Another unintended consequence of plastic bag tax — your waistline? Reusable bags don’t mean license to ‘cheat’

NorthCountryRecycles.org
NorthCountryRecycles.org

Making environmentally-friendly consumer choices is hard. Really, really hard. It’s great and even inspiring that people think as hard as they do about the planet, even when the individual choices they make might not be as beneficial as they believe. (Yes, this story will talk about plastic grocery bag taxes, which have a murky history. But I’m not here to debate that.). After all, a generation or two ago, we were pretty ignorant about a lot of these things. So, good on us for at least thinking carefully about it.

New research suggests that we might all be patting ourselves on the back a little too hard, however. And that could be making us a little more round around the belly.

Put simply, people who bring their own reusable bags to the grocery store buy more junk food — about 7 percent more — likely an effort to reward themselves for good behavior, according to a new study.

It’s called the “licensing effect.” People who do good feel at liberty to reward themselves, a phenomenon described very well in this Atlantic story.

That’s fine, of course. Giving yourself little rewards for doing the hard things in life can be a great tool. (When I’m writing a book, I get a cookie every 1,000 words or so. OK, maybe every 500. Writing a book is not great for my figure.)

And avoiding plastic bags might not be good for yours. One Harvard and one Duke professor analyzed loyalty-card data to find that bag bringers drop bad food in those bags at the 7 percent higher rate. On the other hand, they were 13 percent more likely to buy organic products.

As with all such studies, caveats abound. The data studied came from the pre-bag-tax era, so reusable bag users from that time probably don’t map exactly to today’s bag-tax nudged shoppers. If the licensing effect is really in effect, those who begrudgingly shun plastic bags might not feel entitled to a reward. Or they might feel even more entitled to a reward. Or, it’s possible they are rewarding themselves as much for buying supposedly healthy food as they are bringing their own bags, though the researchers tried to account for this. More research required.

There’s a couple of takeaways for you, however. First, you might be unconsciously rewarding yourself with treats at the grocery store, and that’s not good. Saving the environment but clogging your arteries does no one any good, and on balance, the planet is probably worse off for it, when you think about the possible long-term health consequences. Again, rewarding yourself has a place, but doing it unconsciously does not.

Then, there’s the deeper question: What are you actually rewarding yourself for? Bag taxes, while they have become an easy policy for local politicians to rally the troops around, have a much more murky reality.

I have no doubt that people in Washington D.C. are using fewer plastic bags today than they did before the district’s trail-blazing bag tax went into effect in 2010. When you tax something, you get less of it, period. That’s probably a good thing on balance. But every advocacy group — on all sides — can’t help but exaggerate the data it finds to make what it believes to be a very valid point.

D.C.’s bag tax often held up as an unqualified success. Not long after the tax was implemented, local officials said bag use dropped from 22.5 million to 3.3. million per month, a stunning 85 percent. That data point has been used and re-used around the country. It was also such a gross statistical fib as to border on a bald-faced lie.

If you care about this issue, and the environment, you owe it to yourself to read this excellent investigation by the Washington Post. The upshot: It’s silly to think DC bag usage dropped from 22 million to 3 million over a 5-cent fee. Bag usage has dropped perhaps 30 percent. Or maybe 70 percent. It depends. The bag tax money collected has gone to many things, but most of it not for boots on the ground cleaning up trash from the Anacostia River, which was the stated purpose of the tax. A lot went to salaries. A lot went to kids’ field trips. That’s not necessarily bad, either. But it is something to consider next time you think about giving yourself a big pat on the back for not using a plastic bag. If your kids are going on a field trip then you may want to check out some Custom drawstrings bags, these bags are great for kids as they are comfortable and easy to use, they also fit a lot in there so they can pack their favourite lunch, lots of water in case they get dehydrated, and even a football or a barbie doll to give them comfort whilst away. But you could just stick to a plastic bag…

On the other hand, studies from people who oppose the bag tax have some equal statistical fibbing in them. How often must you use a reusable bag to really make a difference, since of course reusable bags ending up in the trash is also a bad thing? Maybe 4 times, says one side. Maybe 131 times says the other. That’s just silly, too. Here’s a nice piece (from the bag-tax advocacy side) de-myth-ifying bag tax data. It all depends on the materials in the reusable bag, of course. And, as is rarely mentioned, how often you are willing to clean it. (You don’t clean yours? Ick!)

All this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about the choices we make. They do matter. Every plastic bag you don’t waste — everything you don’t waste — is less stuff that ends up in a landfill, and that’s good. How good? Probably not whole bag-of-potato chips or carton-of-ice-cream good.



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About Bob Sullivan 1463 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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