Are We Living in a Disposable Culture?

Are We Living in a Disposable Culture?

, by Planet Green, 14 min reading time

Think about how much of the plastic you use today that will end up as trash. Your drink bottles, grocery bags and food wrappers, the packaging in those boxes that came from Amazon - generally anything you opened up and took out of a package. If you live in the US, your daily plastic waste likely amounts to at least a pound, and likely more.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that most plastic waste is either dumped in landfills or becomes pollution in rivers and oceans. You see it everywhere, on freeways, the roadside, at the beach - virtually everywhere. As this trash degrades in the environment, it releases both toxins and microplastics that find their way into both animals and humans. Yes, they are in you. Alarmingly, statistics show that only 4% of plastic in the U.S. is recycled. You yourself can make a difference, if you make the effort.

This level of wasn't always the case. Over the past 70 years, plastic has infiltrated nearly every facet of human life. According to reports from Our World in Data, the world now produces some 230 times more plastic than it did in 1950. Yes, it’s everywhere.

The Rise of Disposable Products

The convenience of disposable products has led to a culture where items are used once and then simply thrown away. Discarded instead of being recycled or reused. This shift began in the mid-20th century with the introduction of single-use items like plastic utensils, straws, and the ever present issue of product packaging. The promise of convenience overshadowed the long-term environmental impact, leading to a dramatic increase in plastic production and waste. It was just easier to consume this way, and now we’re suffering because of it.

Environmental Impact and Health Concerns

The environmental consequences of our throwaway culture are significant. Plastic waste not only clogs landfills staggering rates but also contaminates natural habitats, posing a threat to wildlife and it’s survival. Marine animals often mistake plastic debris for food, leading to ingestion, entanglement and death. The breakdown of plastics into severely harmful microplastics further exacerbates the problem, as these tiny particles infiltrate ecosystems and the food chain, the food we rely on for survival, ultimately impacting human health with negativity.

Shifting Towards Sustainability

Addressing the issue of plastic waste requires a fundamental shift in how we as a society produce, use, and properly dispose of, or recycle plastic products. Embracing sustainable practices such as reducing plastic use, opting for reusable items, and supporting recycling initiatives can help mitigate the environmental impact. Governments, corporations, and individuals all play a crucial role in fostering a culture of sustainability and reducing our reliance on disposable products, but without citizens pushing for change, everything will remain the same, and get worse.

The Profit-Driven Push for Disposable Plastics

In response to International treaty talks aiming to limit new plastic production, significant opposition has arisen from major fossil fuel producers. You’re talking about affecting their bottom line. These companies are determined to keep the demand for plastic growing with the incentive being higher annual profits and fatter wallets. In the U.S., state and local governments have discussed attempting to curb plastic pollution by enacting bans on plastic shopping bags and single-use plastic bottles - but this barely addresses the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the big problem. We’re making more plastic than we can handle responsibly and it’s going into the Earth for this, and many future generations to deal with.

The plastics industry has countered efforts by resisting regulations that might reduce demand for its products. Industry representatives argue that the solution to environmental issues lies in improving recycling processes rather than reducing plastic usage. Matt Seaholm, chief executive of the Plastics Industry Association, asserts that plastic is an essential part of modern society, benefiting both producers and consumers. This statement reflects a very short-sided view.

The advent of synthetic plastic dates back to the early 1900s with the invention of Bakelite, which ignited a surge in durable and affordable consumer goods. Initially, plastic was marketed as a sturdy and reusable material. A reusable material! A 1955 television advertisement, set in a fictional town called Plasticstown, USA, showcased plastic containers as ideal for families due to their durability and resistance to breakage. Items that would last long and keep consumers from needing to replace them with more plastics.

However, the industry's messaging shifted dramatically in 1956. At the annual plastics industry conference in New York, Lloyd Stouffer, the editor of a prominent trade magazine at the time, advised executives to pivot from emphasizing plastics' durability. Instead, he encouraged them to produce and market inexpensive, disposable products. Stouffer famously stated that the future of the plastics industry lay in the trash can. Just imagine, create a demand for a product, but make a flimsy version that goes in the trash and replace it with another flimsy version and repeat this process to the grave, all the while making the plastic producers rich and the environment poor.

