100 Corporations Produce 71% of Carbon Emissions. But Who Buys Their Products?

LIVING IN SOUTHWEST DETROIT, A STONE’S THROW FROM THE AMBASSADOR BRIDGE, I AM ACCUSTOMED to having to wipe off the black grit that accumulates on the glass top of the table on our front porch. Accustomed, or inured– I’m not sure which. Marathon Oil, US Steel, or the customs plaza. Take your pick. I call this the sunny inevitability of a “business-friendly regulatory environment.” I could do this every few days, but I don’t, because of the futility of it. I’m used to opening the front door in the morning and smelling, variously, sooty smells, stank diesel exhaust, or, on colder, wetter days, that particular smell of damp, roasted toluene, that is only produced by a not-yet-warm, older gasoline engine. I’m used to the neighborhood’s cracked sidewalks being covered in trash and broken bottles.

In the liberal do-gooder echo chamber, we’re bombarded with a disheartening statistic– that a relatively small list of 100 corporations are responsible for 71% of carbon emissions. But this leads to a tough question: Aren’t we the ones buying their products? And how can we challenge this paradigm in a way that lets us speak truth to power while also taking individual and collective, local responsibility? To take this a bit farther, how can we avoid the extreme opposite end of the paradigm, the libertarian/neoliberal fantasies that all responsibility is only individual?

Presort is pretty much essential for effective recycling. Single-stream results in a huge rate of contamination. In the case of a contaminated, single waste stream, it’s difficult or impossible to separate most recyclable material. This means a lot of recycling ends up going into a landfill. E-waste (left) is often discarded in regular trash bins in places like Detroit because there’s little to no enforcement of laws that prohibit this. There’s also little to no economic incentive to recycle it properly.
Beyond Cultures of Waste

Thinking about this locally: until its abrupt closure in 2019, Detroit’s incinerator burned municipal waste from far and wide. Defenders argued that this was used to produce heat for the city’s well-developed steam network. Of course, there’s the separate issue that most developers in the city of Detroit don’t even follow building codes to begin with. Or do idiot things like building buildings with PTACs and MagicPaks for garbagely-low-efficiency HVAC– instead of, you know, thinking about the efficiency of using a steam distribution network. (This, my readers, is for another story!). Indeed, the company that operated the incinerator claimed that garbage was a renewable resource. Well. It does sort of fit the textbook definition. Garbage is, in the myopic, literal sense, a resource that can be accumulated without detriment to the environment, and a resource that can be easily replenished forevermore.

But Southeast Michigan’s bad-itude is rooted in Detroit’s legacy of production. This necessarily means consumption. It’s an assembly line kind of thinking. Inputs come onto the line, get transformed in steps, and, at the end, leave. We don’t invest in sustainability here. Nor do we invest in conservation. Our investment in energy conservation, for example, is so abysmal that the last governor actually had to rebrand the MPSC’s energy efficiency programming to call it energy waste reduction. The rationale? Republicans didn’t want to invest in a positive, new thing. They were more likely to be interested in reducing a bad thing.

It’s hard to think about how to change this. Recycling didn’t really exist in the United States to a meaningful degree before 1980. But rates have remained pretty much flat in the past two decades after two preceding decades of explosive growth. Indeed, recent increases in recycling rates are not disproportionate to the substantial increases in solid waste in general. There’s also the pesky fact that a lot of single-stream recycling ends up becoming garbage. Because we don’t have good systems in place to manage it, and because people fill their recycling bins with stuff that isn’t recyclable. But recycling bins in Detroit are free. And it’s easy to understand how to use them. Like, to not fill them with plastic bags, which I see quite frequently.

