Plastic Bag Fees: Tax the Poor to Feed the Ego of the Rich!

Illustration Credit: Art by Heather

The title of this piece represents the thought of some folks, when they hear the idea of the widely proposed plastic bag fees. Such thoughts come from single moms and senior citizens, who balk at the current price of a canvass bag.

"What about the families who are LITERALLY struggling to make ends meet. The families where Mom CAN'T AFFORD to buy her kids that pack of gum they ask for at the store (that was MY family, growing up)? $10 for a lunch box, $1 for every canvas grocery bag - that CAN be a hardship!" (Denver News Site)

Beyond the price of the canvass bags also falls another concern. The concern for the loss of recycled bag incentives, which under the current system in some areas, give local schools somewhere in the range of $0.03 per bag brought in.

Now it is true that the imposed bag fees may in many cases be used as donations to various important causes, but there is a very big difference here. The old incentive was more of a contribution willingly brought in by the consumer, while the new is an involuntary contribution, pushed upon the consumer, almost as a punishment, if you will.

Reward vs. Punishment in Terms of Paper Bag Fees
Reading discussions between people on proposed bag fees, it is easy to theorize on where perhaps this idea has gone awry. It is using the theory of punishment rather than reward to change the way people think. As one gentleman said on the same news website:

"The current system works just fine at King Soopers (Colorado grocery store). You can actually get a 5 cent discount for using your own bag that you bought from them (the canvas bags). After 20 uses of that bag, it has paid for itself."

Each of these ideas is heading towards the same result, but one is making the person feel like they are helping themselves along with the environment. The other feels more like being told what to do by an authority figure, and then being punished if they do not comply.

Support of the Theory that Reward is a Necessary part of Punishment
The theory of punishment versus reward has been an age old debate and will most likely remain so. With this said, most experts in the field of psychology agree that behavior cannot be changed by punishment alone.

Point 1: Controlled comparisons of reward and punishment have shown that in drug treatment programs, the client stays in treatment longer if it has a reward system as opposed to a punishment contingency. (Higgins, S. T., & Silverman, K. (1999). Motivating Behavior Change Among Illicit-Drug Abusers. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, p. 330.)

Point 2: Effects of punishment have shown to have only temporary changes in behavior which return to normal once the punishment contingency is terminated. Higgins, S. T., & Silverman, K. (1999). Motivating Behavior Change Among Illicit-Drug Abusers. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, p. 330.

Point 3: Punishment is most effective when used in combination with a positive reinforcement. Marlowe, D. B., & Kirby, K. C. (1999). "Effective Use of Sanctions in Drug Courts: Lessons from Behavioral Research." National Drug Court Institute Review, II (1), 11-xxix. Higgins, S. T., & Petry, N. M. (1999). "Contingency Management: Incentives for Sobriety." Alcohol Health & Research, 23 (2), 122-127.

Point 4: The use of a prize based incentive has shown improved treatment retention and abstinence in patients dealing with stimulant abuse. Petry, N., Pierce, J. and Stitzer, M. et. al. "Effect of Prize-Based Incentives on Outcomes in Stimulant Abusers in Outpatient Psychosocial Treatment Programs", Archives of General Psychiatry, v. 82: 1148-1155 (Oct. 2005)

And while I understand that taking a plastic bag outside of a store is neither a stimulant forced compulsion or criminal activity, these studies show a glimpse of how the human cognition works, and the reward system has a pretty strong track record.

New Thinking for Plastic Bag Fees
This is why I think that perhaps the paper bag fee can work, but it needs to make an effort to use a clear reward system somehow along with it. We aren't trying to force feed green ideas, but rather create a conscious joint effort among society to create positive change in both our communities and environment.

What is your take on this debate?

Source: Ten Science-Based Principles of Changing Behavior Through the Use of Reinforcement and Punishment- William Meyer
More green ideas gone awry
California State Assembly to Consider Imposing 25-Cent Plastic Bag Fee
How Air Canada Lost a Customer Who Was Trying to be Green
The Paperless Home

Tags: Disposable | Eco-Friendly Bags | Green Packaging


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