'Nudges' Can Reduce Plastic Bag Use Even Where Bans or Fees are Banned

Even in cities where state law pre-empts plastic bag fees, there are ways to reduce plastic waste.

December 7, 2021, 12:00 PM PST

By rkaufman

Two people carry groceries in plastic grocery bags.

Emilija Miljkovic / Shutterstock

Across the country, numerous states or municipalities have imposed restrictions to discourage the single-use plastic bags you might use while picking up groceries. But even if they wanted to, many states ban cities from imposing fees on those bags. In Ohio, for example, this is the case, as the latest state budget bars cities in Ohio from banning or imposing fees on plastic bags. A recent study suggests there are still ways to reduce single-use plastic bag waste.

OSU economist Wuyang Hu co-authored a study observing two convenience stores on the University of Kentucky’s campus which saw plastic bag consumption decline by about a third. The key to reduction, he explains, is using encouragement rather than discouragement.

That encouragement is what behavioral economists refer to as a “nudge,” a low-cost incentive meant to influence an individual’s choices or actions. In this case, Hu explains, the store offered customers a token if they declined a bag, which could be directed toward a handful of charities.

“So in this process the consumers have the freedom to choose a bag, but yet the consumer also has the freedom to give it up in return for a token,” Hu says. “That token, worth five cents apiece, can be donated to a local charity.”

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