The Repeal of the Tax on Disposable Utensils: What Lessons can we Learn?

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Even though the tax seems to have reduced the use of disposable utensils, its repeal demonstrates that a sustainable change in behavior requires additional measures, including running information campaigns tailored to the ultra-orthodox, making alternatives available, and encouraging their use.

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Despite the initial indications that the tax on disposable utensils achieved its goal, its repeal provides important insights for the future about the appropriate and effective ways to modify Israelis’ behavior with regard to the environment.

First of all, we learned that especially in Israel’s complex political and social reality, exemplified by the current controversy about the proposal for radical changes to the judicial system, when promoting a policy, it is essential to achieve broad consensus. When it comes to modifying people’s habits in the use of disposable utensils, we have seen that the fact that the tax did not enjoy broad support, ultimately led to its repeal. In light of this, there is a need for new thinking about policy measures to modify the public’s behavior in a way that will produce long-term and sustainable results.

In the context of public policy in general and of environmental policy in particular, taxation is frequently used as a means for reducing undesirable and harmful behaviors. The logic is quite simple: As soon as an undesirable behavior becomes more expensive, the demand for it tends to fall, as is the normal reaction of demand to price increases.

The tax also serves another goal – the internalization of negative externalities. The use of disposable utensils has a harmful effect on both humans and animals resulting from the damage they cause to the environment. This includes air pollution and the emission of greenhouse gases during the manufacturing process; landfill waste that decomposes very slowly over centuries, and causes land or groundwater pollution; and garbage that leaks to the surroundings and bodies of water where it damages sewer and drainage infrastructure, marine animals, and the food chain. Making users of disposable utensils pay these costs can thus be seen as also serving this goal of internalizing the cost of negative externalities, in that the rise in price reflects the cost of the damage done by their use.Hong, Seonghoon, and Richard M. Adams (1999) “Household responses to price incentives for recycling: some further evidence.” Land Economics: 505-514.

On the international scene, policies on disposable utensils range from a ban or restrictions on their use, to the imposition of taxes and leviesOECD (2021), Environment Directorate, Environment Policy Committee, Working Party on Integrating Environmental and Economic Policies, Preventing single-use plastic waste: implications of different policy approaches.. Many countries tax disposable plastics; research has shown such taxation to be effective in reducing their useSee, e.g., Borg, K., Lennox, A., Kaufman, S., Tull, F., Prime, R., Rogers, L., & Dunstan, E. (2022) Curbing plastic consumption: A review of single-use plastic behaviour change interventions. Journal of Cleaner Production, 131077. We should note, however, that research in the field focuses on taxation of plastic bags rather than disposal utensils. Taxation of disposable utensils of various types is less common than that on plastic bags; there are no unequivocal findings about them. For example, a tax on plastic flatware in Belgium did not reduce consumption, perhaps because of low pricing. For more on the subject, see: OECD (2021), Environment Directorate, Environment Policy Committee, Working Party on Integrating Environmental and Economic Policies, Preventing single-use plastic waste: implications of different policy approaches.. In Israel, it is especially important to curtail the use of disposables, since their per capita consumption is very high—more than five times the European averageIsrael Ministry of Environmental Protection, “Taxation of disposal plastic utensils in Israel,” policy paper, July 2021 [Hebrew].. Israeli data provide the first indications that a new tax on them can sharply reduce their useSee, e.g., the Environmental Protection Ministry’s publication on the subject., although this is a short-term effect and may be due, at least in part, to consumers’ stocking up on them before the tax went into effect.

As stated, however, the repeal of the tax on disposable utensils requires rethinking as to the process through which it was imposed, in the hope of learning more about effective ways to modify Israelis’ behavior with regard to the environment.

To begin with, this saga reflects the challenge of promoting behavior changes in a complex society such as IsraelKollmuss, Anja, and Julian Agyeman (2002). “Mind the gap: why do people act environmentally and what are the barriers to pro-environmental behavior?” Environmental education research 8.3: 239-260.. There is no doubt that the ultra-Orthodox, because of their heavy use of disposable utensils, perceived the imposition of the tax as targeting them directly and as a threat to their religious and community identity. This feeling might have been blunted to some extent, had the introduction of the tax been accompanied by an information campaign focused on the ultra-Orthodox and their leadershipDhir, A., Koshta, N., Goyal, R. K., Sakashita, M., & Almotairi, M. (2021). Behavioral reasoning theory (BRT) perspectives on E-waste recycling and management. Journal of Cleaner Production, 280, 124269..

