Why It’s Time to Stop Putting Polluters in Charge

Concept of world changing due to corporate polluters.

Before I became a full-time Zero Waste advocate, I worked as an environmental litigator at a public interest organization. After years of training as a paralegal, law student, law clerk, and law firm associate, I had finally found a dream opportunity suing companies that violated federal environmental laws. Now, I could use the law to seek real justice for people forced to put up with dangerous, polluting, law-breaking facilities. It was time to take down the big corporations responsible for polluting our environment, damaging the climate, and poisoning communities.

But I quickly realized that it was fundamentally impossible to “take down” those big corporations. The laws and procedures at my disposal were rigged in favor of polluters. We could get a great settlement, force polluters to pay a penalty, or even win a big court case. But then those corporate polluters? They’d just get right back to business – hurting communities and the planet.

Don’t get me wrong. Enforcing environmental laws is undoubtedly important. Polluters must be held accountable. No corporation, no matter how deep its pockets, should have a free pass to pollute. But accountability can only get us so far when many of these companies make money by deliberately poisoning our environment and communities. That’s because fossil fuel giants, plastic producers, and other pollute-first industries profit from products that are inherently toxic and climate-damaging.

Most consumer brands depend on these toxic and climate-damaging products – especially single-use plastic packaging – for their own business. And waste companies can only make money if they’re burning and burying trash.

Simply put, if fossil fuel giants, plastic producers, consumer brands, and waste companies weren’t destroying our environment, then they wouldn’t be making any money. Our existing laws will never be enough to stop this cycle of pollution and profit. If they were, the biggest polluters on the planet would already be out of business.

That reality is a big part of why I changed course from environmental litigation to Zero Waste advocacy. Our current framework isn’t getting the job done. We need to build stronger laws, better policies, and smarter systems from the ground up. That’s the only way to stop waste, climate damage, and profit-driven pollution before they start.

But if my experiences as an environmental litigator and a Zero Waste advocate have taught me anything, it’s this: The right laws will never put polluting industries in charge. If an industry profits off the very thing that we need to reduce, eliminate, or protect people from, then that industry shouldn’t have a role in setting the agenda for how we move forward.

And yet, lawmakers and agencies are often all too happy to give polluters a “seat at the table” when it comes to creating policies that should prioritize protecting communities from those very polluters. This is especially true for recently trending producer responsibility for packaging laws. Consumer brands and packaging producers – the industries that profit from packaging waste – insist that they need to be in charge of these programs.

If that sounds preposterous, it’s because it is. Producer responsibility for packaging programs only work if they hold polluting industries accountable and mandate packaging reduction, reuse, and recycling. Putting polluters in charge doesn’t exactly sound like accountability, does it? And it can only lead to one thing: More packaging waste.

Unfortunately, producer responsibility laws aren’t the only example of polluters attempting to control the policies, regulations, and programs intended to keep them in check. Far from it. Consumer brands and packaging producers want the flexibility to label their products as recyclable, despite the fact that they’re not. The beverage industry now wants to run the bottle bill programs that it spent decades trying to dismantle. The fossil fuel industry wants to write new rules for toxic, climate-damaging plastic disposal facilities (aka “advanced recycling”) that allow it to build, operate, and shut down these facilities with little oversight or public input.

None of this is new. All too often, laws that should protect our environment contain loopholes that favor polluting industries. Take the federal Clean Air Act. Although rightfully hailed as a landmark law that has dramatically reduced air pollution in the U.S. over the past 50 years, it also allows industrial facilities to emit hazardous air pollutants – many of which are unsafe at any level. And, the law allows polluters to use financial hardship as an excuse to ignore certain emissions standards Even at their best, our laws put profit and pollution over people and the planet.

We deserve better. Our climate and environment deserve better. The communities of color and low-income communities treated as sacrifice zones by polluting industries and lawmakers deserve better.

At the end of the day, corporations exist to protect their profits. And when a corporation’s profits depend on fossil fuel extraction, or plastic production, or waste, its goals will always be at odds with protecting the environment, the climate, and communities. We cannot break the cycle without new laws, policies, and programs that finally put people first.

And that’s exactly what we’re striving for here at Just Zero. We’re working alongside communities, policy makers, scientists, educators, organizers, and others to put the right laws in place that stop pollution before it starts. Join us in building the right Zero Waste future – sign up for our emails and stay informed today.

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