OP-ED: Improving Recycling and Composting Outcomes

By Brian Gardner, Washington County Democrats Communications Committee Chair

WashCo Dems op-ed article
I recently attended the launch of the Truth in Labeling Task Force, which was developed because labels that claim a product is Recyclable or Compostable lead consumers to believe that they are more environmentally friendly. The truth is that many of these products don’t actually have a market for recycling and therefore can’t get recycled, and/or that the production of them causes more damage to the environment that the end disposition of them offsets (see Oregon DEQ Study Challenges Assumptions About Recycled, Organics Content for more information). This “lifetime” impact is not and cannot be summed up in “compostable” or “recyclable.”

However, the existence of the task force, while laudable, is only a half measure. Trying to change impacts merely by better informing consumers is a misnomer. The real solution comes up the value chain from consumers, when decisions are made on what packaging to use, and based on those decisions, consumers have to choose between the options presented to them. The goal should be to use packaging that can be recycled (or ideally composted with minimal impact in production). While this can be done by regulation, or by neo-liberalism, I believe the best path forward is to mandate that the company that uses the packaging is responsible for financing and carbon offsetting the cost and impact of the materials that are used during its lifecycle. Only then can producers who are choosing what packaging to use make the best societally optimal decision, and choose the most eco-conscious packaging. Consumers would then be able to make their choice on what to buy based on price, quality, and other product specifications. Consumers, already overloaded with decisions, should not be forced to make the Hobson’s choice between products based on the packages that are used to market and distribute them, when the difference in the environmental impact should not be the primary factor by which they decide, and any given product’s impact is likely similar to the other. The only entity that can truly impact the decision of what kind of packaging is used is the original producers and packagers of the good, who by default will choose whatever is most profitable. Why should consumers have to bear the expense of buying the best of the suboptimal options available while producers are currently optimizing their profitability? “You can save the world by recycling.” is the original marketing sin of the 1970’s. It’s not – after all – the consumer that created the good that harms the environment.

Put more explicitly, using Game Theory to map out decision trees, the Consumer (who, entering in the middle of the process, is limited to the set of options that have been made by other players who have already acted) is faced with a choice between products to buy. In this choice, they must weigh multiple factors of preference including freshness, size, price, quality etc. As rational actors, they necessarily discount the future impacts of their decision, so impact on the environment is unlikely to be the primary reason they’re going to bear the full financial cost of their decision of which strawberries to buy.

In fact, producers will likely offer more environmentally conscious items at a premium, forcing the most disenfranchised consumers to choose between two mediocre environmental options at the price point that they can afford, rather than the more expensive food items that they might prefer. We see this today with choices for “Organic” produce. These individual actions come instead of a collective shift on the part of producers to provide better options to the entire consumer base — many of which are less price conscious, and would be able to offset the cost of the overall shift. This also highlights the problem that any individual actor is only part of the whole set of “consumers”; and therefore the class of consumers faces a typical collective action problem, where they might all prefer more environmental packaging, but given the choices, each individual is incentivized to act against their own best / self interest.

These two things – mediocre differences, and collective action problems – would sway even the most environmentally conscious consumer from making their decision based primarily on planetary impact.

The true power to control where a decision tree branches lies at the earliest decision points, one of which is whether to package in a way that is truly environmentally responsible, or not. As the consumer’s preference further down the branches is only going to be partially made based on environmental factors, the incentive to use environmental packaging is, by default, negligible. However the impact of not using environmental packaging is part of the existential challenge that faces our state, our country, and the world.


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