Single-Use versus Multi-Use: Managed or Cooperative Capitalism

If we look at the history of packaging, we will find that, not so long ago, almost all packaging, such as bottles, boxes, bags, tins, containers, and crates, was multi-use, meaning that these items were used many times instead of being used only once before they were thrown away or recycled. It is only recently, especially since the invention of plastics, that a large portion of packaging has become single-use. The economists would have us believe that this extremely wasteful outcome, where single-use packaging has largely replaced multi-use packaging, is both efficient and, moreover, was a free-market outcome that was decided by consumer choice – that is, that consumers preferred single-use over multi-use packaging, and so it became the dominant method of packaging, wrapping, and transporting the many different things that people buy and consume. But since the great majority of economists have the very bad, not to mention unscientific, habit of not bothering to see if their hypothetical theories and conceptions of reality actually agree with reality, it would be a good idea to see if this is what in fact happened. I will propose a different explanation for how single-use came to replace multi-use packaging, an explanation that is very different from the economists’ naive belief that it was due to the free-market principle of aggregated consumer choice between these two alternatives.

In the past, the cost of manufacturing things like glass bottles, wooden boxes, and metal cans and containers was relatively high, and so the idea of using them only once and then discarding them was not economically sensible. Moreover, such a profligate use of manufactured products would have shocked our much more frugal forebears from a century or two ago, who would have been appalled to see the wasteful lives which their spendthrift descendants lead today.

In the economic – and, more specifically, the industrial – history of the United States, a dominant belief has been that competition is good, and therefore the more of it there is the better. Conversely, any form of cooperation among firms operating in the same industry, which has pejoratively been called “collusion,” is regarded as bad, and therefore it has been prohibited and punished. The Sherman Antitrust[1] Law is the legal embodiment of this simplistic belief about the virtues of competition and the inherent harmfulness of cooperation between companies.

Given this imposed, obligatory model of production, companies were forced to compete with each other, in the price, variety, and quality of their product or products. Since they were not allowed to cooperate, they sought other means to ensure a measure of stability in their operations, such as by creating identifiable and well-known brands that created loyalty among consumers, unique features that their competitors’ products didn’t have, or a constant array of new products that are different, whether intrinsically, functionally, or superficially, from existing products, to ensure a more or less consistent demand for their products. It is, after all, extremely difficult for a company to make business decisions if it does not know how much to produce, which affects other decisions such as how many labourers to hire, how much it can pay them, how much inputs or raw materials to order, whether to open a new factory or not, and so forth. The aim of trusts, which were a form of corporate or industrial cooperation, was to gain a measure of stability in the often uncertain world of economic production and sales.

If the product produced by a number of different companies is more or less the same, then the only feature on which the companies can compete is price, meaning that they must sell their product at a lower price than their competitors in order to maintain or increase their sales and stay in business. This kind of cutthroat competition, which I have called “unbridled price competition,” is regarded by most economists as an unmitigated good. However, this practice has a number of harmful consequences that the economists cannot see because of their blind faith in their economic dogmas and principles, which they assume are globally valid. Furthermore, they fail to see that, by forcing all the participants to compete with each other, while preventing them, by legal sanctions and penalties, from cooperating with each other, they are imposing a particular model of behaviour on everyone, just as the communists did, in the mistaken belief that this will ensure the best possible outcome for the greatest number of people.

In the case of a new product like plastic bags, metal containers, or glass bottles, its initial production cost will be relatively high because the methods used to produce it are not optimal. With the passage of time, individuals and companies figure out ways to reduce the per-unit production cost so that its price declines. Moreover, there occur innovations or discoveries in other fields that can also affect the product’s price, such as a cheaper or more reliable form of energy, since all production methods, especially industrial methods, require energy to transform raw materials into different forms and shapes.

These innovations are of course good, since they enable producers to use more efficiently the inputs of production, whether these are human labour, raw materials, energy, and so forth. But in combination with the model of unbridled price competition, their inexorable effect is to drive the profit per unit of production to a level that is just above zero, and it is this combination – of constant innovation and unbridled price competition – that produces a number of undesirable results.

It is a generally true observation – but not a universal law, for we must be wary of making generalizations in cases where there is no warrant for doing so, since this common practice often blinds people to the many exceptions to these supposedly global or universal “laws” or generalizations – that most people do not value things which are cheap or which they are given for free. To give an example, although plastic cups and cutlery could easily be washed and reused, there are very few people who do so because they are so cheap. Similarly, many people don’t reuse the plastic bags which they are given when they buy something, again because they don’t have to pay for them – or rather, their small cost is included in the price of the things they buy from the store. To do so would make most people feel cheap or miserly, and so there arises a dominant model of behaviour, which is to use these things only once and then discard them.

