Is our current version of capitalism failing people and our planet?


In this week’s video insight Roger discusses the REDcycle program that has been suspended after it was revealed soft plastic items collected at Woolworths and Coles had bee stockpiled for months in warehouses and not recycled. Many experts suggest recycling solutions are no solution at all. They suggest what is required is a ban on plastics.


Roger Montgomery:

The REDcycle debacle, in which plastic shopping bags, chip packets, bread bags and assorted soft single-use plastics deposited in Coles and Woolworths supermarket-supplied bins, to be recycled into street furniture, bollards, garden edging and playground equipment, had instead been secretly stored in warehouses, highlights an issue I don’t think the Western World is prepared nor willing to solve. It is an issue we need to all consider and which must be addressed.

At the time of the collapse of the recycling scheme, in early November, REDcycle boss Liz Kasell pointed to ballooning demand with which the company was unable to cope. The company’s processes had the capacity to recycle the contents of one bin per supermarket per day over five years however the success of the scheme meant bins were, on average, filling three times faster.

Consumers were understandably frustrated their bags were being stored in warehouses and potentially heading to landfill. The REDcycle revelations again highlight an issue Australia faced in 2018 when China restricted imports of contaminated recycling waste from Australia, immediately impacting the outcome of over 35 per cent of household kerbside recyclable plastics.

The loss of Chinese demand for a third of our paper and plastics reportedly resulted in the average price of mixed paper and plastic scrap plunging to zero. Initially, alternative Asian markets were found however these will eventually reach capacity too.

Companies like Nestle and Unilever produce billions of tonnes of plastic bottles annually and we’ve all seen the news that microplastics now contaminate the breast milk of at least 75 per cent of nursing women, and that BPA – a chemical found in plastic food and beverage containers ­– may be linked to breast cancer. We’ve also seen the images of plastics killing marine and bird life, and choking waterways and the oceans.

This has prompted many experts to suggest recycling solutions are no solution at all. They suggest what is required is a ban on plastics. And I agree. The health of people and the planet should come ahead of profits from incumbent business models, the best of which would be able to adapt to a ban on plastics. 

But the bigger issue not being addressed is the one brought about by capitalism itself. Our current version of capitalism is failing people and our planet. Capitalism isn’t perfect, which is of course is why it must be regulated. Left to run its natural course, capitalism would result in all the wealth being accumulated by a very small group of individuals. We can already see this happening.

But one of capitalism’s other big failings is the failure to properly and fairly price its impact.  Let me explain with an example…

Suppose we set up a corporation that builds manufacturing plants to manufacture 1 million plastic milk bottles and water bottles per day. Now, we locate those plants at Bondi Beach in NSW, Cottesloe Beach in WA, Sunshine Beach in Queensland and Portsea in the great southern province of Victoria. We also install a conveyor belt that reaches out past the beach and over the ocean. All we do is pump out those bottles, drop them on the conveyor belt and dump them straight out to sea. Seven million bottles per week all going straight into the ocean.

There’d be riots. The world would be in an uproar and our business would be shut down.

But here’s what capitalism does; we intersperse a consumer between the manufacturing plant and the ocean. The consumer uses the plastic bottle, pops it in the bin and then it’s someone else’s problem. The manufacturer is no longer responsible and doesn’t have to pay anything for its bottle eventually finding its way into the ocean, landfill or into women’s breast milk. Our current form of capitalism has perfected the privatization of profits for the landlord and the socialization of the true costs. To my mind, it’s just not how commerce in an industrialised democracy should work. Progress should make life better for everyone instead, to date, it makes life much, much better for a few. It may just be what we’ve come to accept but it’s a failure of capitalism, it represents a failure of our global regulators, and the collapse of REDcycle is just another small example of that failure in action.


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