Recycling and the limits of ethical consumerism

I am not a very pious recycler. In fact, if I didn’t live with The Girlfriend, I might not even bother with recycling in my home. I understand that this makes me a bad person to a certain extent, but every time I sort recycling, I think, “This cannot possibly be even remotely the best way to implement this.” The system is so obviously a clunky add-on to our manufacturing process that I can barely stand to think about the inefficiencies involved.

Individual cities that go “all in” with recycling seem to point toward a better way to go about it, but the very fact that it’s a decision made on a city-by-city basis is ridiculous. Waste of resources is a systemic problem — it can’t be solved on a local level on a case-by-case basis. A serious system of recycling would have to be supply-side: companies would have to be required to use recycled and recyclable products and, even more crucially, some form of responsibility for the waste that results from the products they sell.

A sustainable system of manufacturing can’t be brought about by consumer choice — the system has to be designed from the ground up to minimize waste and maximize reusability. Instead, what we have is an economy where we drill for oil, turn it into plastic that essentially lasts forever, form that plastic into a promotional toy for a soon-to-be-forgotten children’s movie, then bury the broken toy in the ground.

One might say that the kind of heavy-handed state control my plan implies “isn’t going to happen,” and one would probably be right. In part, though, it “isn’t going to happen” because a wide swath of well-meaning liberals have essentially given up on any kind of systemic solutions and embraced ethical consumerism.

And yet under current circumstances, the very opposition between state-centered and grass-roots action might be misleading as a guide to action — what if well-meaning people set up an actual corporation that made key consumer goods in a responsible way and made provisions to clean up after itself in the way I propose? Start it in Portland and then let it grow from there, expanding at first to other recycling-friendly cities! Solicit grass-roots investors in Utne Reader!

Surely there is enough empty factory space available in America to make this plan workable, and the company could donate profits to environmental clean-up and subsidies for public transportation. If corporations are the only entities with genuine power in the current system, then we need to form a fucking corporation!

24 thoughts on “Recycling and the limits of ethical consumerism

  1. Preserve is the best company I’ve come across in terms of trying to implement the sort of thing you’re talking about, especially insofar as they work with #5 plastic, which isn’t recycled anywhere on a municipal level yet.

  2. “A sustainable system of manufacturing can’t be brought about by consumer choice — the system has to be designed from the ground up to minimize waste and maximize reusability.”

    I agree, but we need to be careful that “waste” is not taken to be value-neutral in our intersecting predicament of declining rates of profit and environmental degradation. Could a People’s Corporation emerge that does everything right somehow? I don’t see how they could avoid the corrupting influence of market-forces, even while they commit themselves to curbing individual excess within the corporation. I don’t see how the People’s Corporation overcomes the logic of a somehow ethical capitalism that limits conscientious consumerism.

  3. In Germany there has been a heavy handed approach to recycling since the mid-90s (probably earlier than this, but this is when I went and saw all this as a child). Everyone sorts their rubbish, there is daily collection and fines if you don’t or do it wrongly. Also probably about 90% of their soft drinks (milk, water, juices) come in the exact same glass bottles, which one returns to the point of sale for re-filling. Progress.

  4. Thinking about this further: it would have to start local, but that could be a strength in this case, because you could develop a kind of totalitarian scheme — the company could be manufacturer, retailer, and recycling collector (bring back your packaging, etc., to the store, plus they could take municipal recycling). Ideally it could become a hegemonic employer like GM was in Michigan — most people either work directly for them or for their suppliers — and, most crucially, take advantage of the endemic corruption of state-level government to effectively take over the state. You start with Oregon and Vermont, then expand to neighboring states.

  5. I don’t feel I’m putting a pessimistic spin on the idea, but applying your (and a lot of other people’s) analysis of ethical consumerism to it. I mean to point out the limits are the same when we’re talking about an individual organization or even a motley movement of them in the major cities. They can’t change what it means to do business by going into business. This isn’t really my complaint though, but one made by anarcho-syndicalists for a long time about cooperatives and worker self-management schemes. Doesn’t mean there aren’t limited benefits to this kind of thing happening, especially if it happens in the context of a wider, extra-market movement to re-appropriate various means of production and the resources for fueling them. That didn’t sound quite like what you were proposing though, and I felt like given what you said about ethical consumerism that it’d be useful to frame any complaint about this idea in those terms.