Companies quickly adopted this strategy, recognizing that increased sales and profits could be achieved if consumers just disposed of plastic products frequently and bought replacements. As Heather Davis, an assistant professor at The New School in New York, explains, these corporations were fulfilling their primary objective: to maximize profits without concern for the effect all of this waste would cause.

A Booming Market Faces Consumer Backlash

By the early 1970s, the plastics industry was thriving, expanding faster than even the most optimistic predictions. Money, money, money! An executive at DuPont highlighted this rapid growth during a 1973 speech to the Chamber of Commerce in Parkersburg, West Virginia, noting that the market's prospects were "out of sight." Around this time, major soft drink companies began introducing plastic soda bottles, a stark turn from the easily recyclable glass bottles of the past.

However, the industry soon encountered a significant public-relations challenge, particularly for beverage companies whose brands were prominently displayed on plastic packaging. Plastic litter was becoming a widespread eyesore across the country, and bright red soda bottles were easy to identify as being the source.

"Even if people accepted the convenience of disposable plastics, they were still confronted by the visible waste in public spaces," explains Bart Elmore, a professor of environmental history at Ohio State University. In response, beverage companies and the plastics industry took action. They fought against bans on disposable bottles and promoted recycling as the solution to environmental concerns. Note, stacks of these recyclable items have been seen for decades floating on barges just off the shore of major ports, not being recycled at all. It costs less to float it than to deal with the problem.

Despite their efforts, multiple investigations, including those by NPR, have revealed that industry representatives knew that large-scale recycling was unlikely to be effective. Officials admitted they advocated for recycling just to avoid regulations and maintain a growing demand for plastic. Trade groups for plastic companies argue that these investigations do not accurately reflect the current industry, but people have eyes - it’s right there.

Although there is no direct evidence that beverage companies were involved in these discussions about recycling's feasibility, Elmore believes they should have been aware of its limitations. In 1976, two years before the widespread introduction of plastic soda bottles, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration study concluded that substantial recycling of plastics was unlikely in the near future. This echoed a 1975 draft report from the agency, which found that recycling plastic bottles was not commercially viable.

Elmore asserts, "To make a gamble like that, when public agencies and documents were highlighting the unlikelihood of successful recycling, raises serious questions about culpability and accountability."

Today, less than 10% of plastic waste is recycled globally. As countries argue to negotiate a global waste agreement, activists and scientists are scrutinizing chemical and fossil fuel companies that produce plastic, with little positive affect. Elmore argues that consumer goods companies, particularly beverage makers, also deserve scrutiny for their significant use of plastic packaging and their status as major plastic polluters. Meanwhile, they laugh all the way to the bank.

"If these companies take a stand, it can have a massive global impact," Elmore notes. The American Beverage Association, a business group, stated to NPR that one of its top priorities is creating a circular economy where plastic is recycled and reused to prevent waste. We’re waiting to see the solution in action.

Holding Major Plastic Polluters Accountable: The Buffalo River Case

The disposable culture fostered by the plastics industry is evident in places like the Buffalo River, which flows into Lake Erie in western New York. Plastic debris litters the riverbanks and breaks down into microplastics, contaminating the lake that provides drinking water for some 11 million people.

One morning this spring, volunteers gathered at the river to clean up the pollution. “We see plastic tops, bottles, and single-use plastics from takeout food,” says Jill Jedlicka, who leads Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, the nonprofit that organized the event. Despite their efforts, the plastic debris they collected will be replaced by more in just a few weeks. “It’s an onslaught,” Jedlicka says. It has to be stopped at the source.

Much of the plastic waste around the Buffalo River comes from packaging sold by the food and beverage giant PepsiCo, according to a lawsuit filed last year by New York State Attorney General Letitia James. The lawsuit claims that plastic pollution around the Buffalo River constitutes a public nuisance and that Pepsi contributes significantly to the problem by selling tons of single-use packaging. Activists argue that lawsuits like this one are necessary to hold corporations accountable for their role in plastic pollution.

