July 16, 2018


Why plastic bag bans triggered such a huge reaction

Gary Mortimer, Queensland University of Technology and Rebekah Russell-Bennett, Queensland University of Technology

Woolworths’ and Coles’ bans on plastic bags have been applauded by environmental groups, but were reportedly met with abuse and assault and claims of profiteering. Even comedians saw value in the theatre of the bag ban.

This reaction is due to supermarkets breaching their “psychological contract” with customers. When both major supermarkets appeared to back flip in the face of irate customers it only compounded the problem”.

Unlike written legal contracts, psychological contracts are a set of “unwritten rules” or “expectations” exchanged between the parties in a transaction. This can be between an employee and employer, or a customer and a retailer.

These understandings are often tacit or implicit. They tend to be invisible, assumed, unspoken, informal or at best only partially vocalised.

The pre-ban psychological contract between supermarket and shopper was something like “I’ll shop with you and, in exchange, you’ll pack my purchases into a free plastic bag.”

There was an implicit financial exchange between parties. Shoppers spent money on groceries and the supermarket paid for providing a plastic bag.

With the bag ban the psychological contract changed: “I’ll shop with you and give up a plastic bag, you’ll also give up plastic in the store in other areas, and the environment will benefit.”

Supermarkets justified phasing out lightweight plastic bags with the idea of a corporate social responsibility strategy. Customers might have been glad to forgo single-use plastic bans to support a greener future, but this is where the problem occurred.

Shoppers began to realise that supermarkets were saving money (by no longer giving away bags for nothing), while they themselves incurred a cost (paying 15 cents or more, depending on the type of re-usable bag).

The supermarkets had not kept up their end of the psychological contract by reducing the use of plastic in the store, particularly in packaging. The social media comments largely reflect this.

When there is a psychological contract breach, people can engage in revenge and retaliation.

This can range from mild, such as venting on social media, to acts of sabotage like altering floor stock and stealing shopping baskets.

Compounding factors

A couple of other factors have compounded the perceived breach of contract.

Unlike smaller states and territories (South Australia, Tasmania, Northern Territory and the ACT) where state legislation has banned single-use plastic bags by all retailers, this was a retailer-imposed national ban.

Shoppers in these smaller states quickly became accustomed to not having free bags, as these were not available anywhere.

By simply backflipping soon after implementing the policy, the supermarkets also prompted shoppers to question their intentions and integrity.

While shoppers may have at first accepted the rationale for the ban, extended free bag periods sent the message that the supermarkets are not that serious about banning plastic bags for environmental reasons.

Read more:
Getting rid of plastic bags: a windfall for supermarkets but it won’t do much for the environment

While Woolworths has said it will channel “money made” from selling its “Bag for Good” scheme into a youth environmental scheme, customers also rightly question the cost savings and revenues generated.

Removing a single-use plastic bag is a positive first step, but it is only the beginning. Customers still walk in to supermarkets today and see many varieties of food wrapped in plastic, and they themselves place loose fruit and vegetables into plastic bags.

As a result of media coverage, customers are now more aware and sensitive of plastics throughout dry grocery departments. They see more and more unnecessary plastic packaging, like dry pasta in a box with a clear plastic window.

Fixing the plastic bag ban

There is certainly enough evidence that removing single-use bags leads to positive environmental outcomes. But a national, uniform approach is needed, supported by consumer awareness and education programs.

While many state and territory governments have legislated plastic bag bans, others have held out. The Victorian government last year announced plans to ban single-use plastic bags, but despite widespread consumer support, it is yet to come into effect.

Supermarkets need to be open about the financial aspects of plastic bags, both costs and revenues.

Consumers may understand the procurement and logistics costs of the replacement plastic bag options will be higher – because the bags are thicker and heavier, and it takes extra time to pack different-sized bag options.

Read more:
How to break up with plastics (using behavioural science)

The distribution of net profits (not gross profits) from the sale of all re-usable bag options should be channelled into sustainability programs, research grants and education schemes. Programs need to be benchmarked, measured and publicly announced.

Shoppers will be more accepting of change if they can comprehend how their small sacrifice (say 15 cents) is helping the environment.

Shoppers also have an important role to play in the scheme of things. While it will take some time to break old habits, responsibility rests with shoppers to remember to bring a bag. If they forget, they simply need to buy another one.

The ConversationUltimately, the psychological contract needs to once again be aligned and in balance. To do this governments, retailers and consumers need to work together to solve this important environmental issue.

Gary Mortimer, Associate Professor in Marketing and International Business, Queensland University of Technology and Rebekah Russell-Bennett, Social Marketing Professor, School of Advertising, Marketing and Public Relations, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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  • We have been plastic back free for years, I was shocked when I read of the mainlands reaction to the bans. Very childish and ignorant I thought


  • The plastic bags used back in the early 2000s and prior were strong enough that you could re-use them every week for several months before they started to show signs of deteriorating unless you put a sharp edged/cornered object in one.


