It’s Time to Throw Out the Throwaway Economy

From garbage crises in Greece and China to worldwide shortages of grain, meat and oil, our current consumption patterns are on a collision course with the Earth’s geological limits.

| Aug. 28, 2009

Disposable water bottle

Producing products that were meant to be discarded after one use was once seen as a way to sustain economic growth.


The stresses in our early 21st-century civilization take many forms — social, economic, environmental and political. One distinctly unhealthy and visible illustration of all four is the swelling flow of garbage associated with a throwaway economy.

Throwaway products were first conceived following World War II as a convenience and as a way of creating jobs and sustaining economic growth. The more goods produced and discarded, the reasoning went, the more jobs there would be.

What sold throwaways was their convenience. For example, rather than washing cloth towels or napkins, consumers welcomed disposable paper versions. Thus, we have substituted facial tissues for handkerchiefs, disposable paper towels for hand towels, disposable table napkins for cloth ones, and throwaway beverage containers for refillable ones. Even the shopping bags we use to carry home throwaway products become part of the garbage flow.

The throwaway economy is on a collision course with the Earth’s geological limits. Aside from running out of landfills near cities, the world is also fast running out of the cheap oil that is used to manufacture and transport throwaway products. Perhaps more fundamentally, there is not enough readily accessible lead, tin, copper, iron ore or bauxite to sustain the throwaway economy beyond another generation or two. Assuming an annual 2 percent growth in extraction, U.S. Geological Survey data on economically recoverable reserves show the world has 17 years of reserves remaining for lead, 19 years for tin, 25 years for copper, 54 years for iron ore, and 68 years for bauxite.

The cost of hauling garbage from cities is rising as nearby landfills fill up and the price of oil climbs. One of the first major cities to exhaust its locally available landfills was New York. When the Fresh Kills landfill, the local destination for New York’s garbage, was permanently closed in March 2001, the city found itself hauling garbage to landfill sites in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and even Virginia — with some of the sites being 300 miles away.

Given the 12,000 tons of garbage produced each day in New York and assuming a load of 20 tons of garbage for each of the tractor-trailers used for the long-distance hauling, some 600 rigs are needed to move garbage from New York City daily. These tractor-trailers form a convoy nearly 9 miles long — impeding traffic, polluting the air, and raising carbon emissions.

1/4/2011 2:13:57 PM

Oh, where to start? Yes, nature plays no games, so a zero-sum game against nature is lost. But the murderous West shows no sign of life-affirming...maybe money-affirming. Repeat the mantra: There is NO waste. It goes somewhere and does harm. Best not let it go anywhere mindlessly. Nothing is flushed away, shipped away, there’s no ‘away.’ I see a note condemning NY reverses itself and condemns China for forcing the poor US to accept its shoddy goods. That very logic is NY’s in re-exporting its ‘waste.’ And the Earthships have been around four decades while piles of tires continue to catch fire and blaze ‘away.’ Humans seem not to learn. Interest in green energy in China? It’s widely criticized in the West for taking over wind and solar markets, both of which the West previously sneered at. So it goes; the West resolutely does little to nothing to curb a mess it took centuries to make, grumping the while about China and India.

9/5/2009 5:50:50 AM

Since NYC was highlighted in this article, I'll go ahead and add my two cents. NYC has a history of being offensive to its neighboring states and the environment in general in its attempts to get rid of its garbage, sewage and pollution from its overconsumption problems. If they had to deal with it locally, they'd certainly have to take a more responsible approach since they've long since run out of land and natural resources to support their overpopulation problem. The pictures of the floating garbage barge that nobody would take back in the last century is the image that I will always have of NYC until they make a concerted effort to clean up their act. Who could ever forget their raw sewage and hypodermic needles floating up on the beaches of southern NJ? As for China, which was also a focus of this article, if we started taking all of the cheap goods that we import from them that fail within the warranty period, load them on shipping containers and return them to their ports for disposal, their headaches would only just begin. The fingers always seem to point at the US for leading over consumption and environmental degradation. When is the last time that China and India tried to reel in their massive overpopulation problem that will eventually lead to irreversable damage to the environment, a deletion of natural resources, and the potential for global starvation?

robin barrett
9/2/2009 3:17:31 PM

In response to Jesse who does not have access to veggies unless they are in shrink wrap and stryofoam............... I heard a presentation of Helen Caldecott from Austalia about 10 years ago. She was one of the founding memebers of Physicians for social responsibility.............she suggested that we remove items from unnecessary packing and leave it at the grocery store..............seems to me a great idea............ robin

