Let’s Hold On to the Throwaway Society

For half a century, it’s been a term of disdain: the “throwaway society,” uttered with disgust by the environmentally enlightened. But now that their reusable tote bags are taboo at grocery stores and Starbucks is refusing to refill their ceramic mugs, they’ve had to face some unpleasant realities. Disposable products aren’t merely more convenient than the alternative; they’re also safer, particularly during a pandemic but also at any other time. And they have other virtues: the throwaway society is healthier, cleaner, more economical, less wasteful, less environmentally damaging—and yes, more “sustainable” than the green vision of utopia.

These are not new truths, even if it took the Covid-19 pandemic to reveal them again. The throwaway age began because of public-health campaigns a century ago to control the spread of pathogens. Disposable products were celebrated for decades for promoting hygiene and saving everyone time and money. It wasn’t until the 1970s that they became symbols of decadent excess, and then only because of economic and ecological fallacies repeated so often that they became conventional wisdom.

In a strange turn of events, the most affluent society in history suddenly turned into a mass of neurotic hoarders. Sifting through garbage for valuables, an activity formerly associated with the most destitute inhabitants of Third World shantytowns, became a moral duty in American suburbs. Greens campaigned for “zero waste” and a “circular economy” in which disposable products would be outlawed. They confidently predicted that the throwaway society was doomed, but if they’d known anything about its history, they would have realized that it was created for very good reasons—and that it will endure long after their lamentations are forgotten.

At the start of the twentieth century, American consumers were still living in what today’s greens would consider a state of grace. They carried their own baskets and cotton bags to the grocery store and brought home food wrapped in biodegradable paper. They didn’t use disposable towels in public bathrooms, which provided cloth towels attached to rollers. There were no Styrofoam cups for coffee and no plastic bottles of water. When people wanted water in a public place, they’d get it from the spigot of a drinking fountain by filling a tin cup chained to the fountain.

This “common cup” was the ultimate reusable product—much to the horror of public-health experts, who blamed it for spreading tuberculosis, pneumonia, diphtheria, meningitis, and other diseases. Alvin Davison, a biologist at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, analyzed cups from public schools and reported in 1908 that a single sip from a student left a residue of 100 dead skin cells and 75,000 bacteria. He used the scrapings from one school cup to induce fatal cases of pneumonia and tuberculosis in guinea pigs.

His article “Death in School Drinking Cups” provided support to “Ban the Cup” campaigns around the country. The first successful one was led in Kansas by Samuel Crumbine, a colorful doctor who had started his career in Dodge City (he was the model for Doc Adams in the long-running Gunsmoke television series) and went on to lead various public-hygiene crusades. The term “flyswatter” comes from a slogan he popularized, “Swat the fly” (which came to him while listening to the crowd at a baseball game urging a hitter to swat a sacrifice fly ball). After watching train passengers with tuberculosis and other diseases drinking water from a common cup, Crumbine got so upset that he threw the cup out the train’s window, and proceeded to persuade his colleagues on the state board of health to ban the common cup in trains, schools, and other public places in Kansas in 1909.

The ban left Kansans with a new problem: What were they supposed to use at a public fountain? Fortunately, as Crumbine later recalled, “Necessity proved to be the mother of invention.” Shortly after banning the cup, Crumbine was visited by a former Kansan named Hugh Moore, who brought with him samples of a product that his brother-in-law had invented: round paper cups that could be stacked in a dispenser next to a fountain. Crumbine’s endorsement provided crucial help to Moore in selling his product, originally called Health Kups and later renamed Dixie Cups.

It was the birth of the throwaway society, and Moore became its first great evangelist. He was an indefatigable promoter, and he wasn’t just selling cups. He had a genius for marketing fear. Later in life, he would launch another movement by publishing a pamphlet in 1954, “The Population Bomb” (a title later borrowed by Paul Ehrlich for a best-selling book) and founding the Population Crisis Committee. In 1910, Moore started a newspaper, The Cup Campaigner, filled with warnings from public-health experts and horror stories of respectable women and innocent children sickened by drinking from common cups. It was illustrated with cartoons showing unsavory-looking men sipping from metal cups and images of the Grim Reaper lurking at fountains.

