The Green Column #23

Greens Want To Reverse Wasteful Throwaway Culture

March 21, 2010—Even if you are trying to be green, chances are you have used and thrown away at least one disposable product today.

According to Giles Slade, author of the book, Made to Break, Americans invented the very concept of disposability, products designed for cheapness, single use and short-term convenience.

So it’s no wonder that the casual throwing away of contact lenses, tissues, razors, batteries, coffee cups, ballpoint pens, diapers, plastic cutlery, paper plates and even more substantial items, like electronics, microwave ovens and televisions doesn’t even raise an eyebrow.

We’ve become a throwaway society. Here are some of the numbers:

Two million—the number of plastic beverage bottles used in the U.S. every 5 minutes.
1.14 million—the number of brown paper supermarket bags used in the U.S. every hour.
15 million—the number of sheets of office paper used in the U.S. every 5 minutes.
1.06 million—the number of aluminum cans used in the U.S. every 5 minutes.

In 2003, over 63 million working PCs were trashed, climbing to 315 million in 2004.

All this adds up to 4.5 pounds of trash per person per day, with each American responsible for approaching one ton of trash each year.

Besides filling up landfills, what other implications do disposables have on the environment? Look at the numbers for disposable coffee cups to be used in the U.S. in 2010, courtesy and the Environmental Defense Fund.

Number of cups used – 23 billion
Tons of wood consumed – 1.4 million
Number of trees cut down – 9.4 million
BTU’s of energy used – 7 trillion
Equivalent number of homes that could be powered – 77 thousand
Gallons of water used – 5.7 billion
Equivalent in Olympic sized swimming pools – 8.5 thousand
Pounds of solid waste created – 363 million

Even though the initial, manufacturing of reusable cups creates a bigger environmental impact than paper cups, the impact lessens over time. After reusable cups have been reused a certain number of times, they become more environmentally friendly than paper cups. One study showed the number of reuses for a stainless steel mug is 24. At this point, a stainless steel mug breaks even with paper cups. Since most reusable mugs are designed for 3,000 uses, the positive environmental impact of reusables can be huge. The creation of waste, the use of natural resources, and damage done by greenhouse gases are all decreased by reusable cups after 24 uses. And, reusable cups help cut supply costs for coffee houses. A discount that is often passed on to consumers—saving everyone money, a win-win situation.

Many people buy disposable products either for convenience’s sake, or because the products are initially cheaper. In both cases, this is a false economy, as the above example illustrates.

How did Americans’ love affair with disposables begin? In the late 1800s, manufacturers began to realize the commercial potential of short-lived products.

Some of the first disposable products, razor blades and condoms, were designed for men, but, it was in the marketing to women with products promoted as both hygienic and convenient that a new era in American consumption was born.

During the Depression, marketing campaigns encouraged Americans to prematurely replace their automobiles and buy products to stimulate the economy, culminating in the strange idea of products designed to fail. Enter planned obsolescence, the process of a product becoming obsolete and/or non-functional in a way that is planned by the manufacturer.

In the ’50s and ’60s, Americans becoming increasingly affluent, began buying products for novelty rather than necessity.

And following Sept. 11, President Bush implored Americans to “go shopping” in an effort keep the country operating as usual. We have recently heard a similar plea from President Obama during in hopes of stimulating the economy.

As Americans buy more and more, hundreds of millions of computers, cell phones, televisions and other products are disposed of each year. Some of these products are truly obsolete. Some have simply been cast aside in favor of a new model.

James Twitchell, an historian of advertising, has said that the problem with Americans is not that we’re materialistic, but that we’re not materialistic enough. We don’t genuinely love our things; what we love is exchanging them for newer things.

Planned obsolescence is helped along when the cost of repairs is similar to the replacement cost, or when service or parts are no longer available. Some products may have been designed to have never been serviceable. Creating new lines of products that do not interoperate with older products can also make an older model quickly obsolete, forcing replacement.

In other parts of the world, governments and manufacturers are confronting the costs of disposability at long last.

In the United Kingdom, planned obsolescence engineered into products is considered a breach of customer rights.

What can we do to combat our programming to spend and dispose?

Keep an eye out for all the products you use which are disposable—whether at home, at work or out with friends. How many of these could you switch for a reusable option?

Support businesses that upcycle, reuse and repurpose materials such as EcoStores Nebraska and TerraCycle

Create change with your dollar by buying products with a longer lifecycle, longer warranties and the ability to be repaired.

© Lincoln Green by Design