Sunday, September 6, 2009

Shopping bags: China's sticks or Ralph's carrots?

During the several months I recently spent in China, I occasionally found myself feeling a little miffed that I was charged for the privilege of carrying away food items I had purchased in plastic bags. In Shanghai, I was charged five mao per bag (roughly 7 US cents). The longer I was there, the more I found myself making a conscious decision to take used plastic bags with me to the store.

Over the past five years that I have lived in LA, I have noticed that supermarkets have begun their own attempts to discourage the use of plastic bags -- or rather, to encourage their non-use. The Ralph's in Westwood, where I have been shopping lately, gives you back five cents for any reusable bag you bring in.

So where am I going with this? I think there are a few lessons here about both political systems and human motivation. (Think of this as a hodge-podge post if you want.)

In China's case, it was the central government in Beijing, not local governments, that made the decision to charge for plastic bags. Regardless of how business owners feel about this issue, they have no choice but to charge for bags. (I will make no assumptions about where all of this money ends up.)

Due to the federal system in the United States, issues like this typically fall to state and local governments, and sometimes, directly to the voters. Unfortunately (from the point-of-view of someone who wants to see less usage of plastic bags) the closer such decisions get to voters, the greater the likelihood that taxes of this nature will not be passed -- unless, of course, one lives in San Francisco, whose relatively wealthy voters often happily tax themselves for green causes. Seattle's voters, given an opportunity to vote for a bag tax a couple of years ago, chose to vote it down. When Seattle later passed an ordinance, the plastic bag business lobby (who knew there was such a lobby?) successfully batted it down.

In New York City, bag taxes or bans have been discussed in the past, and, as far as I know, have still not been passed. In Los Angeles, the City Council has passed an outright ban on plastic bags to go into effect in July 2010 unless the State of California passes a statewide bag tax in the interim. The latest information I have been able to find is that California's legislature has still not been able to pass a bag tax. The plastic bag business lobby in California has also successfully sued cities that have banned plastic bags.

In doing a little Googling for this post, I have discovered that there is a lot of activity in the US surrounding plastic bags, but apparently none of the action is happening at the federal level. And, aside from Washington D.C. and North Carolina's Outer Banks, no local community has been able to pass bag taxes and make them stick. (If my facts on your particular community are out-of-date, please feel free to set me straight via the comments section below.)

My point here is that, aside from the exceptions mentioned above, the only policies in the US on plastic bags that appear to be approaching success are those taken all the way down at the store level. Our central government is (thus far) taking a hands-off approach, and our local governments are not powerful enough to fight a nationwide plastic bag business lobby.

Yet, while China's central government has approached this issue with a stick, local stores in Los Angeles are voluntarily offering carrots.

Which method is more successful? While I am sure China's Statistics Bureau has come up with some numbers on this, our intuition should tell us that China's policy has been more successful -- if for no other reason than that it is a nationwide policy. However, even if you could compare the cities of Shanghai and Los Angeles, I am certain we would see that Shanghai's bag use has fallen further than has LA's.

My intuition tells me that people will respond more to a stick than a carrot on an issue such as this, even if the values of the sticks and carrots are negligible. People don't want to lose something they already have, even if it's small, but they will also not go out of their way just to get a few cents back -- especially if they feel stupid doing it, or if it creates a little inconvenience.

While my wife is keen to make use of reusable bags, and I go along with it when I'm with her, I will admit that I sometimes bring home plastic bags when I'm shopping by myself. China's sticks did more to change my behavior than have Ralph's carrots.
  • Can you think of similar comparisons between how China and the US attempt to legislate human behavior?
  • Do you agree that sticks can be more effective than carrots on issues of conservation, or can you think of examples in which carrots have been more effective than sticks?
  • Does the federal nature of the US government place the US at a long-term disadvantage when it comes to changing destructive human behavior? Or is there a price to be paid for the heavy-hand of China's unitary system?
  • What are the tradeoffs between these two styles of governing?
(Apologies to my readers who haven't been in school for awhile and find such academic questions to be a bit of a shock. ;-)