Soon, dozens of cities and states had banned the common cup, and Moore had plenty of customers, starting with the railroads. The Erie Lackawanna Railroad featured disposable cups in an advertisement that depicted a character named Phoebe Snow, dressed immaculately in white as she drank from a paper cup. The ad was a paean to disposability:

On railroad trips

No other lipsHave touched the cupThat Phoebe sips.

Sales of disposable cups soared during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, a tragedy evoked long afterward in Dixie Cup ads with warnings like, “Now’s no time to flirt with Contagion!” The company expanded into making paper cups for ice cream and milkshakes, promoted with the slogan “Used but once and thrown away”—in hygienic contrast to the dirty glass from a soda fountain pictured in a 1930s ad with the headline “This Tainted Kiss Awaits Your Lips.”

Meantime, Moore and his competitors were promoting other advantages of disposable products. The invention of cup lids in the 1920s made it easy for people to carry off their drinks. Restaurants could serve customers more quickly and cheaply by using cups and plates that didn’t need to be washed and dried. Consumers were liberated from chores, as Life illustrated in 1955 with an elaborately staged photo for an article titled “Throwaway Living,” a phrase that wasn’t used in disdain. The photo showed dozens of disposable products—plates, cups, pans, towels, ashtrays, a napkin and tablecloth, a baby’s bib and diaper—apparently flung heavenward by two ecstatic parents and their child. “The objects flying through the air in this picture,” the magazine exulted, “would take 40 hours to clean—except that no housewife need bother.”

Disposability remained a self-evident virtue in the 1960s, when Bethlehem Steel advertised its new soda cans by showing photos of two women. One smiled as she tossed metal cans into the trash; the other looked miserable as she struggled to lug armfuls of empty glass bottles back to the store. The ad posed what, at the time, was a rhetorical question: “Why make hard work out of enjoying soft drinks?”

But before long, an army of activists and scholars was inventing one reason after another to make even harder work. The first popular objection to disposable products came in the 1970s, the decade of the first Earth Day and the “energy crisis” and best-sellers with titles like Limits to Growth and The End of Affluence.Scientists had supposedly determined that humanity was running out of oil and other natural resources, so it was everyone’s moral duty to conserve dwindling supplies for posterity.

The precious little petroleum remaining could not be wasted on frivolities like plastic plates. There weren’t enough trees left to keep making Dixie Cups for the growing population. Ecologically conscious college students banished paper towels from their dorm bathrooms, in favor of cloth towels. Crumbine would have been appalled—another of his pioneering victories in Kansas had been a ban on cloth roller-towels in public bathrooms—but the planet’s health took precedence over the public’s.

The picture became even bleaker in the 1980s, when journalists and environmentalists came up with another objection to throwaway products: there was nowhere to throw them away. The “garbage crisis,” caused by a supposed shortage of space in landfills, prompted municipalities across America to launch curbside recycling programs. Towns expected to save money by reducing the need for landfilling, whose cost was projected to soar as space became scarce, and they expected to make money by selling recyclables and turning “garbage into gold.” As the planet’s supply of natural resources dwindled, prices for the raw materials were sure to rise, and the stuff in trash would become “too good to throw away.”

But the dreaded landfill shortage never occurred—and it never made any sense, given how much open land there is in America and how little of it is needed to bury trash. Nor did the world run short of oil or other natural resources. Those gloomy predictions never made any sense, either—certainly not to economists who had bothered to study long-term trends. Some resources do become scarce at times, causing prices to rise, but entrepreneurs respond by finding new supplies or cheaper substitutes. As a result, the real prices for energy and other natural resources have been falling for centuries, especially compared with the cost of labor, which has been rising for centuries. The only resource becoming consistently more expensive is humans’ time.

