Environment, Food & Travel, Shopping & Consumption

#CutTheCrap: Rethinking Disposables’ Life Cycle and Single-use / Takeaway Culture

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Which is more convenient: bringing around your own “mess kit” (utensils and plate/bowl) wherever you eat – or resorting to disposables to avoid worrying about packing, transportation and cleanup afterwards?

Most of us will likely say that, in terms of personal convenience, the latter choice wins by a mile. But what if we gave the question the kind of thought that it deserves?

Imagine going to a take-out store with takeaway containers given to you be default, or going to a party or get-together and finding paper plates and plastic spoons and forks laid out for guests to use. Realize that although you didn’t have to think of packing, carrying, and cleaning your own utensils or mess kit, other people had to worry about this each and every time you didn’t.

Plastic spoon lifecycle
Photo c/o Planet Save via Free Your Mind and Think (from an earlier MUNI post by Paula Nierras on mindfulness and our “no-brainer” choices or defaults)

…and this poster doesn’t even go into the problem of disposal.

How did we develop this single-serve / takeaway culture?

Plastic utensils were first manufactured on a mass scale in the 1950’s following the invention of polypropylene (a common form of plastic used in disposables and packaging). As the baby boomer generation came to greater prosperity in the years following World War II, we’ve developed a culture where everything comes so cheaply and conveniently that we demand this ease of use and access at all times. [1] So much so that to this day, even with a greater awareness of the impacts of wasteful consumer behavior on the environment, our choices are still largely influenced by the convenience we now feel entitled to in a world of instant gratification and push-button availability.

How is this actually impacting the environment?

Based on this life cycle analysis of a plastic fork, since the 1950’s, one billion tons of plastic have been discarded, making their way into landfills, oceans, rivers, sewer systems, litter-strewn mountain trails, and once-green fields. This plastic remains in the land and water for hundreds, and possibly even thousands, of years. It doesn’t break down within any imaginable stretch of time, and will outlive the sturdiest of us many lifetimes over.

This spells disaster when considered alongside our worsening culture of waste – according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average American now generates an average 4.4 pounds of waste per day. [2]

Gregg Segal's 7 Days of Garbage
Artist/photographer Gregg Segal illustrates the amount of waste we produce through his photo series 7 Days of Garbage, a series of portraits of individuals, couples and families with the garbage they accumulate in the course of a week.

We’re so detached from the entire process of manufacturing and selling packaging material and other disposables, and what happens to these once we’ve had our casual, one-time fling with them. But the growing piles of trash on our streets, our overflowing landfills, and the fact that many countries are now forced to ship away their trash, should be sufficient evidence that choosing not to care about where these things come from and where they end up has its consequences. Perhaps it’s time to re-examine the idea of “disposables”, and decide what the concept really means (or doesn’t mean).

So what do we do about it?

Although disposables are “convenient” (in the pettiest sense of the word), and production processes have become so “efficient” that single-use material has become the cheapest option for many manufacturers, our habit of unmindful consumption and immediate disposal is not going to be very convenient, efficient, or affordable for ourselves and the planet in the long term.

It’s important to consider though that disposables, miniature packaging or “sachet culture” taps two sets of consumers: those who are able to pay for convenience, and those with so little that they can only afford smaller portions. [3] Poverty is not something I intend to discuss in this article, but perhaps there are ways we can all break down the single-serve / takeaway culture by considering these habits:

Level 1: These are very basic principles that many have already started to adopt.

  • Bring your own reusable water bottle and avoid bottled drinks (This saves you money too!)
  • When buying small items, refuse additional packaging and just put these inside your own bag

Level 2: Take it up a notch.

  • Bring your own reusable bag wherever you go
  • Buy in bulk and transfer things to smaller containers afterwards to minimize packaging waste. Do this for food, toiletries, etc.

Level 3: Make a statement.

  • Bring your own mess kit (food container and utensils) wherever you go, so that you don’t have to use takeaway packaging when you buy food outside. Or better yet, bring your own food so you’re sure you have a healthy option with you.

Level 3 is not done by many yet, but it’s something I hope more people will consider and hopefully start making a habit.

I’m still hopeful that one day, the kind of considered consumer behavior described above will become the norm rather than the exception. I’m hoping that more stores and restaurants would support thoughtful consumer behavior by encouraging their customers to bring their own containers. I’m hoping that more people would realize that something so seemingly harmless as a plastic fork could have so profound an impact on the places where we live and work.

Once we do this, maybe we can create a new takeaway culture – one where the welfare of the planet and the possibility of a living future is placed above transient, personal convenience and on-demand availability.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Leave a comment or join the discussion and help us come up with ways to rethink takeaway culture at the upcoming MUNI Meetup on August 9, 2014, 4:30-7:00pm at Commune Cafe in Makati. See other discussion topics and register here.]

JEN HORN (@nomadmanager) is a wanderer, writer, and designer out to build the MUNI community, create a culture of caring for self, others, and the planet, and make choosing better a way of life as MUNI’s Chief Collaborator. She is also a lover of handwoven textiles, and aims to keep weaving traditions alive through the use of Philippine textiles in modern fashion with her side project Tala Luna.


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