Our global culture’s penchant for disposable and short-life-span products is by no means news. Yet I can’t help but note that the actions taken by nations, companies and individuals seem merely decorative. The message is “yes the planet is in serious trouble, but no worries! Continue buying and consuming at the exact same rate, because here’s a recycling symbol or a ‘sustainably and ethically sourced’ label to abate your conscience”. The aim is to give us the illusion of addressing the issue, so that business (capitalism) can continue as usual. In the following blog, my hope is to shed some light on how we arrived here, wading in waste, before moving on to how we can make the deep, radical change our planet requires.
But first, let us reflect on just how insidious and pervasive this culture of disposability is. I invite you to contemplate how many times disposable items have been thrust upon you personally, just in the last week. The disposable chop sticks, plastic cutlery or plastic smoothie cups you were automatically given even though you were eating in, the straws in your cocktail you didn’t ask for, the tiny shampoos and conditioners waiting for you in your hotel- the list goes on.
Disposability has become thoroughly normalised in our society, and only in the space of 50 years or so. Why? Disposable items are simply a better economic model as it means we have to continually purchase the same items over and over. There’s less money to be made from manufacturing and selling high quality, reusable and durable items that last. We have become a single-use society that prioritizes convenience and immediate gratification above all else, resulting in an incredible amount of land, air, and sea pollution.
How did we get here in such a relatively short length of time? The reasons are three prong:
In some instances, disposability is related to a very real human necessity. A good example of this is the high production and use of plastic bottles in nations and areas that don’t have access to drinkable running water. In order to overcome this issue and quell the stream of plastic going into the ocean, proper water sanitation needs to be provided to all people. Hygiene and contamination-avoidance in medical and scientific fields are further examples of how necessity can justify disposability.
The second and perhaps primary cause of our disposable culture is convenience. Our obsession with getting what we want or need as quickly and easily as possible is indicative of a much larger systemic issue- many of us are extremely time poor. Our lifestyles and jobs require us to move at such a fast pace that we genuinely have little time to make considered purchases. This fast pace also robs us of invaluable reflection time to actually stop and think about whether the way we’re living and spending is actually serving us and our planet. Disposable packaging also allows us access to a much wider variety of products, especially food items, year round. Instead of eating seasonally, we’re able to access nearly all foods at nearly all times of the year.
The other primary cause of our present predicament is aesthetics or visual appeal. Companies successfully sell us disposable products because they’re aesthetically pleasing. They can also use the aesthetics of a product to subtly manipulate the consumer to feel a certain way via eye catching packaging design and manipulative slogans.
Recycling is the solution many proffer to this issue of mass air, sea and land pollution resulting from our widespread adoption of disposable lifestyles, but the facts show recycling is a red herring. Designing recyclable packaging is a much less useful solution than designing products that don’t need to be replaced as often or at all, or designing circular or regenerative production and distribution models. This is because the more we think something being recyclable negates is disposability, the more disposable items we buy and the more raw materials are extracted. The below graph demonstrating the sharp increase in plastic use globally illustrates this point:
A scenario that assumes current demographic and per capita waste production trends will continue (blue line) projects waste to peak sometime after 2100, as does a scenario with even greater population growth (red line). Only a scenario with a smaller, wealthier world population and more environmentally-friendly consumption behaviors (grey line) enables peak garbage to occur this century. Image via Nature/Hoornweg et. al.
Our addiction to single use items is not incidental. As mentioned above, linear markets are a prerequisite for maximizing profit. Just as our disposable culture happened by design, a post disposable culture will only come about through deliberate and determined reform of our priorities, ways of thinking, systems and product design.
Here is a non-negotiable: the linear conversion of resources into waste is unsustainable on a finite planet. Luckily, we have been gifted the ultimate example of a closed loop, regenerative production model: nature. In an ecosystem, no species creates waste that other species cannot use. No other species creates growing amounts of substances that are toxic to the rest of life. Our linear/exponential growth economy distinctly violates nature’s law of return, the cycling of resources. Because we’ve gotten out of step with nature, we’ve created and become addicted to an unsustainable mode of living.
But we can break this addiction by taking responsibility on the individual level, as well as placing pressure on the systems and corporations that facilitate and exacerbate our present disposable culture. We as business owners, consumers and product designers are being invited to be flexible, forward thinkers and to understand the impacts of our decisions — not to deflect responsibility to other parts of the supply chain, or to claim that our actions are too small have an effect on the world.
A zero-waste economy is the economic realization of the interconnectedness of all beings. It embodies the truth that as I do unto the other, so I do unto myself. This literal and symbolic truth can serve as our guiding star in our mission to create a post-disposable world.