In its court filing, Pepsi denies responsibility for the Buffalo River pollution and argues that it shouldn't be required to warn consumers about the environmental and health risks of plastic waste. “Consumers are more than capable of purchasing a beverage or snack product, consuming it, and placing the packaging in a recycling or waste bin,” the company stated. While this is true, there is still a larger influx of the product than can be handled by putting it in the trash, or in recycling bins where it sits unhandled by the original manufacturer who shifts blame to states and cities.

Researchers often point out that companies tend to shift the blame for plastic waste onto consumers. Pepsi maintains that no single group or entity is solely responsible for plastic pollution and claims it is working to improve recycling and reduce the use of new plastic. However, in its latest sustainability report, Pepsi admitted that its use of new plastic increased in 2022 due to the high cost and limited availability of recycled material. This trend is not unique to Pepsi; according to data from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, companies overall increased their use of new plastic by 11% between 2018 and 2022, despite growing public pressure to reduce plastic usage.

There is much that the plastics industry needs to do to improve the sustainability of plastics,” says Shellie Miller, a professor at the School for Environmental Sustainability at the University of Michigan. However, she emphasizes that consumer culture also plays a significant role in the problem. “If our stance is that consumers should be able to consume whatever they want in whatever quantity they want and it’s someone else’s job to deal with it,” Miller says, “that’s not a path toward sustainability.” Passing the bill to someone else keeps corporations fat.

As the world grapples with the environmental impact of plastic waste, it is clear that both industry practices and consumer behaviors must change. Holding major plastic polluters accountable through legal action and promoting a shift toward sustainable consumption are essential steps in addressing the global plastic pollution crisis. It takes a unified citizen revolt.

Combating Plastic Waste in a Throwaway Culture

Plastic waste has become a pervasive issue in modern society, deeply rooted in our daily lives. The rise of disposable products, particularly plastics, has led to significant environmental challenges. From plastic bottles to grocery bags, our consumption habits contribute to a growing problem of pollution and waste. Have you personally invested in reusable cloth grocery bags over the plastic ones they charge you for at the register? Part of the problem is you.

The Roots of Disposable Culture

The plastics industry played a significant role in promoting a culture of disposability. Initially marketed as durable and reusable, plastics soon shifted to being cheap and disposable. This shift was driven by the industry's desire to increase sales and profits, leading to the widespread use of single-use plastics. Once they have you hooked, the convenience becomes a dependability and you will continue to add to the problem with every purchase.

Environmental and Health Impacts

The impact of this disposable culture is evident in places like the Buffalo River, where plastic debris accumulates and breaks down into microplastics, contaminating water sources and ecosystems. Despite efforts to promote recycling, only a small fraction of plastic waste is actually recycled, leading to ongoing environmental harm, as discussed above.

Industry Accountability

Companies like PepsiCo have been highlighted in lawsuits for their role in contributing to plastic pollution. These legal actions aim to hold corporations accountable for the environmental damage caused by their products, though the bigger corporations have lawyers that can tie these lawsuits up indefinitely while they reap profits and continue to destroy the environment. Companies continue argue that consumers are responsible for proper disposal, shifting the blame away from their coffers.

Consumer Action

As consumers, there are several steps have to take to reduce plastic waste and combat the throwaway culture:

  1. Reduce Plastic Use: Opt for reusable items instead of single-use plastics. Bring your own bags, bottles, and containers. If you don’t, than you can’t open your mouth to complain about the issues.
  2. Support Recycling: Participate in local recycling programs and ensure that recyclable items are properly sorted and cleaned. If you aren’t doing this, the problem is you.
  3. Advocate for Change: Support policies and regulations that aim to reduce plastic production and waste. Encourage companies to adopt sustainable practices. While it takes more effort, this requires collective action.
  4. Educate Others: Spread awareness about the impact of plastic waste and the importance of sustainable consumption. Do this.

Addressing plastic waste requires collective action from both consumers and corporations, but you can only be truly responsible for your own actions. By making conscious choices and advocating for change, you can help reduce the environmental impact of our disposable culture and move towards a more sustainable future. It takes you.





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