Plastic & Waste Policy Research

If You Build It, Will They Compost? The Effects of Municipal Composting Services on Household Waste Disposal and Landfill Emissions

(Environmental and Resource Economics, with Lihini De Silva, preprint)

Abstract: Composting food and garden waste generates less methane emissions than landfills, yet most organic waste is landfilled. This paper examines how local government provision of composting services affects the amount of household waste going to landfills. Using quasi-random adoption of curbside organics collection by local councils in Australia, we find that curbside organics collection diverted one-fourth of household waste from landfill to composting. We find no evidence that organics collection altered total household waste and weak evidence of a small negative spillover effect on dry-recycling waste. Our results suggest curbside organics collection could reduce emissions from landfills by 6–26%.

Bag Leakage: The Effect of Disposable Carryout Bag Regulations on Unregulated Bags

(Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, preprint)

Winner of the JEEM Best Paper Prize 2020

Abstract: Leakage occurs when partial regulation of consumer products results in increased consumption of these products in unregulated domains. This article quantifies plastic leakage from the banning of plastic carryout bags. Using quasi-random policy variation in California, I find the elimination of 40 million pounds of plastic carryout bags is offset by a 12 million pound increase in trash bag purchases—with small, medium, and tall trash bag sales increasing by 120%, 64%, and 6%, respectively. The results further reveal 12–22% of plastic carryout bags were reused as trash bags pre-regulation and show bag bans shift consumers towards fewer but heavier bags. With a substantial proportion of carryout bags already reused in a way that avoided the manufacture and purchase of another plastic bag, policy evaluations that ignore leakage effects overstate the regulation’s welfare gains.

It's in the bag? The effect of plastic carryout bag bans on where and what people purchase to eat 

(American Journal of Agricultural Economics, preprint)

Abstract: This paper examines how banning the use of plastic carryout bags at grocery stores affects where and what people purchase to eat. Using quasi-random variation in local bag ban adoption across California and two data sources (retail scanner data and consumer survey data), I show that banning plastic carryout bags shifted some food sales away from regulated grocery stores towards unregulated grocery stores and restaurants. Specifically, I find that bag bans cause a 1.8% decline in food-at-home sales and a 1.9 percentage point increase in consumers' food-away-from-home expenditure share. The decline in food-at-home sales is larger in jurisdictions more likely to experience cross-border shopping whereas the increase in food-away-from-home expenditures is larger farther from jurisdiction borders. Together these results suggest that a small share of consumers find a way to bypass the bag bans, either by cross-border shopping if near a border or by shifting to restaurants if not near a border. Heterogeneity analyses reveal the policy effects are strongest for those with higher incomes, those under 65 years, and those with young children, suggesting both income effects and time constraints as mechanisms behind the behavioral change. By quantifying consumer avoidance behaviors, these results enable policymakers to more accurately measure the impacts of their regulations and to understand the potential trade-offs between their environmental and public health objectives.

A Mixed Bag: The Hidden Time Costs of Regulating Consumer Behavior

(Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists, preprint)

Abstract: The nonmonetary costs consumers experience from regulations are challenging to quantify and, thus, easily overlooked. Using quasi-experimental policy variation and high-frequency supermarket data, this paper identifies previously hidden time costs from policies that ban or tax the use of disposable carryout bags. Bag policies disrupt checkout procedures, causing a 3% increase in supermarket checkout duration. Given the capacity-constrained queueing system of supermarket checkout, the slowdown of individual customers compounds into congestion larger than the individual slowdown during peak shopping hours. These hassle costs do not disappear over time and, instead, persist at least 2 years after policy implementation. Customers are also sensitive to these costs—with a 1-minute increase in average checkout duration leading to a 1.2% drop in the likelihood customers return to the store in subsequent weeks. The results show that ignoring time costs, as well as institutional constraints, overstates the welfare gains from policy-induced behavioral change.

