It seems that you can’t turn on the radio or TV these days without a story concerning the evils of plastic waste and the damage it is doing to our oceans. The recent BBC series Blue Planet 2 showed many visual, hard-hitting examples which shocked viewers and has galvanised the media into getting behind various initiatives – Refuse the Straw, The Latte Levy for example. But for these initiatives to truly succeed there has to be a change to social conforming behaviours. The introduction of a charge for carrier bags in UK supermarkets is an excellent example of this.
Broadly speaking, there are three types of social conforming behaviours (“norms”) which when aligned and triggered can change behaviours permanently.
First we have descriptive norms – we do these things because others do it. Closely linked are injuctive norms – we take these actions because we believe they are publicly approved as “the right thing to do”. Finally there are personal norms which are as a result of our upbringing, education or experiences. If policymakers can align these three norms and find trigger then we change people’s habits.
Looking at the plastic bag charge that has been so successful in the UK, research shows that most people’s personal norms consider waste to be bad. So they will save bags if the two public approval norms can be triggered. The publicity campaign introducing the charge stressed the harm that plastic bags can do to animals as well as the visual impact of litter. This primed people to appreciate that avoiding plastic bag use was the “right thing to do” as well as being publicly approved.
There only remained one aspect to establish – to subtly persuade individuals that most people bring their own bags to stores. Making this standard practice socially reinforces individual actions and becomes habit-forming which is then likely to be sustained. The introduction of the 5p charge also triggers a loss-aversion process, which subliminally reinforces that buying plastic bags is neither normal nor “the right thing to do”.
Another aspect to the loss-aversion process is the UK proposal to follow other European countries and introduce a refundable deposit scheme for plastic bottles. Recycling rates of up to 95% have been achieve elsewhere.