The Plastic Issue and Economics

Sir David Attenborough posted on his Facebook page about the damage we are inflicting using plastic.

At a landfill in Spain, a stork entangled with a plastic bag was freed by the photographer. Sadly, a single bag can kill more than once.

If ever a photo so vividly illustrates the damage humans are inflicting on the natural world…. Please think before you buy anything in plastic, do you need it? If you do please dispose of it carefully. Wherever I go now, whether it be in the mountains, on the moors or on the coast there is discarded plastic everywhere. The Government haven’t a clue, by the time they act it will be too late, they are going to ban wipes and cotton buds within the next 20 years !!!! It’s up to us as consumers to act now, enough is enough, plastic will destroy the world and its wildlife. Please note it’s not my image, it’s from National Geographic. — Sir David Attenborough

Madhavi Venkatesan, Ph.D. is a current board member of ISEE. She adds her thoughts below.

Plastic consumption is directly tied to economics. The issues we face can be attributed to the externalities we have allowed to persist in order to facilitate short-term consumption satisfaction and financial return. Recognition of the holistic impact of consumption is consistent with rational agent behavior and requires individual responsibility from the perspective of consumption, investment and government participation.

Sustainable Practices, a 501(c)3 non-profit on Cape Cod, is focused on increasing awareness of conscious consumption, using plastic bottle procurement and distribution as the entry point for an all-Cape education and citizen advocacy effort. The organization, which was founded by ISEE board member Madhavi Venkatesan, launched the Cape Plastic Bottle Ban in 2018 to raise awareness of the environmental and human impact of plastic bottle consumption. The Ban will culminate it its initial phase with a 15 town (all-Cape) vote in spring 2019 on the purchase, sale, and distribution of plastic bottled beverages by town governments on Cape Cod.

5 Responses

  1. Ecological economics has long recognised that pollution is not an ‘externality’, that it is not something outside the system that needs to be brought into it for control. Pollution is an inherent part of material and energy consumption in modernity. That the capital accumulating market economy promotes people who push costs on to others as efficient and successful entrepreneurs is at the heart of the issue. Making money at others expense is the name of the game. There is structure to this problem not just a one-off external problem to be solved. Cost-shifting is the correct conceptualisation not (the neoclassical economists’) externalities.

    On the issue of plastic pollution, banning bottles may be a start and I applaud the initiative, but large items while a significant concern are the lesser issue compared to the micro plastics now dispersing across the planet, its oceans and soils. These are not recoverable or recyclable. They are in the food chain. Indeed sources of plastics are not just in bottles and bags they are pervasive; just look around you and see: windows, chairs, tables, computers, printers, food wrappings, magazines, book covers, cables, cameras, phones, light fittings, plates, mugs, tyres, cars, boats, planes, windmills … That is even before you get to the deliberately introduced micro-plastics you do not see that are in products such as cleaning agents and paints.

    The focus on bags and bottles which leads to the idea somebody should take responsibility (usually government or consumers not the corporations) because they could easily clean-up the mess. This is a blind to the bigger problem. Plastic are part of the petro-chemical industry a major cost-shifting corporate sector. In short there are issues of structure, power and limits to individual responsibility. The issue here is not lack of government, consumer responsibility or investment, but government support of an exploitative growth economy, and the structure of a society built around corporations, capitalism, neoliberalism, profit seeking, cost-shifting, invasive new technologies and the reduction of all values to those of a price making market economy.

    1. Thank you for your comment. We are appreciative of your perspective and given that we are an organization led by a sustainability focused economist, we understand your comments. However, not everyone is economically lierate and arguably information asymmetry is part of the current sustainability issue. For this reason, we would invite you to review our initiative prior to critique to understand that education via a virtually non-controversial regulation is only the first phase of our activities. We are aware of the complexity of the issue but we also believe that grassroots support is the catalyst to establishing regulation. Where academics often fails in promoting effective policy is in engaging multiple stakeholders based on stakeholder-specific incentives. We are focused on implementing communication strategy that effectively incentivizes heterogeneius stakeholders to promoting the Iong term initiative of our focus: fostering conscious consumption.

    1. Thank you Peter! We appreciate any PR support you wish to provide. Fundamentally, we view our initiative as a starting point that with publicity will have the potential to coalesce demand on a larger scale! I appreciate all you do!


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