To make design work, we have to involve everyone

Do you want to swap a bottle with the one in the fridge to get a free plastic bag for that instead of paying for it?

Published on:
April 13, 2020

I went to a convenient store and bought a few bottles of drink today. At the checkout line, the cashier asked:

Do you want to swap a bottle with the one in the fridge?

Confused, I asked why I should do that.

The cold drink is the same price, and you can get a free plastic bag for that instead of paying for it.

Introducing the plastic bag levy

I live in Hong Kong, and there is a plastic bag charging policy where consumers have to pay a small fee for plastic bags. This, however, comes with a few exemptions:

  1. Food without packaging (i.e. bare fruits, vegetables)
  2. Food in non-airtight packaging (i.e. cling film wrapped food, packaging with holes)
  3. Chilled food/drinks

The third exemption is the reason the cashier asked me to grab a chilled drink, so I can get a free plastic bag for the one refrigerated drink, and the three bottles of drinks in room temperature (which I have to pay the levy if I asked for a plastic bag). I brought my tote bag, so I said no.

On the way back, I couldn’t stop thinking about what just happened. I looked into the statistics of domestic waste (waste generated by typical households) to check the effectiveness of the plastic bag levy. The plastic bag waste we generate in 2009, right before the impose of plastic bag levy, was 484 tonnes per day. It rose to 552 tonnes per day in 2018. Even accounting for the rise in population over the decade, it still showed the surge in plastic bag waste and that the plastic bag charging policy has undoubtedly failed, at least to an extent.

What happened?

By all means, the purpose of the plastic bag levy is great: to encourage BYOB (Bring Your Own Bag) and reduction of single-use plastic bags. However, the implementation fell short. There are a few reasons.

People find workarounds

Just like the experience I had at the convenient store, people find alternatives when limitations arise. You’d be struck by the imagination and creativity people have. In this situation, the culture of BYOB has not yet developed. When we can save on paying for the single-use plastic bag by getting items on the exception list, we would do it. The path of least resistance applies.

People get used to it

When the levy was implemented back in 2009, we saw a decline in the retail distribution of plastic bags by 90%. It looked like it worked. In the coming years after the launch of the scheme, we see a bounce in the distribution of plastic bag, and the waste problem is still here. Multiple articles have reported that people have “gotten used to the fee”. The plastic bag levy is imposed equally, and everyone pays a small fee when they request plastic bags. Naturally, people who can afford it would not mind spending that slight extra. If I can pay for the convenience of not having to take all items clumsily, why not?

People just ignore them

Since the implementation of the scheme, there have been a lot of cases of non-compliance, where shops give out plastic bags for free. In one example, a conversation between the shopkeeper and customer went like this:

“I don’t need a bag. It’s against the law.”

The shopkeeper replied: “it doesn’t matter.”

Note that it is easy for us to think of these as “holes” in the policy and suggest that we go for more substantial measures. However, the problem is often not in the policy itself. We can find workarounds even if we enforced heavier measures. The problem lies in the implementation. It cannot be just a levy.

Free plastic bags (without handles) are widely available in the supermarket next to the exempted items. People often use the bag for other purposes, including storing items not on the exemption list. Photo from SCMP

Service Design on a System Level

From the above hypotheses, we can see that the solution fell apart when it reaches the consumers and store employees. As a design student, I think there are a few ways we can approach improving the scheme. These can also be applied to other problems we are dealing with right now. No solution is perfect, but we can make it better. There are a few ways we can make any system design work better.

Involving the real frontline workers

When designing policies and services like this plastic bag levy, the primary audience dealing with and implementing them are not just the policymakers, but also the frontline workers, inspectors, and consumers. In designing the plastic bag charging scheme, the government not only should think about the people being charged (i.e. consumers) and the business stakeholders (i.e. retailers, plastic bag manufacturers) but also the service providers (i.e. the employees). By engaging every stakeholder, we can understand and empathise with every one of them and design the solution for them. When we miss one touchpoint, that can be the weak link in the chain and the system can fall apart.

Involving everyone in a meaningful way

“Engaging citizens in policy-making is a sound investment and a core element of good governance. It allows governments to tap wider sources of information, perspectives and potential solutions, and improves the quality of the decisions reached. Equally important, it contributes to building trust in government, raising the quality of democracy and strengthening civic capacity”

— OECD, Caddy & Vergez, 2001

The way the government is approaching consultations right now is by hosting public forums, discussions with business stakeholders and receiving open letters. With the rise of technology and more comprehensive design thinking tools, the government can establish ways to engage with more stakeholders in more engaging, meaningful ways. With increased engagement, we can see through the problems more clearly and co-create solutions that work for everyone. It’s not just designing the service for the consumers, the waste management service providers or business stakeholders, but staging the system that works for everyone and addresses the underlying problems for different stakeholders.

Rethink the way we see the problem

There is no denying that the plastic bag levy can alleviate the abuse of plastic bag and increase the incentive of using reusable bags. But we also need to look into other ways we can achieve the common goal: Reducing unrecyclable and non-degradable solid waste. What can we do to accomplish that together? In the Plastic Policy Playbook, the Ocean Conservatory compared different policies across countries and proposed measures and frameworks for public and private institutions as well as the general public to act upon.


The plastic bag levy is just one of the many shortcomings we are currently facing. With the COVID-19 crisis, organisations are scrambling to enforce social distancing while maintaining their efficiency, effectiveness and employee satisfaction. Service design methodologies apply to all these cases related to multiple stakeholders. The service is not just for consumers and the facing audiences, but also the hardworking backstage workers and events.

In design innovation and service design, we must design for everyone, with everyone.

Related Readings:

Service Design 101
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Service Design for Public Policy
Originally researched and written as part of an independent study for the Harvard Graduate School of Design