Another important fact about free things is that most people will take them even if they don’t need them, which again results in increased waste. The fact that most stores offer their customers free bags to carry their purchases, in part as a form of advertising, since the bags are often embellished with the store’s name or logo, discourages many people from using reusable bags or carrying these bags with them whenever they go shopping.[2] Once one store begins giving free bags to its customers, other stores are forced to imitate this wasteful model to avoid losing customers. By allowing companies to give things away for free, we are in effect giving these companies a license to produce garbage. Since it is the municipality – that is, taxpayers – that must pay for the collection, treatment, recycling, or disposal of this corporate garbage, it is only fair that companies be made to pay for such wasteful practices. In the present system, there is no incentive for producers to reduce or eliminate garbage or make their product reusable or recyclable because it is the municipality – that is, someone else – that has to pay for and take care of its disposal. In my opinion, non-reusable, and especially non-recyclable, containers and packaging should be taxed in order both to pay for the costs of their disposal or recycling, and to encourage companies to switch to using reusable containers.

Of course, the situation would be very different if people had to pay more for these things – for example, if consumers had to pay 50¢ for a plastic bag, or if a box of plastic spoons cost five or ten times their present price. If such were the case, then most people would probably reuse these items which presently they use only once before they thoughtlessly, and often carelessly, discard them.

The great irony is that all people who discard these single-use plastic, glass, metal, wood, and other kinds of bags, containers, cups, and utensils after using them only once have in their homes similar containers and utensils made of the same materials which they wash and reuse many times. If one were to propose to them to use their household glasses, cups, plates, food and drink containers, wooden bowls, metal pots, pans, and eating and cooking utensils only once and throw them away, they would object that this is a stupid and wasteful proposal. The main difference between these two diametrically-opposed practices is the products’ price. Because the first category of products is cheap, people don’t value them and so they throw them out, while because the second category of products is more expensive, people value them, wash and take care of them, and try to use them for as long as possible. As for hygiene, people who eat in restaurants do not expect that the glasses, plates, and cutlery they use be brand new; and in this situation they are not bothered by using things that have touched the lips of, or been handled by, other people.

What these considerations show is that unbridled price competition, along with technological innovations that continually reduce a product’s price, lead to the undesirable outcome where there is a very great increase in the total amount of waste that is produced by the capitalist free-market system. It is only the silly economists who would insist that this outcome is desirable or efficient. In other words, the dominant global free-market capitalist system can produce results that are highly inefficient, when considered from the point of view of the total amount of waste it produces and the amount of energy it consumes. For it is precisely the product’s cheapness, which economists tell us is always desirable, to manufacture things as cheaply as possible, that can lead to a dominant model of behaviour that is extremely wasteful.

I have stated that, contrary to what economists and many others believe, preventing cooperation among different companies that produce the same or a similar product is not always good, since forcing them to compete with each other at all times can produce a number of undesirable results. The caricatural image of rapacious, colluding producers who seek to maximize their profits at the expense of the poor, unsuspecting consumers is a gross oversimplification of reality. What this means is that, contrary to conventional economic “wisdom,” the only way we can solve problems like how to switch from single-use to multi-use containers, and thereby reduce the amount of waste and garbage we humans produce, is by permitting and encouraging cooperation among different firms.

To illustrate what I mean, in the present system, which is based on the artificial human model of maximum competition and the absence of cooperation, companies are forced to give their customers free shopping bags, most of which are used only once and then thrown away, because all their competitors do the same thing. This creates a dominant model of behaviour, which in turn creates an expectation among consumers that they will be given bags whenever they buy something from a store or company. Moreover, the manufacturers of these bags, because their profit per unit of production is so low, again due to competition, are obliged to try and sell as many bags as possible in order to remain in business and make a decent amount of profit. Hence, both of these outcomes of unbridled competition result in a very large number of shopping bags being manufactured and discarded, as is shown by the fact that the number of bags produced and used each year continues to increase, despite the efforts of some individuals (like myself) and municipalities to reduce or ban their usage. It would require very little effort for consumers to take reusable bags with them whenever they go shopping; but most of them don’t do so because they know that they will be given free bags by the store when they spend money there.[3]

To eliminate this extremely wasteful model of behaviour, companies must first get together and agree not to give their customers free bags anymore.[4] Second, they must agree to charge an amount per bag, such as 25¢ or 50¢, that will be sufficiently high to discourage customers from continuing to use single-use bags rather than reusable bags. Despite the efforts of many governments to encourage people to use reusable bags, until this model becomes the dominant model of behaviour, most people will continue to use single-use bags. Third, retailers must ensure that the bag manufacturers receive a portion of the higher price that is being charged to consumers, otherwise many of them will go out of business, which fear will give them a strong incentive to resist the implementation of this new pricing model, or continue producing large quantities of bags that they will try to sell in order to maintain their revenue and profits. By receiving a much higher price per bag than they presently do, they will be able to make the same or perhaps a higher amount of profit while producing a much smaller number of bags.[5] Although it may increase profits for some participants in the economy, what I am proposing is not collusion to increase profits at the expense of the consumer; rather, it is cooperation which aims to reduce the amount of garbage we produce by changing the dominant models of behaviour that exist in many societies, and thereby reduce humanity’s destructive impact on the environment.

