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The Power of Small Changes

By Robin R

On July 1st of 2020, a new law came into effect that requires all retailers to charge a fee for plastic bags. While this small plastic bag fee may appear unimpressive as a means to address the alarming levels of plastic pollution in our oceans, it provides an exciting case study on the real possibility of bringing about swift and meaningful change.

Previous to the enactment of the fee mandate, environmentally conscious consumers had to be vigilant in order to timely refuse the robotic provision of plastic bags at the checkout counter. Plastic bags were an automatic companion to almost any purchase, and it seemed like this frustrating default was never going to change.

As it turned out, all it took was a decree from the authorities to set in motion a rapid transition to the era of the eco bag. Retailers large and small immediately took charge of public messaging, posting signage to promote the new norm and politely asking shoppers whether they brought a bag at every purchase. It did not take long for consumers to get with the program. According to data posted proudly for all to see at my local Aeon supermarket, the use of plastic bags dropped 86% since the fee was imposed last year.

While there are many factors that inhibit change, the plastic bag fee is a clear example of how positive shifts in social norms can still be brought about with impressive efficiency. Once the tipping point is reached by standard setting on behalf of perceived authorities (i.e. the government, a popular figure, social pressure, etc.), the rest is history.

The dramatic reduction in plastic bag consumption over the past year is just one drop in the bucket, and there are many changes left to be made if we are to set society on track to avoid the worst of climate change. However, as evidenced by the impact of a minuscule ten yen fee, small changes can be enough to get the ball rolling.

Changes I hope to see next:
  1. Introduction of a fee on all plastic packaging

  2. Increased variety of beverages in returnable bottles & incentivized collection points

  3. Addition of compostables to the city’s waste management system


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