Americans of an earlier time lauded the virtues of “throwaway living.” (H. ARMSTRONG ROBERTS/CLASSICSTOCK/GETTY IMAGES)

These trends created the throwaway society: as people grew wealthier and raw materials got cheaper, they could afford to buy more products and throw them away in order to save their increasingly valuable time. And these trends doomed the fantasies of recyclers because their industry required increasingly expensive human labor to produce decreasingly valuable raw materials.

New York City confidently predicted that it would save money by starting a mandatory recycling program in 1992, but it took so much extra labor to collect and process the recyclables that the city couldn’t recoup the costs from selling the materials. In fact, the recyclables often had so little value that the city had to pay still more money to get rid of them. The recycling program cost the city more than $500 million during its first seven years, and the losses have continued to mount. A new study by Howard Husock of the Manhattan Institute shows that eliminating the city’s recycling program and sending all its municipal trash to landfills could now save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars annually—enough money to increase the parks department’s budget by at least half.

Even those calculations underestimate the cost of recycling because they include only the direct outlays, chiefly the $686 per ton that the city spends to collect recyclables. But what about all the valuable time that New Yorkers spend sorting and rinsing their trash and delivering it to the recycling bin? For a New York TimesMagazine article in 1996, I hired a Columbia University student to keep track of how much time he spent recycling cans and bottles and how much material he gathered in a week. Using those figures (eight minutes to gather four pounds), I calculated that if the city paid New Yorkers a typical janitor’s wage for their recycling labors, their labor would cost $792 per ton of recyclables—over $100 per ton more than what the city pays its sanitation workers to collect it.

As the economics of recycling worsened, cities in America and Europe found that the only viable markets for their recyclables were in poor countries, chiefly in China and other Asian nations, where processing recyclables was still profitable, thanks to lower wages and lower standards for worker safety and environmental quality. But as those countries have gotten wealthier, they’ve become reluctant to accept foreign trash. As bales of unwanted recyclables pile up in warehouses, towns have had to start sending them to landfills, and dozens of American municipalities have finally had the sense to cancel their recycling programs.

But most seem determined to persevere, even as they face huge budget shortfalls because of the pandemic. Now that the original objections to the throwaway society have proved false, green activists are relying on other reasons to keep making work for the rest of us.

One morning in 1996, I sat with a class of fifth-graders in Manhattan as they gazed mournfully at a photo of a supermarket package of red apples. It was part of a slide presentation by the director of environmental education for the Environmental Action Coalition, the guest lecturer at that day’s science class.

“Look at the plastic, the Styrofoam or cardboard underneath,” she told the class. “Do you need this much wrapping when you buy things?”

“Noooo,” the fifth-graders replied.

It was all so obvious to them, the fifth-graders as well as their lecturer. She was barely out of college, but she thought that she knew more about selling produce than supermarket executives and packaging engineers who had spent their careers studying this question. She was sure that plastic wrap and Styrofoam were wasteful and harmful to the environment because she had never seriously considered the alternative or wondered why those products were introduced.

To merchants and shoppers in the late 1920s, there was nothing wasteful about the revolutionary packaging material introduced by DuPont. Cellophane seemed miraculous because it was not only moisture-proof but also transparent. “EYE IT before you BUY IT,” DuPont advertised, and shoppers welcomed this new feature enabling them to judge the quality of produce and meat before they paid up. Cellophane kept things fresh much longer, an advantage advertised to everyone from homemakers to soldiers. During World War II, a DuPont ad showed a German soldier looking on enviously as American prisoners of war opened packages of cigarettes from home that were wrapped in cellophane: “The prisoners who have better cigarettes than their guards.”