This discussion challenges some very basic assumptions of standard economic theory, such as that competition among producers, retailers, and companies is good, while cooperation, or collusion, among them is bad, that it is best to force producers to sell their products at the lowest possible price, and that consumer behaviour is the result of individual rational decisions that aim to maximize their utility. In this particular example, as is true of other real-life situations where economic theory does not accord with reality, we can see that all three of these fundamental assumptions of economic theory are wrong.

There is another important reason why it is difficult or impossible to reuse bags, bottles, boxes, containers, and other kinds of packaging: because they are forced to compete with each other, many companies try to differentiate their products from those of their rivals, such as in their design and packaging. These become important marketing features, since many products are in reality identical or are barely distinguishable from each other. This is especially true in societies where individuality is emphasized. For example, there now exist a large number of different kinds of glass, plastic, and metal bottles, such as in the case of beer, wine, soft drink, water, or other kinds of beverage containers, some of which are unique to a particular company’s product. In the old days, when there was only one or a few different kinds, shapes, and sizes of bottles, it was much easier to reuse them, since they were interchangeable, and thus could be reused by different companies. But now, many bottles would have to be returned to the particular company that uses them, an inefficient practice that obviously discourages their reuse, since many companies sell their products over large geographical areas, including globally. From the point of view of Nature and the environment, variety and creativity in product and packaging design have been nothing short of a man-made disaster, as is amply illustrated by the huge amounts of garbage, pollution, non-human habitat destruction, and resource depletion that get worse and worse with each passing year.

In Ontario, where the sale of alcoholic beverages is controlled and regulated by the government, many beer companies, both big and small, have agreed to use a standard-size bottle, which makes it possible to reuse the bottles rather than recycle them, which is an inferior and more costly alternative. This reduces the companies’ production costs, since it takes less energy to collect and clean bottles than it does to collect and melt them each time to make new bottles.[6] But this reuse is only possible because the beer companies have agreed to use the same bottle, rather than use a bottle design that differentiates their product from other companies’ products.

Corporate individualism in the design of bags, including reusable bags, makes it less likely that consumers will reuse them. I have seen companies hand out free reusable bags that are prominently decorated with the company’s name and logo, but I almost never see people carrying such bags in public. Except in the case of luxury brands, which have a prestige that many consumers want others to notice, many consumers do not like being walking advertisements for companies. Presumably, these free promotional bags end up accumulating in people’s residences, or they are simply thrown out after one realizes that one will never use them. Hence, to encourage consumers to use reusable bags, their designs should be as generic, meaning non-company-specific, as possible, which again will require cooperation on the part of different companies, such as by adopting one or only a few different bag designs in order to eliminate the wasteful effects of variety and competition in this case.

In the historically recent switch from multi-use to single-use containers, another development has been to reduce the amount of material contained in the containers. Although this is good from an economic standpoint, it only makes sense given the assumption that the containers will be used only once and never used again. In fact, many of these containers, because they are flimsy or are deliberately designed not to be reused, cannot be used more than once. Some common examples are aluminum beverage cans and plastic water bottles. Although their designs are marvels of engineering efficiency, it cannot be said that, overall, this system is efficient when one considers how many of these cans and bottles are produced globally each year – tens or hundreds of billions of them – and are used once and then recycled or discarded, as many of them are, which then pollute the environment or end up in garbage disposal sites.[7] The fate of plastic bags and bottles that end up near oceans, seas, and other bodies of water is to be gradually broken down, by the action of waves, wind, sunlight, and other natural forces, into smaller and smaller particles, which are then inadvertently consumed by the organisms that live in these environments, such as birds, fish, turtles, and aquatic mammals, some of which die as a result of this incessant, thoughtless, and irresponsible human contamination of their environments.

So long as we continue, uncritically and obediently, to listen to economists, who, like a herd of sheep, bleat false and overly simplistic mantras like “Competition go-o-o-o-od, cooperation ba-a-a-a-ad,” we will never be able to solve the pressing problems that are due to the dominant industrial free-market economic system. Contrary to what the ignorant economists claim about our behaviour, competition is not a natural or innate part of our nature, for it is primarily a learned behaviour. It is rather cooperation that is the natural state of humanity. In small, stable communities, which is the social structure in which all our ancestors lived during the vast part of our species’ evolutionary history and development, harmonious cooperation among its members was the rule rather than the exception.[8] There is absolutely no way that we will be able to solve the growing problems which are due to our species’ too-clever ingenuity unless we learn to cooperate, rather than continue incessantly to compete, with each other, as the foolish and ignorant economists constantly urge us to do.

