Eliminate the Problem Choice, Easier Said than Done

Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD)’s Policy brief: The Political Economy of Environmentally Related Taxes gives the example of a plastic bag levy in Ireland that effectively reduced the use of plastic bags. While a taxing the plastic bag seems like a good solution to encourage behavior change, eliminating the choice at first glance seems like a more valid solution. It reminds me of Seattle’s plastic bag ban. Moving here from the Midwest it was a change for me to remember to take my reusable bag to the grocery store every time. But it was a change that happened rapidly as I was charged to use a paper bag, the alternative choice when you forget your reusable bag.

We see these types of solutions creep up in targeted areas, such as San Francisco’s plastic water bottle ban on city property or your local coffee shop charging you less for bringing a reusable mug. Eliminating the negative choice seems like a simple solution to behavior change, but by eliminating a choice there always needs to be an alternative solution. In the case of the plastic bag the alternative in Seattle is often a 5-cent paper bag, which arguable is not a more environmentally friendly choice than a plastic bag; there is still a lot of energy that goes into production and it depends on how or if you reuse the paper bag.

So then is eliminating the problem choice a valid solution? Possible, but further research and modifications might be necessary to make a big impact. It would be interesting to compare what people select when being taxed for a negative choice (i.e. do they more often than not bring a reusable bag) versus being given a slightly better alternative at a minimal cost (i.e. do they more often than not bring a reusable bag or select a paper bag) A necessary measure may be to associate a higher cost for a slightly better alternative (i.e. a 25 cent paper bag) or bigger cost savings for a more environmentally friendly choice (i.e. a 25 cent savings for using a reusable coffee mug).

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