Plastic bag fees, inflation and lessons for bottled water

bottled-water-234x300Just over a month ago the grocery store Metro introduced a five-cent fee for single-use bags in Ontario and Quebec. According to a recent press release Metro grocery stores distributed 70 per cent fewer bags compared to the monthly average and demand for reusable bags has increased by five times. As Metro spokesperson, Selena Fiacco notes, this “confirm(s) that customers are willing to change their shopping habits.”

This is great news. Fewer plastic bags in the world can only be a good thing.

It would be nice to think that the lessons from this press release could influence those involved in the bottled water debate. As some of my readers know, I’ve argued that efforts to ban bottled water have been poorly thought through. The above press release plays to the point of these posts: people are price sensitive and that we can nudge them to make better choices. This strikes me as a far less problematic than removing water as an option from corner stores during an obesity and diabetes epidemic. Why remove the healthiest choice? However, this does not mean I wish to see an increase, or even continued use of disposable container bottles.

The above press release reminds me of the (underutilized) power of deposits. The key with a deposit is that it must significant enough to encourage users to adopt an alternative (reusable container) or recycle the disposable container. Am not 100% certain but my sense is that deposits on bottles have not changed much since their inception. With inflation factored in, this means the relative value of the deposit against the overall purchase price of a beverage has declined markedly in the last 30+ years.

Consider my home province of British Columbia (which has the oldest legislated deposit-return system in North America) and its 5¢ refundable deposit. If this amount has remained unchanged since 1970 when deposits were introduced (has any jurisdiction raised deposit values?) then, according to the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator a 5¢ deposit in 1970 is worth 28¢ in 2009 dollars. Imagine if small water bottles had a 30¢ deposit on them? And if 2L bottles had a 75¢ or $1.00 deposit. I suspect people would be slightly more motivated to not litter, and some people would be further motivated to use their reusable containers. I’d even be willing to consider a still higher deposit to encourage re-use. Regardless of the actual deposit, such a system has the benefit of not punishing healthy choices (like, say water) and thereby indirectly reward unhealthy choices (like, say Coke). It simply treats all beverages equally.

With a little imagination and tweaking the humble deposit could once again be a powerful influencer in the debate on how to deal with bottled drinks.

For some interesting facts on deposits and container waste, check out this site.

6 thoughts on “Plastic bag fees, inflation and lessons for bottled water

  1. danielharan

    I am using fewer disposable plastic bags as a result, but I realize it's all theater. Metro could show a real commitment to reduce its environmental impact by using doors on their refrigerated display cases and changing their procurement policies. Plastic bags are a small part of a grocery stores' impact, but they're the part that's easiest to blame on the customers.I like the idea of a deposit/nudge for bottled water, since it avoids the green authoritarian tendencies too often displayed by people in this debate.Tap water often tastes horrid. And if the alternative is Coke, the result is using more sugar which also required water to grow. Restricting people's choice in those circumstances can only backfire.

  2. tpurves

    Except at that rate people would be trucking container loads of plastic bottles to the province from all over north America…

  3. David Eaves

    Thom, I couldn't tell if you were joking. I'm not sure that people would truck empty bottles to Canada for a 25 cent deposit… once you factor in transport costs that equation falls apart pretty quickly. Even at one $ a bottle, the equation doesn't work (unless, I guess, you lived right over the border and even then…)One area where higher deposit costs might have a perverse negative effect is on homeless people. At the moment there is a cost/benefit ratio in which stealing collected bottles probably doesn't yield a sufficient profit to make the physical risk and negative reputation worthwhile. This stability point allows people to collect disposed containers safely and allows programs like United We Can to function and offer a critical service to a marginalized community. However, if empty bottles had more significant value, that calculus could change – having a number of empty bottles would be valuable and might actually put someone collecting them in greater physical danger. Again, this is idle speculation and the point at which that calculus shifts is totally unknown to me.

  4. tpurves

    Sometimes I lose track I myself. I think the landed cost of a plastic bottle from china or wherever they are manufactured is pretty low. If I was making a semi-serious point about finding the right balance point between sufficient incentive and a market distortion or other unintended consequences of a price too high.It's really remarkable how successful the 5cent bags were in Toronto. Just 5cents was enough to tip the balance at *every* merchant from the default being a bag to the default being you have to ask for one. Just look at organ donation rates, tipping from an opt-in to an opt-out default is sometimes all it takes for 70% swing in behaviour. Water bottles are tricky though, they have value beyond the water, they are portable, reseal-able and trustable to be fresh/clean water. and, as you suggest, why pick on the water bottles? coke is almost entirely water too only adulterated with a dollop of fairly unhealthy syrup and coloring.If we're acting in the public as well as environmental interest, shouldn't we be taxing every plastic bottle beverage *except* pure water? wouldn't that be progress on both fronts?

  5. RickWeiss

    I think the success of the bag campaign is that it was a separate charge. Maybe an non-refundable $.05 charge per bottle would be the most effective to dissuade people from buying unnecessary bottled water.That said, I don't see the issue being people who get thirsty while walking down the street and stop at the corner store for a bottle of water. It's those who buy cases of water bottles and drink 5 non-refillable bottles a day.Larger refillable containers, or in-home filters are the way to go.

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