I wanted to pursue a master’s degree outside of Canada because I suspected there would be a different culture of environmentalism in every country I visited. I am testing my critical and observational mind because I believe that in order to be a good policy maker you must have a plentitude of examples to draw on. I hope to find some interesting examples abroad.

Not surprisingly, within a few days in London I noticed that the culture of sporting a re-usable or cloth bag is not as common here as I have seen it become at home (in my province of Ontario).  

Although this norm has only been around for a few years in Ontario, it gained a considerable amount of support relatively quickly.

Since the charge on plastic bags was introduced, I have noticed an insurgence of re-usable bags for sale at the counters of many stores, especially grocery store chains where the plastic bag fee was first introduced. I know many people who began to accumulate such re-usable bags by the dozens, often dedicating entire cupboards to their storage (my self, housemates and parents included).

I have become so accustomed to being asked if I want a bag that I was quite surprised that the first time I shopped at a popular London grocery store I was not asked. The cashier simply began to pack my things into a re-usable bag. Of course, I promptly corrected this mistake and used the knapsack that I had brought along with me.

Although I was ready to maintain my normal ‘bag-bringing’ activities here in London, I found that not being asked if I wanted a bag worked very well to disincentivise me from bringing one in the future. A very well known economic rule can be cited here: people respond to incentives

In Ontario, I was responding to not only a financial incentive but also a social one. In my circle of ‘environmentalist’ friends the social pressure was more prominent. When shopping with someone whom I knew to be environmentally driven, or attending a class (in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo) after shopping, I made sure to bring a cloth bag. In a similar vein, I made sure to bring my re-usable mug to campus rather than passively take a paper cup.

The plastic bag case is a nice example of financial incentive meeting social incentive. The two combined to influence my behavior–especially my willingness to plan ahead.

This type of policy design is a common discussion in my course about behavioural economics. In the Ontario case I would argue that the financial incentive worked to create the social pressure. Since neither existed at the London grocery store I visited, I could walk away with no damage done to my wallet or my reputation. Without either incentive, will I still refuse a plastic bag? Having written a blog post about it now, I suppose I have to. What about you?


While the bag fee and reusable bag programs work relatively well overall in Ontario, things aren’t looking so great for Toronto’s outright bag ban, with 2/3 Torontonians polled opposing the ban. What do you think about the environmental arguments to reverse the ban?


The Policy Probe blog features posts from Julia Hawthornthwaite about environmental policy and European perspectives on environmental issues on the first Wednesday of each month.

Julia is passionate about understanding the needs of business, NGOs, and government in order to help to make environmental issues a priority and create impactful change. She is currently researching Ontario's low-carbon economy and working as a Policy Analyst at the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity, and lives in Toronto. Julia attended the COP21 Conference with an international liberal youth organization. She tweets at @jrhawthorn. 

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