Recycling: Corporations pull the wool over people’s eyes

Paul Bacchi, News Editor

For the environmentally aware, recycling is a big deal. One of the biggest problems that our society faces is rampant overconsumption, especially of cheap, single-use products like soda bottles that are used once and then discarded. Some argue that the root of the problem is actually overpopulation of humans; this is true, but I don’t want to give credence to any Thanos sympathizers out there, so I’ll just brush that point under the rug. Thanks to environmentalist efforts, we have a plethora of recycling programs, such as bottle and can returns, or composting and recycling bins like we see here on Union’s campus, but as we all know, these efforts fall short of achieving any meaningful positive effect on the environment, which raises the question: Why is recycling so useless.

Part of the problem is the individual responsibility associated with recycling. Granted, people should definitely be more mindful of the types of products that they buy — there is an excessive amount of waste generated by large bags of individually wrapped candy, for instance — but it isn’t the people who package these products so poorly. One may make the argument that the people must “vote with their wallets” in order to change company practices, but this is just another pro-business argument that takes the responsibility of environmental stewardship away from corporations.

We live in a society, a fiercely capitalist society. Certain companies, like Nestle, Monsanto, Kellog’s and Kraft to name a few, own just about brand you find in a store. To get these companies to change their practices by “voting with your wallet” would require a massive boycott that simply isn’t feasible. The companies I mentioned bring in billions of dollars of revenue from their dozens of brands each year — a loss of several million dollars of revenue from a single brand wouldn’t even make them flinch, let alone consider spending money to make their production more environmentally friendly. “Vote with your wallet” is just some contrived capitalist propaganda that gets you to think of yourself as a consumer first, and a citizen second. As far as I’m concerned, you can put “vote with your wallet” down on your lawn come spring.

Another argument I hear is that the big polluting corporations will naturally develop green technologies that will help save us from ourselves. Innovation, after all, is the strength of capitalism (or so the economics majors tell me). Cars are polluting our air? Elon Musk makes an electric car. Lead gasoline is polluting our oceans with mercury? The petrochemical industry graciously invents unleaded gasoline.

There are a couple of problems with this blind faith in capitalism, though. Tesla, for instance, does nothing to stop the emission of carbon dioxide in the air, because the electricity that you use to power the car is still coming from an inefficient power grid that pumps gigatons of noxious chemicals into the air, not to mention the extremely dirty process of making and disposing of the batteries used in these vehicles. And the petrochemical industry didn’t graciously invent unleaded gasoline. They were forced to phase the product out in the 70s, (half a century after the dangerous effects of leaded gasoline were discovered) by the Environmental Protection Agency.

My point here is that meaningful environmentally-friendly change in industry cannot come from the consumer, or some farcical “market pressures.” The negative externalities associated with big companies’ (lack) of environmental practices are just that – externalities. The CEOs and boards of these companies will never feel the damage they are inflicting on the environment, so they will never change. The answer, therefore, is to impose artificial market pressures on these companies, in the form of carbon credits, massive fines for pollution, and legislation banning the manufacture and distribution of wasteful single-use products.

Companies would argue against legislation like this (well, actually they would just buy some politicians and block the legislation before it reached the public eye, but that’s a whole other can of worms) by saying that the restrictions are too tough — the solutions would require “too much effort,” and that would “put the company out of business.”

The issue with that, of course, is that it’s really just patently false. The example of leaded gasoline that I used earlier works perfectly well for this. The companies knew that the leaded gasoline was highly dangerous, and when governments communicated with them about removing lead, the companies said it was impossible and couldn’t be done. Well, we know now that it’s certainly possible – but the companies aren’t going to admit what’s practical when it hurts their bottom line.

Another example: The catalytic converter. In the 1970s, car companies were making a big stink about the tough new restrictions being set on tailpipe emissions. It was impossible, they claimed, to cut emissions down to the level that the government was asking for. They claimed they would go out of business. Once again, we know that to be incredibly false. General Motors invented the catalytic converter, and the air we breathe is now cleaner and less toxic thanks to the work of an engineer who believed it could be done.

Some necessary societal changes needed to make our world greener cannot be given to us by the invisible hand of the market. Take for instance mass transit. When you enter a car dealership, your consumer choice leaves out the option for mass transit.

Our planet is on fire, and we need to act fast. Smart, responsible consumer choice is not the solution to our problems — it is exactly what got us here to begin with.