Plastic packaging is swamping the world with refuse that never degrades and flows into mountains of trash in land dumps and pollutes the oceans. For example, the bottled water industry produces over 50 billion bottles per year for the American market alone. Roughly 38 billion are not recycled and end up as road side trash, floating out to sea or stuffed into land fills.
This is an example of several central operating principles of capitalism. First, get someone else to pay for as much of my economic activity as possible. These are what economist refer to as external costs. I can produce more and more plastic each year with no concern for who will pay for its disposal. Someone else pays. Second, capitalist enterprises act solely on the basis of their own internal interests. It does not matter that my activity may damage the earth and all of the plants, animals and human beings that live here. Capitalism has no mechanism for looking at systemic outcomes.1
The recent emergence of public concern about plastic drinking straws is a positive development, but overall the US only recycles 9% of plastics compared to 30% in Europe and 25% in China. Only governments can act on behalf of those bearing the burdens of capitalist enterprises’ external costs. Government must step up and protect us from these features of capitalism. The problem at the moment is that, in the US, government is owned by the rich and corporations.
Charts from “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made”2
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- The financial meltdown that occurred in 2008-2009 is a good example of how individual enterprises acted in their own interests without regard for the possibility (probability) that their speculation and fraudulent activities could cause the collapse of the whole system.
- Geyer, Roland, et al. “Production, Use, and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made.” Science Advances, vol. 3, no. 7, July 2017, p. e1700782. advances.sciencemag.org, doi:10.1126/sciadv.1700782. Accessed 08202018.