This campaign should have recognized and be sensitive to the ultra-Orthodox sector’s special difficulties, but it should also have explained the logic behind the tax, highlighted the fact that it exists in many countries, and emphasized the health advantages of reduced use of disposablesA specific study of how the Ultraorthodox relate to the use of disposable utensils find that a framing strategy that highlights the health risks and damage to the Holy Land can help reduce their use. See Kaufmann, D., Ariel, T., Yoreh, T., & Tchetchik, A. (2023). Engaging faith-based communities in pro-environmental behavior using soft regulations: The case of single-use plastics. Frontiers in Environmental Science, 2331.. It might also have been possible to work with leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community to emphasize the link between protecting nature and their religious identityRobertson, Jennifer L., and Erica Carleton. (2018). “Uncovering How and When Environmental Leadership Affects Employees’ Voluntary Pro-environmental Behavior.” Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies. 25 (2): 197-210.. When legislation is presented in a way that is viewed as delegitimizing a group’s values or lifestyle, a counter-reaction is likely to be triggeredBarak-Corren, N., Feldman, Y., & Gidron, N. (2018). The provocative effect of law: Majority nationalism and minority discrimination. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, 15(4), 951-986.. However, a well-designed information campaign can avert the clashFielding, K. S., & Hornsey, M. J. (2016). A social identity analysis of climate change and environmental attitudes and behaviors: Insights and opportunities. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 121..

Second, the literature on compliance and behavioral change reveals that there is a need to think about how to make the desired behavior (doing without disposable utensils) feasible for most peopleVan Rooij, B., de Bruijn, A. L., Reinders Folmer, C., Kooistra, E. B., Kuiper, M. E., Brownlee, M., ... & Fine, A. (2020). Compliance with COVID-19 mitigation measures in the United States. Amsterdam law school research paper.. Just as during the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, along with the requirement that people stay at home, food was distributed by the military, and steps were taken to make vaccinations and tests accessible, so too there is a need for steps to help sectors that cannot readily find substitutes. For example, instructions on how to do without disposables, or inexpensive multi-use utensils could be made available. The installation of sinks in parks and nature reserves for washing dishes, could also encourage people to reduce their use of disposables.

Third, the impact on price needs to be combined with behavioral changes in the purchasing stage. For example, partnerships with supermarket chains could provide them with incentives to adopt measures such as smaller signs, making alternatives to disposable utensils readily available, and reducing their accessibility. Such steps could make the purchase of disposable utensils an action that requires thought and reflection, rather than being automaticFor studies of focused behavioral changes in the purchasing stage, see, e.g., Elgaaïed-Gambier, L. (2016). Who Buys Overpackaged Grocery Products and Why? Understanding Consumers’ Reactions to Overpackaging in the Food Sector. J Bus Ethics 135, 683–698; Ohtomo, S., & Ohnuma, S. (2014). Psychological interventional approach for reduce resource consumption: Reducing plastic bag usage at supermarkets. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 84, 57-65..

Fourth, we could think about a variety of approaches for modifying the social norms about the use of disposable utensilsÖlander, F., & Thøgersen, J. (2014). Informing versus nudging in environmental policy. Journal of Consumer Policy, 37, 341-356.. We could manufacture brands of multi-use utensils that display clear messages on the importance of protecting the environmentCarlsson, F., Gravert, C., Johansson-Stenman, O., & Kurz, V. (2021). The use of green nudges as an environmental policy instrument. Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, 15(2), 216-237.; we could incorporate messages on the use of disposables in way that makes people uncomfortable about using them; we could place signs in parks and picnic areas all over the country, asking people not to use disposable utensils, along with photos of families that use multi-use utensils; and more.

Finally, this whole story once again highlights the importance of the government’s promoting a just transition to a zero-carbon economy and taking account of the needs of those influenced by steps to reduce harmful behaviors, whether in their purse or in their lifestyle. Since many measures associated with addressing the climate crisis are liable to do short-term harm to the most vulnerable population groups, environmental policy measures must be accompanied by information campaigns and supportive measures during the transition period. This would make it possible to avoid the uproar and resistance by vulnerable populations to additional steps that are part of the battle against climate change.