Weaning Israelis Off Their Plastic Bag Habit

A law requiring stores to charge for them is due to go into force soon, but will it deter usage?

Israelis wrapping their shopping in plastic bags at a Shufersal supermarket. Picture shows a man in a white shirt with three bags, one clearly containing fresh produce and one a box of breakfast cereal. The third bag appears to have been doubled, presumably for strength. A woman standing next to him in line, wearing a brownish-greenish shirt and jeans, is holding a plastic bag with unclear content.
Israelis wrapping their shopping in plastic bags at a Shufersal supermarket. Dan Keinan

In just a few weeks’ time supermarkets and other stores will no longer be allowed by law to give away plastic bags to shoppers making purchases.

Each one of the bags will cost 10 agorot (about 3 cents) starting January 1, with the idea that consumers will think twice before they pack, for instance, a single can in a bag or take a bunch of them home for use later on.

Israelis use 2.2 billion of these bags every year, which works out to 250 for every man, woman and child. A lot of them end up littering parks and roadsides, being carried away in the wind and getting trapped in trees.

But will 10 agorot a bag do the trick? That’s what researchers at Bar-Ilan Business School’s Consumer Insights Laboratory sought to find out in an experiment conducted by Dr. Eyal Pe’er, assisted by two graduate students, Ariel Tikotsky and Limor Sahar-Inbar.

If you charge too little you won’t stop shoppers from taking lots of bags – but if you charge too much you might also encourage the wrong behavior, warned Pe’er.

“You have to remember that an excessively high charge could cause negative reaction, even anger, on the part of consumers and give rise sometimes to criminal behavior, as we saw with deposit bottles,” he said. “The government has to keep the cost of a single-use bag low enough so that one day we may be able to dispense with them altogether.”

What Pe’er’s team found is that a 10-agorot charge caused consumers to use 38% fewer bags on a shopping trip than they would have if they were free, equal to seven fewer bags on average.

That makes sense. But Pe’er and his team also found that tripling the cost of a bag to 30 agorot wasn’t much more of a deterrent: The average shopper was then only ready to give up on nine bags.

Where the charge did make a difference was at 50 agorot – at that price, shoppers used 65% fewer bags.

If faced with the choice of paying for throwaway bags or shelling out a much bigger amount for a reusable bag, as supermarkets even today offer customers, the calculations become intriguing for an economist, if not for a housewife.

If throwaway bags are free, only 16% of consumers will trouble to buy reusable ones. But at 10 agorot, the percentage doubles, and at 50 agorot the percentage reaches nearly two-thirds.

“Reusable bags have a relatively high initial cost, but consumers can earn back the investment pretty quickly because they’re not paying for single-use bags in the next shopping trips,” the researchers concluded.

“If a single-use bag costs 10 agorot and assuming that a reusable bag can hold as many goods as three single-use bags, the 5-shekel cost of a reusable bag will pay for itself in five trips to the supermarket (if you buy 30 items). If the single-use bag costs 30 agorot, the investment [in a reusable bag] pays for itself in 2.5 shopping trips – and if it costs 50 agorot, it pays for itself in the next trip.”