Glass (left) is a carbon-intensive, but durable, material. In spite of this, glass bottles are rarely reused in North America– even though they could easily be. Plastic (right) has exploded in use in recent years. COVID and the growth of the carryout restaurant economy are partially responsible, at least from 2020 to the present. But the growth in plastics production is also a complement to the explosive growth in natural gas.
Beyond Cultures of Pollution

It’s not just about the solid waste. So, too, has Michigan resisted requirements to adopt vehicle inspection standards. My partner and I– both originally from the Midatlantic- noticed when we moved here how many broken-down cars we see on the sides of the highways every time we drive anywhere. One might argue that this is because Detroiters don’t have money to spend on nicer cars, or what have you. I would attribute this less to Detroit’s high poverty rate per se– or to its effective rate of mobility poverty, that is, households spending a disproportionate percentage of their disposable income on getting around because of how abysmal our public transit is, than to the lack of vehicle inspections overall. It’s a dysfunctional regulatory apparatus.

It is fairly clear if you think about why a Republican legislature wouldn’t want vehicle inspections. Increasing the size of the government is bad (unless to fight foreign wars or legislate what you do in your bedroom, of course). There’s also no program of any kind to recycle old vehicles. Which is why the west side is blanketed with acres of industrial junkyards– none of which can be profitably recycled with scrap metal prices being so low.

Finally, returning to the Ambassador Bridge thing? The Bridge alone contributes to a huge percentage of local air quality problems here and in Windsor. The Moroun Clan is directly responsible for a large portion of delays in trucking. Trucks sit, sometimes for hours, in either direction, often daily. This issue has been studied extensively. There are multiple reasons for optimism, though. One is that the new bridge will move traffic to the far less populous areas downriver. The new customs plaza will likely deliver improved efficiency of processing freight. Another reason for hope is that trucks are a monumental, though easily scalable, target for fleet electrification.

Our house, comprising four adults, three dogs, and three rats, produces, on a biweekly basis, enough recycling to fill two giant blue bins. This rate of waste has decreased since we curbed our La Croix habit with a fake SodaStream. Excluding minor construction projects that sometimes become municipal waste, we have never filled the black bin in a weekly period. We have filled it in a biweekly period exactly once, to my knowledge.
Common-Sense Solutions

To quote Immortal Technique: “I’m not one of those rappers who’s gonna tell you you gotta quit your job.” This isn’t some sort of cautionary, anti-capitalist polemic, telling you to stop buying so much of that attractively priced, handcrafted Brazilian footwear. Problems aren’t purely individual or collective. They’re systemic. And we exist in a system. We live in a society, one might say.

One of the worst things about white liberal elitism in the United States is the belief that we can get a free pass to consume in ways that are destructive just because we check some other box. I drive a Prius, so it’s okay. Or, I drove my gas-guzzling Subaru to Whole Foods to buy reusable straws, so it’s okay. There’s similarly the paternalistic or sometimes even colonial attitude that erroneously suggests that people who don’t have recycling bins are doing more harm for the environment than, say, white liberal elites driving a Subaru to Whole Foods who recycle and use reusable straws. Nah, bro. It’s neither of these. Everyone has a responsibility to do their part. The people who consume more have a responsibility to do more– and to consume less. Meanwhile, the people who consume less– and can afford less- should, at the very least, get a free recycling bin and learn how to use it.

Paradigm Shifts

Paradigm shifts either require direct awareness of the paradigm, or interest in a thing that effects that shift. The biggest companies on that corporate polluter list? All petrochemical and fossil fuel extractors or processors. Not surprising. If China mines a lot of coal, maybe we should stop buying so much from China. If ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco are producing so much carbon, maybe we should stop driving as much.  Time to replace your car? How about don’t buy a freaking SUV? Try and take the bus once in awhile? Bring your reusable bags to the supermarket? I don’t know. Get creative. But honestly, just stop throwing plastic bags into the recycling bins. It’s really pretty easy.

It would be naïve and paternalistic to say that people who are consuming less and have fewer resources have a disproportionate– or even equal- share of responsibility. But it’s certainly easy for us all to hold each other accountable to make some really basic shifts in behavior. Making more intentional decisions about recycling is an easy step toward paradigm shift– and reducing carbon footprint, both individually and collectively.

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Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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