What is progress? Before answering this question, let's appreciate a statistic that Britain’s Royal Statistical Society has correctly decided is international statistic of the year: "90.5 percent of plastic is not recycled." What does this mean? Clearly little progress has been made in the direction of making plastics cheaper. This would be the consequence of reducing the production or synthesis of new plastic products and looping the spent energy locked in used plastics for as long as possible. Recycling means this and nothing else. It is a system that accounts for the dissipative nature of human societies. Meaning, with recycling, the input and movement of energy becomes visible. This is not the case with the dominant economic order of our times. It sees only two inputs, and not the one related to the key virtue of recycling. We can even blame the plastics found on and in sea turtles around the world on the omission imposed by orthodox economics.

In the words of Steve Keen—one of the the few noted economists in the world that take thermodynamics seriously—the current dominant economics, neoclassical, focuses on labor and capital inputs. But in truth, the "transformation of inputs into outputs... takes energy." Furthermore, this obviously energetic process, as Keen also points out, runs opposite to the second law of thermodynamics (and so do all living organisms, for that matter), which states that energy moves from a highly ordered state (low entropy) to a disordered one (high entropy). (To go the other way around demands a lot of energy.)

The second law is the arrow of time, and the nature of the universe, as it proceeds to a final heat death. But here is the extraordinary thing: most capitalist productions become waste long before they become disordered (dissipated, or actually wasted) energy. They are waste before they are wasted. For more clarity on this peculiarity (as it is historically specific and not trans-historical), we need to separate what is natural from what is cultural. This distinction is often and easily confused. A large number of the trashed objects of capitalist production are not waste in the natural senses, but are incorrectly seen and dealt as such. A part of this error results from the invisibility of energy.

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The energy that's directed into the formation of objects made of, say, plastic, becomes waste (in the cultural rather than natural sense, but the cultural sense has physical or hard-world consequences), while the directed energy is locked in the object. In short, the object still contains lots of unspent energy. It is still highly ordered. It has low entropy. Indeed, it's hard for life to dissipate it, biologically degrade the energy trapped in these objects. But if such is the case, why not reuse them or establish a system that corrects this clear flaw/failure? Why is it so easy to waste things that are not waste? The key reason is found in the ideology of progress.

In the common mind, progress means that products that were once expensive become, over time, and due to improved production methods and advancements in technology, cheaper. This is seen as a kind of law, and it's often connected with the law of diminishing returns (these laws are, of course, not natural, but cultural). Falling prices are registered as one of the prime virtues of capitalism. But this is all a very nice dream. In reality, things are not becoming cheaper. Instead, the opposite is happening. They are becoming more expensive. This fact is made abundantly clear with the massive amount of plastics that are wasted without being properly waste. How? Because the cost of new plastics objects is going to be higher than the cost of objects that are recycled. This fact will not be perceived if energy is not factored as an input—and here we see the ideological function of the invisibility of energy inputs in neoclassical economics. The purpose of waste that's not wasted is to indeed maintain the high price of products. This can be considered an important reason why plastics are preferred over other materials.

And so, what we find everywhere in capitalism are processes that are structured not to make things cheaper—meaning, to evolve from an inefficient process to one that corresponds with nature (energy), not culture (price)—but always more expensive than they actually should be. The ever-growing plastic trash in the world is not a market failure. It is the market.