Making our trash someone else’s problem

Kurt Willems has an interesting post about the Seattle City Council’s decision to ban single-use plastic bags.

In 2008, Seattle tried to impose a fee on plastic shopping bags, but voters overturned it after a petition drive funded by the plastics industry.

Kurt thinks the ban is a good idea, and I agree. But some of my libertarian friends raise an important point: they say while it’s good for individuals to make eco-friendly choices, governments have no business legislating something just because it happens to be a good idea.

Is this a cop-out? A feeble excuse from those with no real intention of making eco-friendly choices?

Not necessarily. One friend who made this very argument also puts his kids in cloth diapers. He uses reusable garbage bags. (I don’t even do that.) He’s walking the talk, as they say.

I happen to be skeptical of big government, without necessarily being anti-government. (I think government has a legitimate responsibility to regulate, within reason, a wide range of things.)

But I’m equally skeptical of big business, without being anti-business. The market plays a vital role in creating economic opportunity for billions. But what happens when a business becomes larger than some countries? Wal-Mart, for example, would be the world’s 25th largest economy if it were a country. Who holds them accountable? Individual consumers? Not likely.

Back to the point: should governments be deciding whether or not we can use disposable shopping bags? Has the Seattle City Council overstepped its bounds? Should environmental responsibility be a personal choice rather than a mandate?

The “personal choice” argument might work if no one else is affected by your behavior. In other words, if you’re the only one impacted by your decision to use a disposable shopping bag, then fine. You should be able to carry on, free from government interference.

But what if you’re not the only person affected by your behavior? Does government have a responsibility to intervene when your choices negatively impact others?

Consider that it takes around 500 years for a plastic bag to decompose. As I understand it, even biodegradable bags take a long time to break down, because decomposition requires air, and there’s not much of that to be found inside a heavily compacted landfill. (Thanks to Dan Martin for providing sharing this insight.)

Something from which we derive a few minutes’ use will spend centuries in a landfill.

So here’s my question. Do we have the moral right to make our trash someone else’s problem? We derive all the benefit; our children and grandchildren get to deal with our mess.

“It’s just a plastic bag,” someone might say. Except that it’s 500 billion plastic bags every year. One million every minute. And almost 90% of them wind up in landfills, where they will continue to be someone else’s problem, long after we’re gone.

Do we have that right?

Do Christians, for whom the second greatest commandment is “love your neighbor,” have that right?

Might our “neighbors” include those who inherit the earth after us?

And do governments have a moral obligation to protect others from the negative consequences of our bad behavior?

Some politicians in the US follow this line of reasoning when they protest the growing federal debt. They say it’s not right for us to spend money we don’t have and leave the bill for our kids and grandkids.

They have a point. But perhaps the same logic applies to the debate over plastic bags, nuclear energy, and other environmental issues.

Wal-Mart goes green

Maybe you’ve seen the latest advertising blitz from Wal-Mart. No yellow smiley faces, bouncing around, slashing prices wherever they go. No soccer moms telling us how Wal-Mart helps them live the good life on a budget—by selling Levi Strauss jeans for under $20 a pair.

Instead, their latest ad campaign features ordinary-looking people against an ordinary backdrop, telling us things like:

If every Wal-Mart shopper, all 180 million of us, bought just one compact fluorescent bulb, it would reduce emissions the same as taking one million cars off the road.

If every Wal-Mart shopper bought just one pair of organic pajama pants, we could stop over a million pounds of pesticide from going into the earth.

If every Wal-Mart shopper bought just one compact laundry detergent, we’d reduce packaging waste by over 50 million pounds.

On the whole, I’m not a fan of Wal-Mart. In the last two-plus years, I’ve set foot in a Wal-Mart store just twice. Once because a friend talked me into going and once because my wife and I were given a Wal-Mart gift card. Each time I walked out, vowing never to return.

So at first I was skeptical. I thought this was just another slick marketing campaign (the ads are some of the best Wal-Mart has ever made), but hardly anything new. These days, corporations are tripping over themselves in the race to go green. A GE commercial promoting sustainable development is playing in the background as I type. Even garbage giant Waste Management has TV spots telling us how eco-friendly they are.

And another thing… this would not be the first time Wal-Mart has tried to reinvent itself, only to abandon the effort and hope no one notices. When I was a kid, Wal-Mart was the place to buy products “made in the U.S.A.” They wanted us to believe they were a true American company, selling goods made by hardworking Americans.

So much for that idea.

This morning I read “The Green Machine,” an article published by Fortune Magazine on Wal-Mart’s campaign to go green. I could hardly believe the following quote came from Wal-Mart’s CEO, Lee Scott:

To me, there can’t be anything good about putting all these chemicals in the air. There can’t be anything good about the smog you see in cities. There can’t be anything good about putting chemicals in these rivers in Third World countries so that somebody can buy an item for less money in a developed country. Those things are just inherently wrong, whether you are an environmentalist or not.

The article went on to describe how Wal-Mart is changing the way they do business, in order to lessen their ecological footprint. Eliminating excessive packaging, reducing the amount of fuel consumed by their massive truck fleet, installing energy-efficient lighting in their stores, etc.

Lee Scott explained to Wal-Mart employees that cutting the amount of packaging that winds up in Wal-Mart’s trash bins each day is just common sense:

Think about it. If we throw it away, we had to buy it first. So we pay twice—once to get it, once to have it taken away. What if we reverse that? What if our suppliers send us less, and everything they send us has value as a recycled product? No waste, and we get paid instead.

OK, so Wal-Mart’s campaign to go green is about saving money—at least as much as (if not more than) it’s about saving the earth. Which isn’t a bad thing, really. The market economy could be harnessed to help, not hurt, the environment.

For example, the environmental movement, like Wal-Mart, has reinvented itself over the years. The usual stereotype—that environmentalists are nature-worshiping, placard-waving, tree-hugging hippies—is increasingly irrelevant. More and more environmentalists are getting in touch with their entrepreneurial side. As a result, more and more executives are recognizing that caring for the earth makes good business sense.

Sometimes governments need to regulate our impact on the earth. The Clean Air Act of 1990 decreased air pollution in the United States—without hurting the U.S. economy over the long run.

But increasingly, as consumers, we have a new option. We have the opportunity to vote with our dollars, demanding products that are created and delivered in sustainable, ecologically responsible ways. (On a side note, we also have the opportunity to demand that people in the developing world who make these products are compensated fairly.) When we voice our demand, even Wal-Mart listens.

Only time will tell whether Wal-Mart’s green reinvention is for real. Will they truly go green for the long haul? We’ll see.

But it’s a start. And for all that’s wrong with our consumerist, “more-is-more” society, the flip side is that we have more eco-friendly purchasing options than ever before. Let’s take advantage of them. The more we do so, the more corporate giants like Wal-Mart will realize the value of going green.

In the end, Lee Scott is right. Whatever you think about global warming, environmental regulation, and the like, there can’t be anything good about putting all these chemicals in the air. There can’t be anything good about polluting the water supply in developing countries just so those of us in the rich world can save a few bucks on blue jeans.