9/1/2009 6:00:18 PM

Great, if terrifying article. Does anyone know if there is any growing interest in China in reducing waste or promoting green energy? I wish there weren't so much waste in food packaging. I went to the store yesterday and looked for anything that might be waste-free. The only things I could find were citrus fruits and bananas... even the broccoli comes in plastic and the corn is pre-shucked and shrink-wrapped on a styrofoam container. I don't live next to any nice organic groceries, I don't have friendly farmers selling their wares nearby, and I live in an apartment so I don't know what else to do. Almost all of my garbage seems to come from what I eat. On the bright side, we have a great system here for refilling and reusing glass and plastic bottles. You pay extra (Pfand) when you buy the bottles and get it back when you return them in the store... there's a machine for this, and it spits out a little receipt which you can cash at the register. I wish we had this in the U.S. Also we have to pay if we want plastic bags, so pretty much everyone brings their own reusable ones.

aj schmitz_1
8/31/2009 6:55:42 PM

What is not "thrown away" in our current societies today is life. The concept may sound cruel, but the natural models of population controll established by nature (storms, fire, natural disasters, diseases, etc) have been circumvented by humanitarianism, scientific advances and peace treaties. I am not in any way advocating or reveling in mass destruction or population die-offs; rather, a socialogical/anthropological look at the development of man kind shows that it is, time and again, checked by mother nature. The cavelier attitude toward nature, that we as a species can conquor it, is causing a great deal of disharmony in the systems of nature. The storms are getting stronger, the wave closer to our door-steps, the well run drie and the crops wither in the sun. This is not my concept. nor is it a religious one. take a look at Daniel Quinn's wonderfully interresting novel, Ishmael, which dicusses intelligently, compassionately and clearly the concept that nature is neither benevolent nor malevolent, it just is.

8/31/2009 2:45:10 PM

I have to agree with RA Stewart-- today's society is constantly throwing away "old" technology. Cell phone upgrades are a biggie along with other things like televisions and computers. But has anyone considered car seats? I'm not trying to say that our children shouldn't get anything but the best in safety-- please DO NOT misunderstand, but we have become so advanced with our cars that car seats now have an expiration date here in Connecticut. I find this utterly ridiculous because it forces people to stick something in a landfill that could be updated instead of tossed. Plastic sits forever in a landfill, so why not have a way to update an older seat? I grew up without a car seat. They weren't around. I traveled in a portable bassinet on the floor board of the family car and my brother did too until car seats were introduced. Those times are over, but conserving, updating (by reducing waste), recycling, and reusing SHOULD NOT be something of the past.

r.a. stewart
8/31/2009 1:32:27 PM

Another aspect of the throwaway economy is all the devices that are manufactured not to last and be repairable, to run a few years and be thrown away. How many times have you taken something in for repair or tried to find a part and heard, "It's not worth fixing, just get a new one"? How many times (if you've got a do-it-yourself inclination or just a frugal and stubborn streak) have you tried to fix something yourself and experienced the frustration of working with junk? I'm amazed and appalled--and profoundly discouraged, as it shows how deeply mired our society is in willful ignorance--that no one seems to have put two and two together and recognized what this means to the environment--both the profligate waste of energy and petroleum to make all this mostly-plastic dreck, and the landfill space--and often, the toxic leaks--at the other end of the two- or three-year lifespan when the object is dumped. I try to do my part by buying well-made, repairable things--when I can find them; that often means buying used. But that's not always possible, and in any case what we really need is to rebuild the manufacturing sector that used to make those things and the network of repair people who used to keep them going. If this ever happened, it could be a boost to local economies: you can outsource manufacturing, but repair of anything larger than a pipe or a pocketknife doesn't really work unless it's local.

thomas g fruge
8/31/2009 11:18:28 AM

Biodegratable and reusable products is the solution. I watch a website on you tube where they are reusing old tire and bottles and cans to build homes.(Earthships)they are called. they are building them in New Mexico.

julie casey
8/31/2009 9:55:09 AM

I've always been a big fan of the three "r's" (reduce, reuse, recycle) because, to me, wasting anything, be it time, energy, or resources, is immoral. But the problem is that our economy, the very economy that has made us the richest nation on the planet, is based on buying more and more stuff. The definition of a recession is that we citizens have spent less this quarter than last quarter (for so many quarters in a row), not that we have less money to spend. The media likes to make a recession seem like we are all in peril, but I think a recession means less of us are wasting and more of us are saving. I believe that is good. I also believe the real reason behind the "cash for clunkers" was to spur the economy and help out the car industries, instead of trying to reduce greenhouse gasses. The energy it takes to make and transport a new car to the dealer puts more CO2 in the air than you can burn in fuel for a few more years. And to scrap those "clunkers" when so many poor and needy people could have used them is immoral. But it sure spurred the economy and gave car manufacturers a boost, didn't it?