  6. #5 plastic has been recycled for some time where I live. They stopped recycling packing foam, though, because “the market collapsed.” Recycling #1-7 plastics is fairly standard in Canada, as far as I know. Most places, again, as far as I know, also divert compostables from the garbage. Between recycling and composting, we often only have to put a bag of garbage every month and a half–and we aren’t especially dedicated to this task. Although, in comparison to my neighbours, I suppose we are fairly hardcore.

  7. A corporation is a powerful organizational form, which can organize production and capture state power. Why “good people” shouldn’t experiment with using such a powerful form for their own goals is beyond me. In this particular case, I think the drive to expansion would be healthy, insofar as it would be explicitly trying to take over production from ecologically damaging producers.

  8. But a corporation can only exist, let alone expand, insofar as it is profitable, and in the latter case, more profitable. Sure, “good people” can start a corporation, but it will not survive unless they turn into “bad people,” effectively ruling out any good corporations. Right now, the technological innovation required for a corporation to somehow become more profitable using ecologically-friendly means just doesn’t exist. The technology exists, but it’s cheaper to dump chemicals etc. Similar I suppose to the English mine owners Marx talked about who just used armies of poor people long after labor-saving technology existed (that would drastically lighten the workload and reduce the necessary workers), because their combined wages were slightly lower than the cost of the machines. If I remember correctly, eventually larger economic trends brought about the universalization of the machines and their complementary reduction in cost. So for what you are proposing we would effectively need either:
    1) spectacular environmental technological innovation that could make current methods superfluous, combined with favorable economic-historical trends and un-interfered with by the reigning corporations/states, or
    2) a complete overhaul of the current economic mode of production.
    These might be the same thing.

    Also, I John Bellamy Foster says that, based upon some studies, if every single person on Earth were to recycle 100% of their consumption (a physically impossible feat), global pollution/negative impact on the environment would be reduced by a grand total of 2.5%.

  9. I’ve always been impressed with the efforts made by Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, where corporate responsibility is concerned. It’s founder Yvon Chouinard (btw, one of the great climbers in mountaineering history) has always been an environmental visionary– see the company’s history at, or better still read his book Let my People Surf.

  10. Another thing: if the company isn’t publically held, it wouldn’t be subject to the requirement to “maximize shareholder value.” Its profitability wouldn’t necessarily determine its market share — it could purposefully be content with a smaller profit if that would further its mission. It couldn’t lose money long-term or it’d have to shut down, but beating the profit-margin of another company would be immaterial if its goal wasn’t simply profits and if it didn’t have to satisfy the broader stock market.

  11. A privately held company would be subject to the laws of the market though. The only way it could be purposefully content with a smaller profit is if its mission were not “expansion” and “capturing state power.” More and more productive capital is needed for reproduction on an extended scale. There never comes a point where “enough” profit is attained, even with 100% reinvestment.

  12. I totally agree with you. This is not a question of micro – personal level, but it is rather a macro – state or even international problem. By recycling every single bottle, you will never achieve a significant change. It just makes you feel more eco-friendly. What you can actually change is which party goes to government. This can make a big difference in the legislature.
    EU has done significant job in this sense. Certain types of electronics have to be recycled by the companies, while the tax is paid by both the consumer and the company. Maybe it is not a best way how to achieve comparative advantage in global capitalism, but they do not waste their resources at least.
    The biggest issue we will have to deal in upcoming decades is China and India. They are following the free market rule named by prof. Stiglitz, which is Privatizing Profits, Socializing Losses and just don´t care about the environment and their citizens. I would call this problem as too many people in one place.

  13. Sean, The laws of the market dictate that you have to make money to stay in business (over the medium term at least). You don’t have to be the most profitable possible company. Walmart succeeded, for instance, by having the lowest possible prices, which I’m sure cut into profitability in some sense. I’m also assuming at least some subsidization of this company by people who believe in the mission. Your view of “the market” seems really simplistic.