  • There are important issues in the world to be outraged about and terrible atrocities that occur and changing from plastic bags is not one of them! For the future generations is it important to act as a community and move away from plastic bags.


  • It’s just getting into the routine of taking the canvass bags with you for shopping. We’ll get used to it soon enough.


  • My goodness it’s lucky they supply us with bags we can purchase!


  • I always have my own bags which I’ve built up over the years. If I forget to take them into the shop, I just put everything back into the trolley and pack them when I get to my car. Why don’t the shops put out the boxes their products come in. I’m sure that will save the environment. Never used to have such problems when we used paper bags and boxes.


  • Aldi have never supplied them and nobody cared enough to complain about it. We have all just been spoilt to have them available from the others! I’m finally starting to remember to take the bags in, though — for all the years I’ve shopped at Aldi, I’ve often been hopeless with taking bags in and as a result, I have at least 50 of the fabric ones in various colours!


  • The plastic bag “ban” has had no impact on me as I’ve been using my own shopping bags for over 25 years. In Aldi, it’s easy to find empty boxes which can then be recycled.


  • I don’t mind the ban, though I agree the supermarkets need to do more in other areas.


  • I have used the green canvas bags for years, so cannot understand the outrage. We knew the plastic bag was coming. We’ve known for a long time. And we’ve had many warnings in the lead-up. So why is everyone so outraged? Really. The reasons for losing the plastic bags hasn’t changed. Why free bags now? I grabbed 2, just because, and I already have quite a few canvas bags. But, if they’re free, I’ll take them. Noticably, whilst free, there are loads of these plastic bags being used until they have to be paid for. So, customers don’t want plastic because it hurts the environment, but they don’t want to pay in any way to support it? Interesting.


  • I refuse to buy reusable bags from big retailers as it is free advertising for them with their logos on these bags. To me it is like paying them to advertise for them. Why not bring back brown paper bags as we are recycling paper now. Support reusable calico bags. An niche for someone to manufacture and sell them as they can be washed and kept hygienic, unlike the current bags touted by big companies.


  • it’s not like we weren’t aware of the change, there was plenty of notice with visual advertisement & through the radio. I think it’s great getting rid of the plastic bags. I’ve been taking my own bags for ages & it’s great. I must admit that I do forget at times to take them with me but it’s a force of habit


  • I am all for the no bags thing- it is already here in Tasmania and has been for some time, however, I can see the point made above. Prices of groceries should be reduced as the shops are saving money and they are not passing on those savings, but rather making us pay even more. Groceries just keep getting more and more expensive with no justification.


  • Yes this is great for the environment.


  • Great article! This is such an important environmental issue and still so much more needs to be done!


  • I think both Coles and Woolworths need to have a look at the way aldi have been doing. They have the fruit and veg bags that can go in your compost!
    I’ve been taking my own bags for years and I live in vic, you don’t see me complaining.


  • This article hits the nail on the head. Whilst I haven’t been irate over the switch, I wasn’t too impressed with the plastic replacement bags that were brought in either (I do bring my own anyway). I was confused when walking through the fresh produce aisles to see so much unnecessary plastic packaging on food now which seems to defeat the purpose of the ban. Its like retailers have only made half an attempt to put this place and not thought it through properly.


  • People were given enough time to get used to the idea of no plastic bags.
    Aldi have had this right from the beginning.
    People complaining of bags breaking because of the way staff are packing their items.
    Need to grow up.
    The simple easy solution is to pack your own groceries.

    Bringing in bags that are filthy & disgusting is totally rude.
    Expecting people to touch your dirty bags is gross.

    Bringing in little bags that fit hardly anything in them is rude.
    If you insist on bringing these bags PACK THEM YOURSELF.

    If you are not happy about the way your bags are packed or that bags are breaking DON’T take it out on the poor checkout operator.

    Get a manager they get paid to deal with morons not the poor checkout staff


  • Loved this article on plastic bags. I am still confused as to why they are still using the clear plastic bag in the fruit and vegetables section. I see they also use plastic under the fruit and vegetables that are on display than they place ice on the plastic to keep fresh. Oh and did I mention the ice was delivered in Plastic Bags. I don’t think a lot of reasearch was done before though this is a start.


  • I lived in Canberra prior to moving to Queensland and there have been no plastic bags for years. Nor was there a reaction like there is here now in Queensland at the time it happened. I agree it is no big deal. There is more important issues in society than pathetic reactions to a 15c bag. Appears to be just another excuse for some to vent, abuse, and even attack the poor staff at supermarkets. Wake up Queensland you should be ashamed of the behaviour. Then again it appears to be a way of life here. Heading back to civilisation .

    • Well said, I’m from Canberra & couldn’t believe peoples reaction either.


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