Like other humanities, economics has been significantly influenced by the nineteenth-century doctrine known as Social Darwinism, which erroneously applied the principles of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to human behaviour and societies. But as we shall see later on, Darwin fundamentally misunderstood the nature of evolution, as well as the relative importance of competition and cooperation in the natural world. It is time now to begin correcting the many harmful results that are due to emphasizing, encouraging, and imposing competition on all people, in the mistaken belief that this will beget the ideal or even a good society.

Although capitalism is very good at producing an abundance of many different things at low prices, thus making them affordable for most people, it also produces many undesirable outcomes and effects. Just as it is necessary to guide or steer a powerful horse in order to make it take us in the direction we want to go, it is necessary to guide, or manage, capitalism in order to make it take us to where we want go. Karl Marx presciently foresaw many of capitalism’s serious flaws, but he was wrong in declaring that capitalism would inevitably be replaced by communism. Moreover, communism is even worse than free-market capitalism. Rather, it is by abandoning or relaxing some of the basic assumptions made by economists and the many zealous advocates of free-market capitalism that we will be able to correct capitalism’s many harmful effects, and make this highly productive system more just, fair, equitable, and stable for human beings, and less wasteful, polluting, and destructive for the rest of God’s Creation.

[1] A trust in this sense denotes a legal or informal entity comprising a number of different companies that produce the same product. Its purpose is to reduce or eliminate the unpredictable fluctuations that can occur in a completely unrestricted and unregulated market, where prices can fluctuate wildly over time, sometimes dropping even below the cost of production. This was attempted either by setting minimum prices for their products, or by restricting the output for each company in order not to flood the market with excess supply, which would have driven down the price. Trusts, or cartels, were not always successful because individual companies had an incentive to produce more than their quota at the agreed-upon price in order to increase their share of the market, and hence increase their revenue and profits. Of course, trusts were also used to gain monopoly control over an industry and thereby make monopoly profits, which unjust practice the Sherman Antitrust Act sought to curtail.

[2] That this could very easily become a habit is shown by the fact that most people do not forget to put on clothes or shoes before they go out, nor do they leave their purse or wallet at home. Similarly, they could easily acquire the habit of taking reusable bags with them whenever they go shopping. However, the knowledge that they will be given bags to carry their purchases discourages many of them from doing so.

[3] Where I live, some stores charge customers 5¢ per bag. Clearly this piddling amount is not enough to encourage customers to switch to using reusable bags, and therefore does nothing to deter this wasteful model of behaviour.

[4] In the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec, there exists a government-owned monopoly that regulates the sale of alcoholic beverages. In Ontario, a paper bag is provided for the customer free of charge, and so the great majority of customers take these bags even when they don’t need them, partly because they would feel embarrassed to be seen walking in the street carrying a bottle of wine or several cans of beer, since very few people do so. (It may also be to comply with the law, which states that any alcoholic beverage in a car or other vehicle must be kept in a closed container in the back seat or trunk of the vehicle.) But in Quebec, at least in the government-owned liquor stores, the customer is not given a bag, so either one must bring a bag or carry the bottle or can in one’s hand, a fairly common sight in the streets of the province. The difference in preventable waste is considerable, amounting probably to a sizeable forest of trees that must be cut down each year to produce the paper bags that are used only once by Ontario residents to transport alcoholic purchases a short distance, such as from the store to their car, not to mention the pollutants that are used during the manufacture of paper and the energy that is consumed, regardless of whether or not these bags are recycled to make new bags and other paper products.

[5] Of course, such a radical change will necessitate other changes, such as reduced staff, since total production will decline, and fewer manufacturers, since, so the hope is, significantly fewer single-use bags will be made and used. An obvious compensation for these decreases is for some of the manufacturers to switch to making reusable bags instead of single-use bags.

[6] To melt glass requires a temperature of approximately 1500°C, which clearly requires the expenditure of a large amount of energy. In the case of aluminum cans, the melting point of aluminum is 660°C.

[7] I suspect that, in the future, as the easily-accessed deposits of metals such as aluminum are exhausted, we will be forced to mine our garbage dumps for metals, glass, and other raw materials which we insatiable humans continue to consume in greater and greater quantities, in an unending global orgy of consumption.

[8] Of course, this group harmony was often accompanied by hostility towards the members of other groups. The global trend in recent decades and centuries has been a reduction in this inter-group hostility and violence that was the cause of the countless wars, conflicts, invasions, and massacres that have occurred in the past.