Big Government Won’t Protect the Oceans; Markets Will

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Last week, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced a U.S. effort to address plastic litter buildup in oceans and other waters. The desire to solve this problem is laudable, but the plan’s focus on government spending and command-and-control waste disposal policies is the opposite of what we need.

As I have detailed so many times, government management of waste disposal doesn’t work. Policies should focus on allowing market forces to work and for prices and competition between disposal options govern the process.

Still, ensuring proper waste disposal is particularly difficult because the major sources of plastic entering oceans are outside of our control. As CEI has pointed out elsewhere, and as the EPA’s Federal Strategy for Addressing the Global Issue of Marine Litter acknowledges, a large majority of waste in the oceans emanates from China and other Asian nations that lack the market institutions—such as private property, market pricing, and economic freedom in general—necessary to efficiently manage waste. And these governments often don’t pay too much attention to waste disposal, allowing trash to migrate from dumps into waterways.

In the United States, we have the economic development and resulting wealth that provides both the resources and willingness to pay for proper waste disposal. In addition, there is some competition and market pricing of disposal options—despite local governments’ over-involvement in this industry—which is why our waste is generally managed well and little of it enters waterways. According to one analysis, the U.S. contribution to plastics in the ocean is less than 1 percent, while more than 50 percent comes from China and just four other Asian nations.

Certainly, we could still do better. U.S. waste disposal problems result because many local governments try to micromanage the trash market. Rather than allow competition and market pricing, they subsidize and prop up politically favored options, particularly recycling. As a result, many U.S. localities squander gobs of local tax revenues to subsidize recycling programs that use more resources than they save. These programs do more environmental harm than good.

Unfortunately, this socialistic model for waste disposal underlies many of the recommendations found in theEPA’s strategy. We should dispose of trash-market socialism here rather than try to export those bad ideas.

Consider some facts. For maybe a decade or more, U.S. municipalities thought they found the answer to their otherwise insanely expensive recycling programs: ship the trash to China and then count the waste as “recycled.” But there was no good way to gauge exactly how much of it was actually recycled and how much ended up in open dumps overseas.

In any case, exporting and trading waste products could have worked had it been market-driven. In that case, the Chinese would have been able to recycle a large share of the materials for a profit in an environmentally responsible way. But that’s not what has happened.

China does not have a market-driven economy with solid property rights to hold polluters responsible and reward responsible players. And bureaucrats in U.S. cities pay no personal price for their failed programs, so they did not think much about providing a marketable product. Rather, they collected mixed waste and simply put it on boats to China, then reported it as “recycled.” They apparently assumed the Chinese would keep taking poorly sorted materials. Yet much of the waste was too dirty and contaminated to be recycled, and it’s likely that a substantial portion simply ended up mismanaged in open dumps. Sadly, some of it probably ended up in waterways as well.

Eventually, China’s dictatorial government banned imports of such contaminated recyclables starting in 2018. In the United States and other developed nations, the so-called recyclables began to quickly pile up. But rather than finding more efficient disposal options, cities continued their expensive “recycling” programs. If you doubt that, check out this Manhattan Institute analysis that details these unnecessary costs.

If we want to improve our waste management systems, we should focus on reducing such government intrusion into the market. Increased privatization of disposal services would be a good start, as it would help market pricing develop to ensure efficient resource use and allocation. Anti-litter campaigns, particularly private ones, would help with ocean pollution from our shorelines.

But that leaves open an important question: How do we hold other nations accountable for their large share of ocean pollution? The EPA report suggests that we export our mistaken approach: Dole out lots of U.S. tax dollars to help bad actors build better infrastructure while exporting some of the bad ideas we have deployed here. Hiding behind the term “incentivizing,” it essentially advocates more subsidies for unworkable recycling programs and attempts to socially engineer “sustainable” waste disposal behavior. For example, the EPA’s press release notes:

USAID’s $48 million flagship, five-year, global program Clean Cities, Blue Ocean works in rapidly urbanizing countries across Asia and Latin America to target marine plastics directly at their source. It works to improve systems that manage solid waste, build capacity and commitment to the “3Rs” (reduce, reuse, recycle) and promote sustainable social and behavior change.

While there may be some short-term gains involved in helping nation’s develop infrastructure, this approach will not work over the long term. These nations need market economies with enforceable property rights and the economic development that follows. Pretending that recycling and government spending—rather than functioning markets—is the answer promises to exacerbate problems and make disposal more expensive.

The EPA report does mention efforts designed to develop technologies and programs to begin cleaning up the mess that has already entered oceans and waterways around the world. Indeed, cleaning up the mess is a good idea, but we need to think even more strategically about how to achieve that goal. 

Oceans and many local waterways that feed them represent a vast number of “commons”—largely unowned (or government-owned) resources.  Since no one effectively owns them, no one can effectively clean them, keep them clean, or hold polluters accountable.

So rather than throwing U.S. dollars at key offenders, why not seek ways to hold them accountable by assigning ownership to these waterways and ocean commons? Ownership would create stewardship by empowering the owners—be they individuals, companies, or nonprofits—to police the oceans and hold polluters accountable.

The idea of ocean privatization may sound peculiar and overly ambitious to many people, but there are already examples of privatized waterways and fishing rights that work well. Why not at least explore how we can extend that concept to promote to ocean stewardship? Private stewardship is certainly more promising than governmental “solutions” that have long allowed these resources to be abused. 

Economist Walter E. Block and engineer Peter Lothian Nelson have laid much of the ground work for this idea in their book Water Capitalism: The Case for Privatizing Oceans, Rivers, Lakes, and Aquifers, which will be the subject of a future post.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute has also long advocated ways to privatize fisheries and other water resources to ensure long-term viability, and there are existing real-world cases. For example, an informal set of property rights developed by Maine lobstermen has helped ensure the long-term sustainability of that industry.

Today, there are private groups doing some of the best research on the scope of the ocean pollution problem, while also developing solutions. In particular, the group Ocean Cleanup is pioneering promising technologies for removing waste from the oceans. 

Rather than export our own flawed waste disposal socialism, policy makers need to start thinking creatively and capitalize on systems we know work, such as stewardship fostered by private property.