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  • Kitty Pityer

The High Cost of Convenience

A Life magazine article dated August 1, 1955 included a photo depicting a family surrounded by a wide variety of items suspended in air that could be used one time and then discarded. Straws, utensils, cups, plates, garbage bags, baby bibs…why should the modern housewife spend her time washing these items when she can simply throw them away?

Before the rise of single use products in the 1950s, the idea of using an item once and then throwing it away would have seemed ridiculous. There was very little packaging, which of course meant much less waste. A slogan popular during World War II was “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” But in the boom years after the war, as the population in the United States grew, the demand for consumer goods increased. Although the production of plastic products was originally for durable goods like radios, cameras and telephones (as well as parachutes, cockpit windows and helmet liners during the war effort), the production of consumer plastic surged after World War II as manufacturers worked to continue the production they started during the war. Use of plastic was initially seen by the public as a cheap and inferior substitute compared to the sturdy products made of more traditional materials like glass, metal and wood. However, clever and persistent marketing won over the American public and the “age of throwaway living” was born.

Fast forward to the present. Even durable goods – from refrigerators to shoes – have been replaced by cheap disposables. Families may eat at fast-food restaurants several times a week with their meals served with plastic dinnerware, plastic utensils, and plastic lined cups. After the food is consumed, everything left is waste. All junk food is packaged in plastic and many healthier food choices are also sold in plastic containers. Practically every item offered for sale is encased in plastic packaging – food, beverages, personal care products, toys, electronics and much more.

From a mere 2 million tons of plastic produced worldwide in 1950, production has soared to 381 million tons in 2015. More plastic has been produced in the last decade than in the previous half-century. Experts estimate that 9 billion tons of plastic have been manufactured since the 1950s and the vast majority of it now resides as trash in landfills or the environment. The very qualities that make plastic so attractive to manufacturers make it impossible for nature to assimilate it, so all the plastic that has been created is destined to remain in the environment for centuries to come.

How do we reverse this unhealthy trend? The most obvious first step is to change our personal habits and switch from single use to re-use! Simply stop purchasing single-use containers in favor of a reusable container made from a sustainable material. Glass or stainless-steel beverage containers fit the bill! Shop in the bulk section at your favorite grocery store or local co-op to avoid unnecessary packaging. Carry your purchases home in a reusable cloth shopping bag rather than the flimsy plastic bags most stores offer. Purchase items with their long-term impact on the environment in mind. Buy things that are durable and will become tomorrow’s antiques rather than next week’s trash.

However, we also must alert the manufacturers of the products we regularly purchase that excessive plastic packaging is not sustainable and not something we will continue to buy. We must make our government representatives aware that legislation that protects our world from being consumed by our own waste is essential to the survival of the planet. Write letters or e-mails. Call or text. Voice your concern.

Plastic manufacturers once duped us with the lure of convenience, but people are recognizing that the throwaway lifestyle is not sustainable long term. As a growing number of people make personal changes and speak out about their concern, we can turn this trend around.

Have you made changes in your lifestyle or taken action to combat unnecessary waste? Leave a comment below! We'd love to have a conversation!


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