  14. Yes I agree. And perhaps my view of “the market” is simplistic, I was just pointing out what occurred to me, with the hope that someone would correct it or engage it if I wasn’t as informed.
    It seems to me that upon a non-neutral background of corporate competition, for a startup company even staying in business means to make profit at the expense of a competitor. The best ways to counteract this would be to produce something novel and create a niche (something I’m ruling out if this corporation were to produce already-established ‘key consumer goods’) or to rely heavily on the ethical commitment of consumers (which I would have doubts about based upon contemporary models, and the fact that this type of model would already rely on problematic ethical consumerism).
    So if one has to make profit at the expense of the competitors, or be more profitable than them, one would either have to take aggressive profit-undermining measures to undersell them in the sphere of circulation, you mentioned Walmart, and thereby ensure longer term near monopolistic market domination, or find a way to cut the costs of production below that of the competitors (the already mentioned technological innovation problem). For the former method, it would seem necessary to have a massive pool of capital from the get-go in order to sustain the company while unprofitable and acquiring market share. With a huge campaign for contributions from people who believe in the mission, this might be feasible, but it would have to be large enough to reckon with the current resources of the hegemonic corporation competitors. (If we could raise that much money, corporations probably wouldn’t be the only entity with genuine power right now.) The size of the startup fund needed would I think also rule out operating purely on credit, which doesn’t exist independently of the same relations of exchange and production.
    I guess the only way that I see to expand to such a vast scale as GM or Walmart in a market a priori dominated by massive corporations would be to cut into competitors profits and then reinvest our own profits into our further expansion. To become a corporation with enough power to effectively take over a state, I think it couldn’t be the second-most powerful, and based upon this zero-sum kind of model it would therefore have to be the most profitable. Maybe I am missing something?

  15. GM (in its heyday) and Walmart now are obviously much bigger than is required to have hegemony over a single state. That’s partly why I was thinking of starting with a relatively small state with a pre-existing population friendly to the mission, like Oregon. There are plenty of examples of state or regional companies that exercise a lot of influence of their local markets — I’m thinking here of Meijer in Michigan, which has managed to expand outside the state, or of the prevalence of “Vienna Beef” outlets in Chicago (which outnumber any fast food chain, even McDonald’s). There are Walmarts in Michigan for sure, and Meijer remains in business and growing. I’m not sure how their profit margins compare, and I’m also not sure it’s directly relevant. Target also continues to exist, because it aims at a different niche.

    When you add in the ethical mission in a state that has a big population of idealists, it seems doable. Obviously you can’t get a global competitor to Walmart in one fell swoop, but you could probably create a robust regional chain like Chik-Fil-A or whatever.

  16. Adam, I suspect there are already many such companies committed to what you’re talking about. Whether or not they can “scale up” to the size and impact you’re gesturing at is the question. I think it’s likely that “key consumer goods” and “sustainability” are mutually incompatible. The imagined Portland company—again, I suspect there already are several—will work exactly like your recycling example. Individuals committed to the “environment” will buy its products. Those not so committed will rush to the bottom—i.e., to its competitor’s products that are more cheaply produced overseas, wrapped in plastic, and that can be more easily replaced when the outdated model has been dumped in the landfill. You might look into the Burley Design Cooperative’s history for an example of one Eugene company’s go at workplace democracy with an environmental conscience. It worked for a while but under competitive pressure was eventually forced to become a more traditional company, and most of its products are now manufactured in Asia.

  17. Is there any actual existing company that has the holistic approach I’m advocating here, though, including actually directly collecting its own waste products? I would be surprised. I think there’s necessarily going to be a difference between a company that’s playing to the “ethical” consumer niche and a company whose endgoal is to completely reshape production processes.

    And again, the latter does happen — Walmart has fundamentally altered the relationship between a retailer and its suppliers, and Apple has completely overturned the traditional means of distribution for music. Neither of those things happened simply as a result of blind economic forces — if someone hadn’t come up with the idea and forcefully pushed it through, blind economic forces would’ve been happy to keep doing things the old way, which did after all lead to profits. I don’t want to lionize the “genius CEO,” but I also don’t want to give up to the fatalism of pure economic determinism. There is room for individual and group agency!

    I understand the skepticism, but as we discuss this further, I’m becoming more and more convinced that a plan like this is really the only route with any chance for success, because it intervenes directly in the economic field. Walmart has done much more to change retailing in America than any government regulation could realistically do. Why can’t we do something similar? Because someone else would make more money than us? Because we’d be “forced” to move production to Asia? I don’t get it.