Bans vs. Fees: Disposable Carryout Bag Policies and Bag Usage

(Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, with Sofia B. Villas-Boas)

Abstract: Using observational data on consumer carryout bag usage, we measure the effects of disposable bag policies on disposable and reusable bag demand. Our results show that plastic bag bans coupled with paper bag fees decrease total disposable bag demand but lead to significant increases in paper bag consumption. We compare our results to a study on bag fees and find that both policies lead to similar increases in reusable bag usage. However, the success of bans versus fees in discouraging disposable bag usage is contingent upon the types and prices of bags that stores choose to sell in lieu of disposable plastic.

Harnessing Behavioral Science to Design Disposable Bag Regulations

(Behavioral Science and Policy, with Tatiana Homonoff, Lee-Sien Kao, and Doug Palmer)

Abstract: Regulation of single-use plastic products is at the center of much policy debate. Currently, there are over 400 laws in the US aimed at curbing disposable shopping bag use. Some regulators opt for command-and-control policies that ban disposable plastic bags, while others use market-based incentives like taxes on disposable bags or rewards for reusable bag use—choices that may greatly impact the policy’s effectiveness. In this paper, we review the evidence on the effectiveness of these policy design choices through a behavioral economics lens and highlight best practices for policymakers considering similar legislation.

Reduce, Reuse, Redeem: Deposit-Refund Recycling Programs in the Presence of Alternatives

(Ecological Economics,  with Peter Berck, Molly Sears, Carly Trachtman, and Sofia B. Villas-Boas (preprint) )

Abstract: Understanding how consumers make recycling decisions is crucial in crafting sustainable recycling policies. We estimate consumer preferences and willingness to pay for current beverage container recycling methods, including curbside pick-up services, drop-off at government-subsidized recycling centers, and drop-off at non-subsidized centers. Using a representative online and telephone survey of California households, we estimate a revealed preference discrete choice model that identifies the key attributes explaining consumers’ beverage container disposal decisions, including the ability to receive a deposit refund (paid to consumers only if they recycle at drop-off centers) and the effort associated with bringing recyclable materials to recycling centers. Additionally, we use counterfactual policy analysis to show that increasing the refund amount increases overall household recycling rates. Infra–marginal households who are on the boundary between taking containers to recycling centers and recycling using curbside pick-up, namely white households and households with higher educational attainment, see the largest changes in consumer surplus generated by increasing refund payments. Conversely, we show that eliminating government-subsidized drop-off centers does not significantly alter consumer surplus for any major demographic group, and has little impact on whether a household chooses to recycle.

Recycling Policies, Behavior and Convenience: Survey Evidence from the CalRecycle Program

(Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, with Peter Berck, Gabriel Englander, Samantha Gold, Shelley He, Janet Horsager, Scott Kaplan, Molly Sears, Andrew Stevens, Carly Trachtman, and Sofia B. Villas-Boas)

Abstract: AB2020 established a deposit‐refund system in California, where consumers are reimbursed the California Redemption Value (CRV) upon recycling eligible containers at a recycling center. We study recycling under this policy, focusing on consumer convenience, reported recycling and diversion behavior, and responses to changes in the CRV amount. We find that consumers prefer nearby centers with flexible operating hours and short waiting times. While the CRV induces recycling, an increase in CRV would not lead to major recycling increases, given the limited number of containers entering trash streams. Finally, most diverted containers are taken from trash streams, not curbside recycling bins. 

The Plastic Economy: A review of the positive and negative impacts of plastic and its alternatives

(Environmental Defense Fund Economics Discussion Paper Series, 21(5),  with Lihini De Silva and Jacqueline Doremus)

Abstract: The proliferation of plastic has generated wide-ranging consequences in terms of waste management, pollution, human and animal health, the economy and the environment. This report reviews the literature on the impacts of plastic, both positive and negative. We begin with a brief explanation of the processes by which plastic is produced and an overview of the structure of the plastic economy. We then discuss the impacts of plastic, organized by whether they occur upstream, midstream or downstream. Next, we compare virgin plastic production against a range of alternative materials and processes that have been developed with the aim of matching the physical characteristics of plastics while contributing less to the problem of waste generation. Lastly, acknowledging the transboundary challenge of plastic pollution, we examine plastic regulations and discuss evidence of their efficacy at reducing plastic use and pollution.