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Are We Throwing America Away?

By Dan Chiras 

Tags: Disposable products, disposability, waste,


In the 1970s and 1980s, disposable products were a hot topic among those who were trying to green America. It seems to me that no one talks about disposability anymore.

And what is more, disposable products are invading the marketplace. Now I know the sharks that patrol my blogs, ready to jump on me for my alleged socialist leanings will smell blood in the water and no doubt remind me that all those disposable products make jobs, but hear me out first. There’s something bigger than creating jobs through waste. It’s called creating an environmentally and economically sustainable society. We can have jobs and the environment. It’s not a trade off ... but we have to create jobs that make sense in the long-term from all three perspectives: social, economic and environmental.

Okay, now for the topic of today’s blog.

In the 1970s, disposability was in an infant stage. Our options were few. We had disposable pens and disposable diapers ... and of course there were disposable batteries ... and maybe a few more items. Today, disposables are flooding the market — creating jobs, no doubt, but also foreclosing on our future, gobbling up energy and resources that are finite.

Disposable diapers are as popular today as ever, maybe more so. And I’m not just talking disposable diapers for infants and toddlers. Adult disposable now take up a sizeable amount of shelf space. Are there really that many incontinent men and women in America?

And, of course, disposable razor blades are still widely used. They’re elaborate plastic and metal devices with multiple blades that seem to give out before you can say “How much did they charge me for a pack of six blades?” But don’t forget disposable razors, too. It’s not enough to toss out a blade assembly, we now through out the handle, too, adding to the nation’s municipal waste pile and depleting the Earth unnecessarily of valuable energy and other resources.

But that’s not all. Go to a fast-food restaurant and your soft drink will very likely come in a disposable cup. Not a paper cup, but a nifty plastic cup.  Most people use it once and toss it out. It’s perfectly recyclable paper that ends up in landfills.

And, of course, restaurants serve up mountains of disposable forks, knives and spoons, often nicely wrapped in plastic, too. And don’t forget the nice plastic plates your food often comes on, and the plastic plates microwave meals available in the frozen food section of your favorite grocery store.

Dental floss hasn’t escaped disposability. Sure, floss isn’t something you’d want to put in the dishwasher and use again. I know that. But let’s not forget about the little disposable devices that now hold the floss for many of us. These devices work great, but when you’ve used them once or twice, out they go, adding to the trash heaps growing outside our cities and towns.

Don’t forget printer cartridges and printers. For all intents and purposes, most printers these days are so cheaply made that they’re simply discarded every couple of years. Manufacturers sell them to us at bargain rates knowing they’ll score big on the countless expensive ink cartridges we need to feed these hungry beasts.

The last time I visited my local grocery store, I uncovered a long list of disposables, including disposable kitty litter trays, refills for Swiffer Sweepers, disposable tape dispensers you wear on your wrist when wrapping presents, and cough medicine in small plastic — you guessed it — disposable “spoon” dispensers. Although the grocery store didn’t sell them, we mustn’t forget disposal contact lenses. Use them once, then toss them and the packaging out.

While throughput — maximum production and consumption — is dramatically increased by simply making things we use disposable, this is no way to build a sustainable future. We aren’t so resource rich that we can afford to throw all this good material and energy away. We’re only foreclosing on our own future.


Above: "...restaurants serve up mountains of disposable forks, knives, and spoons, often nicely wrapped in plastic, too." Photo by Istockphoto/Nancy Tripp.
better when bio man
2/22/2011 1:45:04 PM

I totally agree about the strain that disposables place on our environment and that recyclable products are probably a better approach. But the reality is that there is a place for disposables and they are here to stay. I think the key here is the type of disposables that are used. Traditional plastic products are petroleum-based and take hundreds of years to decompose. I believe a better alternative is to use biodegradable disposable products. Biodegradable products are typically made from plant-based materials which are renewable resources and are compostable. While it is commendable to push to ban or reduce the use of disposables I think the better campaign is to push for the use or requirement that disposables be biodegradable. To learn more about the benefits of biodegradable disposable products go to:

3/6/2010 8:08:49 PM

I am so anti-disposable my family pokes fun at me. It drives me nuts that everything is use once and toss it. I use cloth diapers, cloth napkins, there's rarely paper towels around, toilet paper is about the only paper product you'll find here. The amount of packaging that I bring home from the grocery store drives me crazy! I try to reduce the amount of waste as much as possible. Everyone is on the "green" buzzword and tow of the biggest problems I see with society is everything is disposable and no one ever mentions the word sustainable. I'm glad to see this post and that I am not alone in my issue with disposability in our society.

paul andrew anderson_5
3/3/2010 4:44:37 PM

It's a mentality! As long as we continue to look at Earth as raw material to convert into dollar increments, expect the degradation to escalate at alarming rates. Capitalism and consumerism are in direct conflict with sustainability!