Trash: Who’s to blame?

This essay is a response to NPR’s recent throughline podcast “The Litter Myth.”

The real question they want to ask is who is to blame, who is morally culpable for trash? At the same time, the cast of the podcast is engaging in the logic of collective action in that it’s costly for them to make any small impact, so they want to throw the cost of doing so on to corporations. Humans have been making refuse since time immemorial. Landfills and garbage pick-up have been a thing at least since Rome. Trash and refuse has been a huge problem in cities since then, especially since people often refuse to carry their trash out to the a known location; it was unsanitary conditions like these that contributed to the magnitude of the black death. Furthermore, the history of cities provides a context in which we know that humans often shirk in cleaning up after themselves: the logic of collective action. It’s nonsense to assume that trash started in the mid-20th century along with the rise of corporations. What is true is that modern recycling methods were started around that same time period. Everyone is individually responsible for their actions regarding the environment. A better argument for them might have been that since corporations produce more trash relative to consumers, the corporations should take the lion’s share in costs dealing with waste management. I know that back home, companies have to pay for their waste at a higher rate (per ton) than their residential counterparts. I imagine that’s true elsewhere.

The whole thing with the Keep America Beautiful campaign sounded like a “damned if you, damned if you don’t” statement. There might be a bootleggers and Baptists argument for the creation of KAB, but they don’t provide any evidence and charge ahead with hindsight bias. What is true is that KAB was very successful and was an important component in the environmental movement. (Though, their use of the noble savage trope was definitely racist and the whitewashed campaigns would be considered wrong by today’s standards.) This whole section seems to suggest that government regulation would have been the way out of the environmental struggles of that era, however, I must remind you that prior to the EPA, the USDA monitored pesticide use and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring will give you a peak at just how costly that regulatory framework was on the environment.

Something I didn’t understand is the whole thing on consumables: if the corporations make things disposable, then people will buy more of them. 1) The backdrop of this argument is the use of non-refillable beer bottles in Vermont. Does making a bottle non-refillable encourage consumers to buy more from the company? 2) This statement implies that supply creates its own demand, which we know it doesn’t (What is the demand of t-shirts boasting a Super Bowl victory of the team who actually lost? Zero, yet many of these are pre-printed prior to the game.) Some things, like disposable plates and cups, do require people throw them away at each use, but it is still up to the end user to properly dispose of the product.

In the last section of the podcast, there’s a line that says something to the extent “imagine if that candy wrapper didn’t exist in the first place.” I think that’s a great idea to ponder, but one must consider the alternatives. Prior to plastic or foil wrapping, paper and cardboard were used, which are fine until you consider the food safety aspects. I’m not sure paper alone is good choice for the current supply chains. I have seen biodegradable wrappers recently and maybe that’s the way of the future, but we have to look at the costs and constraints of the now. Entrepreneurial discovery will pave the way for innovations.

What happens in this podcast is a mix of the logic of collective action and some cognitive dissonance to smooth over the rough edges of the arguments. They claim that corporations should hold the blame, while according to the corporations, it’s up to the end consumer. In reality, it is everyone’s responsibility to make sure that we properly dispose of our trash. Because once the producer or consumer purchases a product, they have assumed the property rights of that product. It is up to them to use, disuse, or transfer that good. The cleanliness of the environment is a public good, the producers of this show are looking for a way to free ride and remove their moral culpability from situation. It’s easy to blame something that is already disliked by your listeners, it’s far more difficult to find the middle path and accept responsibility for your own actions while still holding others accountable to theirs.

Author: Deric Tilson

I am a classically-trained economist and doctoral student at George Mason. I'm an ecopragmatist and interested in the cross-section where economics, ecology, and ethology meet. I hope to work for non-for-profits specializing in economic development and eventually moving to either the public sector or a think tank. My research interests include the political economy of war, resource economics, the applications of complexity theory, the mitigation of risk by impoverished individuals, and global water scarcity.

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