The Earth is Drowning in Waste: But Who is to Blame?

Written by Lena Kammerer.
Edited by Giulia Cottino.

To fit one year’s worth of waste into a regular mason jar. What sounds virtually impossible to most of us, who, at least every once in a while, order take out or get a coffee to go, has become an increasingly popular trend among eco-conscious consumers all around the globe. 

The aim of the so-called ‘Zero Waste’ movement, as the name already implies, is to produce zero or at least as little individual waste as possible. Certainly, this ambition seems only appropriate at a time when the amount of plastic waste in the sea will, according to predictions, soon surpass the number of fish. 

At this point, we are all well aware that the waste we produce in our day-to-day life harms us, for example in the form of plastic fibers in our tap water, as well as our environment which often functions as a landfill site. Even with recycling facilities in place, the better alternative would, inarguably, be to avoid producing waste in the first place. The production of, for example, plastic wrappers already puts a strain on resources and nature, even if later recycled or reused.

Image by RitaE from Pixabay

But are we, as consumers, solely responsible or to be blamed for littering the planet? And will individuals who are boycotting waste, as the ‘Zero-Waste’ movement propagates, profoundly change the economy and society for the better?

Well, it is not as easy as that. The four largest consumer goods companies – namely Coca-Cola, Mars, Nestle, and Danone, which produce an astounding 6 million metric tons of plastic every year according to a report from the Ellen McArthur Foundation – refuse to take responsibility for contributing to the world’s ever-increasing piles of litter. Although some of the above-named have addressed the issues surrounding the so-called ‘throwaway culture’ which they evidently support with all the products they sell, many have taken a rather different approach. 

According to the Heinrich Böll Foundation, numerous corporations have been increasingly seen to deliberately blame the consumer for the waste they produce as an individual, instead of tackling the problem at its core and reducing the amount of single-use packaging used for their products. Even scientific analyses of plastic waste in nature often tend to focus on countries as the source of the problem instead of on big corporations. As early as in the 1950s, many chemical corporations or petroleum producers, for example, Esso, discussed the growing ‘plastic pollution crisis’. Yet, to the present day, most of them refuse to sacrifice their profits for increasing sustainability. Instead, they spend an immense amount of money on lobbying and high-profile advertising for recycling campaigns or similar things. 

A prime example of such behaviour is the company British Petroleum, better known as BP. They were the first to popularize the term ‘carbon footprint’ and introduce a ‘carbon footprint calculator’ in 2004, so the individual could find out how much of their daily life had an impact on heating the globe. It seems almost ironic that an oil company, which, a decade ago, leaked millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, wants the individual to acknowledge and maybe even feel guilty for their climate impact while traveling to work or food shopping. And BP has not been seen following their own advice. They still produce 3.8 million barrels of oil a day. The calculation of their carbon footprint calculator would surely show some unpleasant numbers. 

Image by RikaC from Pixabay

Does that mean that there is no sense in making conscious consumer choices and avoiding wasteful packaging whenever we can? That the big corporations will just continue to litter the planet and harm the environment as long as it fuels their profits? 

To assess this, it might be helpful to understand the difference between the ethical consumer and the consumer activist, a distinction elaborated by journalist and climate activist Elizabeth Cline. Ethical consumers believe that they can better society by purchasing certain goods and avoiding others. For example, avoiding fruit and vegetables packed in plastic. Consumer activists, however, argue that the capitalist economic system will always concentrate on ‘economic power, low wages, low prices and other forms of inequality to increase profits’. In other words, not many companies care enough to sacrifice profits to improve their company’s sustainability. To fight for our planet, it is, thus, especially crucial to take action –for example, signing petitions, and attempting to change government and company policies. This is not to say that consuming consciously and ethically is bad or that one should just stop caring about the choices they make when shopping, but that to create a better world it might just not be enough. We have to be both an ethical consumer and a consumer activist to effect change.

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