Soviet citizens in the 1980s were similarly envious of Westerners’ new plastic grocery bags, which sold for $5 apiece on the black market in Moscow. The bags were coveted partly as a status symbol (a hard-to-get imported product) and partly because they were so light and compact. In a shortage-plagued economy, Muscovites never knew when a scarce item would suddenly become available in a nearby store, so they wanted to have an empty bag with them, just in case.

American merchants and shoppers switched from paper to plastic packaging because it reduced waste. Plastic was cheaper because it required fewer resources to manufacture. It required less energy to transport because it was lighter. Plastic took up less space in landfills than paper, and it further reduced the volume of household trash because it preserved food longer. The typical household in Mexico City, for example, generated more garbage than an American household because it bought fewer packaged products and ended up discarding more food that had spoiled.

But activists eager to find some reason to oppose disposable products have ignored these advantages. They blame America’s throwaway society for polluting the oceans with plastic, though virtually all that pollution comes from either fishing vessels or from developing countries with primitive waste-management systems—mostly the Asian countries that were importing plastic recyclables from America. Instead of castigating American consumers, environmentalists should blame themselves for creating the recycling programs that sent plastic to countries where it was allowed to leak into rivers. The best way to protect marine life is to throw used plastic into the trash, not the recycling bin, so that it goes straight to a well-lined local landfill instead of ending up in the ocean.

And instead of campaigning to ban plastic grocery bags, green activists should be promoting their environmental advantages. Banning them results in higher carbon emissions because the substitutes are thicker and heavier, requiring more materials and energy to manufacture and transport, and these paper bags and tote bags typically aren’t reused often enough to offset their initial carbon footprint. (See “The Perverse Panic over Plastic,” Winter 2020.) Greens may feel virtuous lugging groceries home in a paper or tote bag, but the shoppers choosing plastic are actually doing more to combat global warming and reduce consumption of natural resources.

They’re also reducing the risk of getting sick, just as Samuel Crumbine and Hugh Moore could have told them a century ago, and just as public-health researchers have been warning for a decade. Their studies have repeatedly shown that dangerous bacteria and viruses linger on reusable tote bags unless shoppers wash them regularly, which few bother to do. The Covid-19 pandemic finally forced some public officials to heed these warnings and allow the single-use plastic bags once again, but Greenpeace and other groups are still hoping to reinstate the bans once the pandemic is over. The reusable bags would be perfectly safe, they argue, if only people would wash them regularly.

But why should people spend their valuable free time washing tote bags when there’s a cheaper, more convenient, and environmentally benign alternative? It makes sense only for those who consider the throwaway society to be intrinsically sinful. They derive solace from reusing and recycling because it eases their guilt for being rich enough to afford so much stuff. If they want to perform these rites voluntarily, fine, but there’s no reason to force everyone else to do penance. Agonizing over what goes into the trash can is not a universal moral imperative—and it’s not exactly a sign of spiritual enlightenment, either.

It’s actually the most literal form of materialism: a single-minded devotion to preserving raw materials at the expense of more important things in life. Instead of decrying the throwaway society, we should be celebrating the prosperity that made it possible and the freedom that it provides. As crude and corny as the old Dixie Cup ads could be, they possessed a humanism sadly absent in today’s environmental sermons.

One ad in 1970 showed a bored young woman morphing into a glum middle-aged woman and then a despondent old woman as she stood over the kitchen sink washing a mountain of glasses. “Use Dixie Cups and the Best Years of Your Life Won’t Go Down the Drain,” it promised, and went on to calculate that the typical American mother had to wash 7,000 glasses per year.

“Do you enjoy spending all that time in hot water?” it asked, as it extolled the throwaway society’s alternative. “Think of it. You’ll have more time on your hands, and less dishwater. Time to spend with the kids. To make yourself a pantsuit. To live a little.” You may not yearn to make a pantsuit, but the rest of it still sounds pretty good.

Top Photo: Disposable products aren’t merely convenient—they’re also safer than the alternative, especially during a pandemic. (KONSTANTIN KOLOSOV/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)