8/31/2009 8:27:17 AM

I like to think of used stuff as "antiques." I have a house filled with antiques (okay some came from garage sales and flea markets and sometimes I just pick stuff off the curb). Everyone always wonders where I got all this great stuff. On rare occasions, I buy jewelry second hand so all the gold is "clean" and the diamonds "blood free." Sometimes I even buy new clothes -- new to me -- from consignment shops and can get fancy designer labels very cheaply and look great. When I buy books and music I get from the Internet (second hand). Movie CDs come from the public library. Books are also borrowed. Garden plants come from seeds, spliting up perennials and trading with friends. I find the best place to go shopping is in my own attic. I found a set of coffee mugs and placemats up there this winter that someone had given to me and I didn't need at the time. I put them away and now that the old mugs are chipped and broken and the old placemats are torn and badly stained, I've got nice "company presentable" ones for free!

debbie mcsweeney
8/28/2009 4:41:03 PM

As to all the trash I wanted to add something. We recently went to Oregon and as we looked out onto the ocean a friend mentioned the giant swirl of trash in the middle of the Pacific ocean where the currents meet in a giant whirlpool and dead zone. That is where a lot of trash is accumulating. As far as you can see there is plastic on the surface--they say it is now the size of TEXAS!!! How much longer until we wake up?! Are we just going to ignore all of these things because we simply don't see them everyday?! I think we need to seriously relook at plastic of all kinds in our food system and eveywhere else. Have you tried to not have plastic in your life? It is almost impossible. My husband, who is from Ireland says that there people are charged a good bit for plastic sacks at the stores. That is why they bring their own. But here we would put some company out of business so that is why that sort of thing is not done here. It all comes down to business. We can't take away from a business even if it means saving our very lives and enviornment. Something has gone wrong with this idea. We are all at the mercy of the American dream and free interprise--even when its killing our home, altering our food supplies, making the future of our kids a nightmare. People really need to be more aware in their lives about what is actually going on around them. Get out of the run around and look. Look in your own home. Are you doing something because you feel you have to--because everyone else says you should? I haven't had paper towels or napkins in my house in 7 years. I decided that we didn't have them as a kid so we managed alright. It is amazing to me how much trash was illiminated right on the spot! And why is it in our country that if you make more trash or use more water or electricity you get LOWER usage fees??? Are we simply that stupid? I would love to see people pay by the pound for their trash pickup service--you watch how fast they would reduce, reuse a

8/28/2009 1:57:47 PM

What would help immensely would be for everyone to get over the notion that used stuff is icky. I recently had some mattresses that I purchased for an antique bed I use in a spare room. They were slept on a total of twice-not counting that they were covered with an allergy resistant covering, a memory foam pad (I know, I know but these were really cheap mattresses and I reuse the foam pads over and over again), sheets, etc. I doubt seriously that any body parts were able to closely touch them. I was given a new mattress set and wanted to give these away. Everyone I called refused, including the local crisis assistance ministry that will usually take anything. I was told because they were "used" the health dept wouldn't allow them to take them. My county participates in recycling only on a very limited basis, which means mainly only milk and soda bottles. I finally located a family in my community that had lost everything in a fire and was grateful to have them. We have immune systems to protect us from everyday germs. Advertising marketers and the media would love to convince you that the only safe product is one that is treated with enough chemicals to render it hazardous material when it comes time to dispose of it. Talk to any Depression era survivors and they will tell you that most of them survived and thrived even though they were wearing hand me downs and cast offs. I've never read or heard about any epidemics that were caused by someone sitting or lying on used furniture, wearing clothes from Goodwill or eating foods bought off the clearance rack. Actually, our children today might be healthier if we allowed them to come in contact with dirt and germs. There is such a thing as TOO clean believe it or not. And I know the old saying of "cleaniness is next to Godliness" but Jesus wore the same sandals and clothes everyday of his 33 years and he didn't die from germs.

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