

Still not convinced this is bad news? Maybe animation 4 will convince you.

Animation - 4 - from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

Animation – 4 – from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

Just prior to this clip, Wilson calls up a fumigator in the Florida Keys to ask an unusual favor. Wilson wants to fumigate an entire small island of insects! What? A naturalist and leading environmental spokesperson plans to exterminate gazillions of tiny lives?

Yes, he does. And all in the name of science.

Apparently we can learn about how larger species might recover from mankind’s globally destructive activity if we utterly destroy smaller species on an dwarf island.

So what did Wilson find? Well, a population did return after he conducted the utterly toxic experiment, but the diversity of species differed from the original mix. Basically, Wilson and his crew annihilated countless small creatures for this valuable info (sic).

Animation - 5 - from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

Animation – 5 – from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

Anyone with enough elementary science and logic will recognize that Wilson’s interpretation of the experimental results reveals an unjustified leap from a tiny to a huge frame of reference.

Last but not least, Lord of the Ants includes the usual photo op with some big shots—big shots who often consume oodles of energy jetting around the globe, releasing their self-congratulatory hot air about how the rest of us should consume less. Sequence 5 shows Bill Clinton raising a glass to Wilson at a TED talk. And here’s a link to an overhead view of the Clinton’s estate:
I’m sure those digs really save on energy consumption!

Image - this isn't animated because the subjects are dead - from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

Image – not animated because the subjects are dead – from Lord of the Ants, 2008 Windfall Films. (Fair Use / Fair Dealing Rationale).

So what I can say about this film?

Honestly, Wilson reminds me of some environmentalists I’ve encountered who don’t always practice what they preach. They can be very nice, honorable people. And I don’t dispute that sometimes cruel methods might bring about a greater good. But other times, I wonder if the ethical cost of some natural science research and teaching methods measures up to the actual benefit.

About the Author

I’m the administrator of and I usually like to post other folks’ articles. But every once in a while I have my own say. Read more here:

Leave a comment

Caring for the world ecology

Evan Leeson via Flickr

By goyal.ishaa

BOTH THE developed and the developing countries are between the devil and the deep sea. The developed countries do not wish to cut green house gas emissions as it would slow down their progress and enable competing countries to take over. The developing countries including China, a surprise entrant, take the plea that they have to reach the level of the developed countries and for that cutting the green house-gas emissions would be like committing Harakiri.

Be that as it may, numerous conferences on promoting ecology and checking environmental pollution have turned out to be mere discussions in a debating club. Be it Kyoto, or Latin America or now Copenhagen in December 2009, the talking shops did not produce any positive results. Many hundred reams of paper, secretarial work, a lot of wining and dining and track two diplomacy failed to produce any positive results. Time and energy went down the drain.

Now some light can be seen at the end of the tunnel. On Sunday, November 15, 2009, at Singapore at the session of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, President Obama of the United States and other opinion makers and shapers arrived at an agreement ahead of the Copenhagen Summit on Ecology to tone down criticism of the advanced nations.

A deal was struck by agreeing to tone down the target and also to renew efforts to achieve positive results.The Prime Minister of Denmark, Lars Lokke Rasmussen put forth the compromise formula and called it one agreement two steps that would be legally binding as a treaty by 2010.

Indeed, the developed nations may be happy but it is a compromise that would not reduce the global warming substantially. In another 11 years, China will account for 50 per cent of the global emissions. Maldives and parts of Mumbai and London may bid adieu to the earth and become a part of the surging waters of the sea.

Let us hope and pray that the Gangotri, source of our Ganges river does not melt as it would spell disaster for the plains of India. We must keep on convincing those who are not affected now by global warming and climate change to listen to the suffering humanity.

About the Author:

Hi, I am Ishaa Goyal from India, by profession i am a journalist. Recently i m covering news on Global Warming and China News. I have written number of climate related articles.

Article Source: Caring for the world ecology

1 Comment

Biotechnology in Renewable Energy Resources

By Edward Hunter

Alternative energy is defined as energy that comes from a natural source and is renewable or naturally occurring. Alternative energy typically does not produce pollution and comes from such sources as the sun, wind, and water.

There have been many recent innovations to alternative energy as a result of expanding alternative energy technologies.

Alternative energy technologies have made it possible to do much more research on how to use the alternative energy sources that we have more effectively to generate the most power out of the various sources.

Alternative energy technologies have also been instrumental in discovering new ways to produce heating fuels, such as bio-diesel, methanol, and ethanol from bio-mass for energy consumption.

It is imperative that companies who are dedicated to alternative energy options continue to develop their alternative energy technologies to keep up with the demand to make alternative energy more readily accessible to a larger amount of people as the dwindling supply of fossil fuels and concerns over our dependence on foreign oils drives many more people towards considering alternative energy sources.

In recent years alternative energy technologies have propelled bio-mass and bio-deisel into the fore front of the alternative energy movement. Biotechnology has become an extremely important area of research and development as a result of the record high gas and heating fuel prices.

Biomass is organic material made from plants or animals that originates from agricultural and forestry residue as well as municipal and industrial wastes and terrestrial and aquatic crops. Through the use of alternative energy technologies bio-mass has been able to be transferred into usable fules such as methane, ethanol, dio-deisel, methanol and biocrude.

These products are viable and readily available alternatives to pertroleum and gasoline. Through the use of alternative energy technologies bio-mass has also been found to be a source of biopower. Biopower uses biomass to produce electricity using alternative energy technologies such as direct firing, co-firing, gasification, pyrolysis, and anaerobic digestion.

The direct firing method biomass is burned to produce steam. The steam drives a turbine that turns a generator to convert power into electricity. Without alternative energy technologies it would be much more difficult to develop new ways to use the resources that are available naturally.

Alternative energy technologies also make it possible to discover new ways to develop alternative energy and make it more user friendly and efficient in usage and installation.

Alternative energy technologies truly are changing the face of the alternative energy movement and creating more innovative ways to use natural resources as well as providing new products that rely on alternative energy as their source of power.

About the Author:

Learn more about alternetive energy at

Leave a comment

Are we living in an overmedicalized society?

People talk about the water supply, and water shortages in California. How many stop to consider all those “medications” (a bit of a euphemism, in some cases) that are being urinated into the water supply? And why isn’t this kind of drug problem making the headlines?

Leave a comment

The other side of Global Warming

Anyone who can think for themselves will realize that there are at least, and I mean, AT LEAST, two sides to any given argument. That’s why it’s important to consider these 7 links. They basically show another side to the near hegemonic discourse about global warming.

Image credit: NASA (via Flickr)




4 –

5 –

6 –

7 –


Is the Age of Oil coming to a close?

Image via Tumblr (Flickr)

Two very different stories about oil production in Canada…

Story 1 –

Story 2 –

Original image credit: kris krüg


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 867 other followers