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

Shoppers 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 by Nottingham University Business School’s N/LAB Analytical Center of Excellence suggests the massive drop in plastic bag use in the UK may have little to do with the makes buyers care about the environment.

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

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

The findings came as plastic bag consumption hits its annual peak over the festive period, despite all retailers in England being 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 those who don’t.

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

The charge for single-use plastic bags in England rose to 10p in May this year (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

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

Identified from the original dataset of 1,284,825 transactions across 1,222 stores, over 10,000 consumers participated in a questionnaire exploring their environmental circumstances, characteristics and opinions.

Their survey responses were linked to their shopping data, and a machine learning algorithm was then used to determine which factors actually predicted bag buying behavior.

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

Dr Gavin Smith, associate professor of analytics, said: “We expected our results to show that infrequent bag shoppers are at least partly motivated by a desire to save money.

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

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

Amid growing concerns about the contribution of plastic bags to pollution and litter, Wales introduced the first levy in the UK in 2011, followed by Northern Ireland in 2013 and Scotland in 2014.

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

carry bag fee
A 5p charge for plastic bags was introduced across Wales in October 2011 (Benjamin Wright/PA)

In 2014, approximately 140 bags per person were distributed, which equates to approximately 61,000 tons in total.

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

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

According to the N/LAB study, Northern Ireland records the highest sales of plastic bags, 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 key to being able to make pro-environmental choices.

Bryce K. Locke