  18. Another point to bring up: the number of upscale restaurants in Chicago that work with organic food have led directly to the expansion of the number of organic farms. One can see the same thing with Chipotle’s preference for organic source products — they have been steadily building up the market. There’s probably a limit to how fast this kind of thing can feasibly go, which is why (against all my inclinations, as you know!) I’m proposing that the People’s Corporation start in a local area (Portland is just an example) where they’ll have some room to experiment with creating the totalitarian model that they can then deploy in other areas.

    In short, I’m talking about using the “ethical consumerism” and “localism” movements as leverage to create something with the potential to be universalizable.

  19. I love Patagonia, too, but one does immediately see the price of their behavior. Their gear is so expensive! I buy it anyway, though, as it is bombproof and guaranteed for life in many cases. Wearing one of their t-shirts right now, which are awesome by the way.

  20. ‘In Germany there has been a heavy handed approach to recycling since the mid-90s (probably earlier than this, but this is when I went and saw all this as a child). Everyone sorts their rubbish, there is daily collection and fines if you don’t or do it wrongly. Also probably about 90% of their soft drinks (milk, water, juices) come in the exact same glass bottles, which one returns to the point of sale for re-filling. Progress.’

    Here in Freiburg (the ‘green city’ with a green mayor etc.) all this exists. You pay a pfand (deposit) on all soft drinks, beer bottles, and so on and homeless people ensure none of these are left non-exchanged. You have all the bins and a robust culture of recycling ingrained in the home. There are solar panels on the sides of moterways (!). And yet the streets are absolutely filthy and I say this as someone coming from Dublin – a city with the ‘dirty old town’ tag (well-deserved). It’s odd, but without the pressure from the State people do tend to revert to quite basic littering when it comes to just general rubbish. It’s a bit baffling, but the heavy hand is for sure a big factor when it comes to the good parts.

  21. Recycling is bad, bad, bad. As someone who cares a great deal about climate change, the extinction of species, the general quality of air and water, etc. (thus I’m not a scumbag who doesn’t care), I think that recycling is, on the whole, WORSE for “the environment,” whatever that means, than not recycling. First of all, no one seems to factor in the environmental impact of transportation. Lots and lots of extra trips to various process facilities in big trucks. In plenty of cities, where one truck comes once a week for garbage and another for recycling, you’re essentially doubling fossil fuel emissions immediately. Not to mention that recycling plants, like almost any large industrial facility, have a pretty heavy carbon footprint themselves, as one would expect when plants are doing things like melting plastic and glass by the ton. And why do we do all of this? Essentially because we don’t like the idea of landfill. Landfill is indeed a problem, but do the toxicity and other problems related to landfills stem from sending recyclable materials like plastic and glass there? No, they’re related to sending all kinds of other things there, which is an issue needing to be addressed but has little to do with recycling.

    I think another motivation behind recycling is the general principle that “things shouldn’t go to waste.” Fair enough. Everyone likes the idea of using things again and nothing going to waste. I like buying clothes second hand, using unused building and home repair supplies from others, etc., and this is a principle that even conservatives can get behind. There is nothing objectionable about it. But when the principle of “nothing should go to waste” has such negative consequences–in this case consequences that don’t even enter into the public debate–then I think we should put the brakes on it. Recycling not only involves a heavy carbon footprint in and of itself
    What about the argument that recycling is worthwhile even taking the carbon footprint of the practice into consideration? That might well be the case. But the debate should not proceed without taking that footprint into account from the very beginning. We cannot simply assume that recycling is this magical thing without its own costs and impacts.

    Not to mention that many people who are generally “green” in their outlook see recycling as something like going to confession. It’s the one green thing you do every week to make sure that you’re “doing your part” and keeping your hands clean. Consume as much as you want, but as long as everything goes in the right bin, then all guilt has been expiated in one fell swoop. I think that recycling is simply a feel-good, cosmetic practice that might be worse for, say, climate change, than simply not recycling. Just to be clear, I make this critique in the name of “family differences,” not as a right-wing troll.

Comments are closed.