Friday, November 07, 2008

Nice to See

Looks like New York City might join other advanced societies: the NYT says that Mayor Bloomberg is looking to push through a fee on plastic grocery bags.

This is one of those areas where an irrational aspect of humanity confounds economics, it seems to me. People will, at least initially, make a big fuss about paying a few cents for a bag (while, say, showing no compunction about paying a premium for brand-name goods that will go into that bag). If Ireland is any indicator, this fee could radically change their habits once they see their protests are to no avail, which I suppose is Econ 101 -- here's an instance of a highly elastic demand curve.

Seems like a winner of a policy, no matter what -- either the use of plastic bags goes way down, or the city collects a nice piece of change from those who are part of the problem, and have every opportunity to address it.


Rick said...

Probably a bit more than coincidence, but tonight at the local supermarket here in Miyazaki, as I was paying for my beer and snacks (sad to say, my lovely wife doesn't trust me with the "real" shopping), the clerk asked me if I needed a bag. I didn't have to pay for one (and I doubt I will have to for a while), but the question itself indicated to me that it's coming.

Anonymous said...

They tried that here in our small town about a month ago and it didn't work. They were charging 25 cents a bag though not just a few cents. People tried to gather up their groceries in their arms and stagger to the car. It was so unpopular they only tried it for a few days and gave it up. If you shop in tiny quantities three times a day like the do in Europe it might work to have little knit bags that you try to remember to carry with you when you leave to go shopping, but when you shop once a week for a big family you'd need a cart full of bags to hump groceries to your car. If you're buying two hundred dollars worth of groceries and it takes 8 bags to get it to the car and you only brought 6 bags with you, you'd resent having to pay fifty cents for two more bags when you just spent hundreds of dollars there. Plus as you try to stuff 8 bags of stuff into six bags you create a bottleneck at the check out counter that slows down everybody in line. Maybe you'd adjust with time and remember to bring 10 bags if you think you're going to need 8, but any miscalculation creates a problem and slows down the check out which is always the hassle with shopping.

I have a feeling that the intent is noble and we support it in principle, but in reality this probably isn't going to work well in a culture where people have never thought that way.

Theoretically you could ride your bicycle to the store instead of driving the car too and save on gas, but in a culture that is car oriented few will actually do it especially in inclement weather.

Trying to force people to be moral rarely succeeds as prohibition demonstrated.

tafkass said...

This is current in the UK as well; most supermarkets appear, organically, to be removing the free bags in response to customer opinion.

TC - I can't speak for the rest of Europe, but in the UK, most families do a $200 weekly shop at an out-of-town supermarket like they do in the US - and by and large, they bring their own bags these days. It shouldn't be about "forcing" anyone to do anything - the public (over here at least) appear to be informed enough to make the change for themselves.

Anonymous said...

You are probably right, tafkass. It's been a number of years since I was in Europe so it undoubtedly has changed. The last time I was on the continent (not Britain) there was a little cheese shop, a bakery, and butcher, a produce stand and so on. Housewives made the rounds and markets didn't provide bags or have them available for a price. They didn't have baggers either. The clerk rang up your purchase and it was up to you to deal with it from there. No parking lot outside to leave the car or any of that. If you didn't bring your own bag you just gathered it up in your arms. I suppose I'm out of date and this has all changed. Actually it might work in New York City where there's not much driving of private cars due to the parking problem (or has that changed too?), but in spread out California where one drives everywhere, walking to the market or trying to use the virtually non-existent public transportation, is not really an option.

I think educating people to bring their own bag and putting social pressure on them is a great idea, but if you're going to try to force them into it with a charge for the bag, I'm less sanguine about the chances. I think people would gladly pay a few cents for a bag rather than bring one. If you make the fee high enough (say a dollar per plastic bag) it might work, but there was a lot of resistance here at a quarter.

A glimmer of hope though, in our area they are starting to ask if you want a bag rather than routinely putting everything into one. The markets do have places where you can bring the bags back now and turn them in, and people do do that.

I think the Brits in general are way ahead of us in terms of social consciousness.

John Evo said...

I started using re-usable bags about a year ago. They are much better than plastic - sturdy, stand upright with food in them, larger, better handles. And now with the few cents that they charge for plastic, along with the nickle they give me back for using my own, starts adding up over the course of a year (we shop a lot - hey, we're AMERICANS)!

jiminy jilliker said...

It doesn't actually confound economics, it's just a distortion. The externality of pollution is borne by everyone rather than those that cause it. This is just a means of putting things back into equilibrium.

Most people who flap their gums about free market economics really have no understanding of, y'know, economics.

"Drill baby drill" isn't about the market as it should work, it's about perpetuating a favorite form of disequilibrium. And "drill baby drill" is directly connected to plastic bags.

bjkeefe said...

Roy Edroso's take. (Much better than mine, unsurprisingly.)