Saving pennies is not the planet behind the decline in plastic bag use – study

Buyers are avoiding single-use plastic bags to save pennies rather than the planet, a “big data” study of more than 10,000 consumers has found.

Research from Nottingham University Business School’s N / LAB Center of Analytical Excellence suggests that the massive drop in the use of plastic bags in the UK may not have much to do with the fact that buyers care about the environment.

The study relied on more than one million loyalty card transactions to explore psychological and demographic predictors of single-use bag purchases.



Previous research has tended to focus exclusively on the personality or motivations of consumers and not, crucially, on whether an individual’s beliefs actually translate into action in the real world.

Dr James Goulding, N / LAB

The researchers found that the bags are more likely to be purchased by younger buyers who are often male and less thrifty but whose environmental concerns do not affect their purchasing decisions or not.

The results came as plastic bag consumption hit its annual peak during the holiday season, although all retailers in England are legally required to charge 10p per bag.

Study co-author Dr James Goulding, associate director of N / LAB, said: “Until now, very little was known about the people who still regularly buy plastic bags – or about those who do not buy it.

“Previous research has tended to focus exclusively on the personality or motivations of consumers and not, crucially, on whether an individual’s beliefs actually translate into action in the real world.

The price of single-use plastic bags in England jumped to 10 pence in May this year (Dominic Lipinski / PA)

(AP Archives)

“Our approach recognizes that people today leave in their wake a substantial amount of data that can help benefit society and shed significant light on how they actually behave in practice.”

Identified from the original data set of 1,284,825 transactions in 1,222 stores, more than 10,000 consumers participated in a questionnaire exploring their environmental situation, characteristics and opinions.

Their survey responses were tied to their purchasing data, and a machine learning algorithm was then used to determine the factors that actually predicted bag buying behavior.

The survey included questions on opinions on environmental considerations in general and climate change in particular, but these were found to have little influence on purchasing decisions.



We expected our results to show that infrequent bag shoppers are at least partially motivated by a desire to save money. But what we weren’t expecting … is that environmental concerns don’t predict consumption at all

Dr Gavin Smith

Dr Gavin Smith, Associate Professor of Analytics, said: “We expected our results to show that infrequent bag buyers are at least partly motivated by the desire to save money.

“But what we didn’t expect, especially given the role of the environment in supporting the plastic bag tax, is that environmental concerns don’t predict consumption at all.

“This suggests that future campaigns to further reduce the consumption of plastic bags could benefit from different messages. It’s about understanding who to target, how and when.

Amid growing concerns over the contribution of plastic bags to pollution and waste, Wales introduced the UK’s first tax in 2011, followed by Northern Ireland in 2013 and Scotland in 2014 .

In 2015, the year after its seven largest supermarkets distributed more than 7.6 billion single-use bags, England introduced its own 5 pence tax, which doubled to a low of 10 pence in May of this year and has been extended to all retailers.

A 5 pence charge for plastic bags was imposed across Wales in October 2011 (Benjamin Wright / PA)

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In 2014, around 140 bags per person were distributed, equivalent to around 61,000 tonnes in total.

The supply of single-use bags, which take longer than other bags to degrade in the environment and can damage wildlife, had increased for five consecutive years prior to 2014.

A mandatory charge – with retailers supposedly donating profits to good causes – has seen the number of donated single-use bags drop by more than 90% in England, while around £ 180million has also been raised for good causes.

Northern Ireland has the highest plastic bag sales, according to the N / LAB study, with the North West and South West regions of England recording the lowest.

Study co-author Rosa Lavelle-Hill of the Alan Turing Institute said: “A better understanding of consumer behavior and psychology is critical to being able to make pro-environmental choices.

Bryce K. Locke