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Unintended consequences – are certain thinking styles responsible?

Here in the UK, In October 2015, the government introduced a policy making all large stores charge 5p for single use carrier bags. The driving force behind this policy was the large number of single use plastic bags that were in the environment, not just littering, but posing a real danger to wildlife due to entangling creatures and being mistaken as a food source by aquatic birds and mammals. The aim of the policy was to significantly reduce the number of single use bags and, as a consequence, total plastic manufactured and handed out to shoppers as they switched to long-lasting bags instead (so-called bags for life)

In 2017, a review was done of the previous 12 months to see if the policy had worked. On the surface it looked as if it had – single use bag usage was down by a fifth. However, a deeper analysis of the use of plastic bags in general was less reassuring. In fact, it would seem that a lot of people use bags for life just as they did the single use bags. What’s more, the majority of bags for life sold were also plastic of a much heavier type, so in fact, as one supermarket managing director admitted, despite an overall reduction in the number of bags sold, the amount of plastic used overall had increased!

It is also the case that single use bags are fully recyclable (not all bags for life are) and all major supermarkets would accept them back to send to be recycled. The real problem was that many people didn’t recycle them and so the bags were discarded into the environment through landfill and litter. Many people didn’t know that supermarkets accepted them back for recycling. Also, the additional cost of bags for life and their general lack of quality meant that they weren’t valued as significantly different from single use bags. Therefore the real problem seems to be more about public awareness and behaviour than about single use bags themselves.

Not such a success then. An unintended consequence.

When I read about this, I couldn’t help but wonder what thinking styles might have been behind the policy. Were there particular metaprogrammes that led to the unfortunate outcome? My initial thoughts are that perhaps the policy was developed by people with a high Detail metaprogramme. This could lead to a focus on the initial reported problem of single use bags in the environment and so decide that the question to be answered was “How do we reduce the number of single use bags handed out?”. In contrast, people with a high Concept metaprogramme might have instead asked “Why are there so many plastic bags in the environment? The first question focuses firmly on the very specific problem observed, whereas the seconds seeks to see the bigger picture. Perhaps there’s also an involvement of Procedure and Options too – with an Options thinking style being more aware of the existence of alternative, and not necessarily favourable, outcomes.

Another metaprogramme that might be involved is the direction of motivation. The focus might have been so much on getting Away from the problem of single use bags, that little work was done on what the possible consequences could be. In contrast, a focus on moving Towards reducing the amount of plastic used in shopping bags overall and increasing recycling of those that were used might have avoided the situation we are now in.

I know from experience that it is not uncommon for policies to produce unintended consequences. Perhaps an understanding of thinking styles would be helpful to policy making groups and committees to avoid these. It would also enable such groups to consider the behaviours behind such problems too.

There are probably other metaprogrammes at play too – what do you think the thinking styles behind this unfortunate outcome were? Are there ones that I’ve missed, or ways in which the ones I’ve thought of might work differently? As always, let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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