Sunday, December 12, 2010


I am currently reading Alan Durning's (currently at the Sightline Institute) book How Much is Enough? in which he tracks over time the societal changes that have led to increased consumption of energy, water, metals and materials and paper, and the ecological impacts of living in one class (low-income, middle class, upper class) in different parts of the world. He talks about changes in the household economy that have led to an increased reliance on "conveniences" such as packaged foods. He also points out that "disposable diapers (typically 3000 of them in the first year) have displaced cloth ones." This post is not about the merits of cloth diapers over "disposable" ones or vice versa, but instead about the word "disposable."

Much of the blog so far has been dedicated to defining the problem of trash, and developing a new language with which to think about ecological and social problems like trash (for example, here and here, among others). The word "disposable" is a common word in our vernacular, and it basically means "something that can be used once, and then can be thrown away." That means that the ubiquitous red #5 Solo cups at college parties are "disposable," as are the flimsy containers given to you when you order take-out Chinese food. I would propose instead that the word "disposable" means something that we have paid little for, and therefore has little value to us, and consequently allows us to throw it away without feeling bad about it. Just because something is "disposable" doesn't mean it just disappears once it leaves the trash can in your kitchen. Plastics take many centuries to degrade, and can be easily added to your very own time capsule. In the same way we choose to throw plastics away, we are fully able to throw away a beautiful pint glass; it is "disposable" too. We can throw it into a trash can. But we don't, because it is more valuable to us than a red Solo cup, and therefore is not disposable. The point is, under current definitions of the word "disposable," everything is disposable, including people.

One day, while I was walking to the bus stop, I ran across a trash can overflowing with books, lamps, TVs and furniture. It was one of those heaps of stuff that you see during college move out. Along came a homeless man, and he mentioned to me how he has found several computers, iPhones and other expensive electronics, "especially from those Chinese and East Asian people. They just throw everything out when they move back home." So, to them, these things are "disposable," too.

1 comment:

  1. Sushant:
    It is horrific to see the amount of disposable things being sold. It also includes disposable packings which is used for almost all products. Putting the onus on the distributor of eco-unfriendly disposables is probably the only way out. They should be either taxed so heavily that it does not make sense to use them or there is enough incentive for recycling. In India, if it has value it will recycle just like it happens with newspapers.

    Let's take some words you wrote and contort them:

    "I would propose instead that the word "disposable" means something that we have paid little for."

    Who is we? What is little?
    I think these are the two key factors that have a solution hidden in them.
    "We": Let's make waste management a multi-level tax, like income tax -- have a national, state and county/city tax with national regulations. This will force local governments to think rationally.
    "Little": Force true disposal costs (Even if the process is landfilling) to be included into ALL products (just like they currently do with tires, batteries and electronics). Suddenly, Red #5s are 10x more expensive than steel mugs.

    Simple concept, tough execution, but a completely capitalistic and market-driven solution to greenfication.