How We Created A Throwaway Society
and became ‘wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontent individuals’ in the process
On August 1st 1955 Life Magazine published an article entitled ‘Throwaway Living’. This article is thought to be the first public instance of the term ‘throwaway society’ being in use .
Today, we’d expect an article of this title to be critiquing the throwaway society that we live in. But no, in the 1950s the new disposability of items was nothing but positive. The article focuses on the idea that these new throwaway items give us (or, more specifically, ‘housewives’) back time which would have been spent cleaning plates, towels, diapers, ash trays, and even ‘a feeding dish for dogs’…
“The objects flying through the air in this picture would take 40 hours to clean — except that no housewife need to bother.”
Now just about everything is disposable. We favour cheap, mass-produced furniture from IKEA over solid wood pieces that would last forever. It’s more convenient to buy a single portion meal deal sandwich for lunch each day than to buy (or, heaven above, bake) a loaf of bread for the week. Our clothes are out of style within a few months, and we can’t possible wear the same dress twice. Somehow, we’ve managed to create a throwaway society.
We feel like these items give us freedom. They give us the freedom to change our minds, change our look, or change our house decor at any moment, without incurring any major financial repercussion. It didn’t cost much to begin with, so we don’t mind just throwing an item away and replacing with a new, better version. What we don’t consider, is that the idea of ‘throwing away’ is a myth. There is no ‘away’. Unless the item can be reused by someone else, or recycled, then it’s heading to a landfill site where it will sit for good.
But it hasn’t always been this way. Once upon a time the idea of using an item once and then throwing it away would have seemed ridiculous and wasteful. So how did we create this throwaway society?
The role of plastic in our throwaway society
It’s hard to write an article on today’s throwaway society without discussing the role of plastic. Plastic didn’t become commonly used as a material until the middle of the 20th century, when it blossomed. Plastic became associated with modernity, with new items such as telephones, radios, and televisions all designed using plastic.
At the same time, World War II had just ended, and the western world was coming out of a time of depression. Families had more disposable income on their hands, and more spending power. There had also been a lack of consumer goods on the market during the war, with resources going to support the war effort first and foremost, and rationing limiting the amount of variety of food items available. All of this brought rise the start of modern consumerism, with mass consumption, especially in terms of household items. Between 1945 and 1949, 20 million refrigerators, 21.4 million cars, and 5.5 million stoves were purchased by American households alone.
Of course, whilst this was driven partly by consumer desire, it was also driven by economists and business people. They saw this new consumerism as a business model, which relied on people continuing to buy new items. But there would come a point where people no longer needed more things, and so the model relied on products breaking or needing to be constantly replaced.
Unfortunately for them the material of the moment, plastic, was pretty durable and so didn’t fit with this. So instead, in the 1950s and 1960s they began to try and persuade people that they should voluntarily throw their things away and buy new items. New plastic products came onto the market which were deliberately designed to be disposable, thrown away after one use: plastic and paper cups, plastic cutlery, plastic straws. All those items that we’re now, ironically, trying to desperately persuade people that they shouldn’t just use once and throw away.
The idea of single-use, plastic items didn’t take off straight away. It required some careful marketing and messaging in order to persuade people that this new throwaway society was a good idea. As we’ve already seen with the image this article opened with, part of the message was centered around convenience and saving time — you no longer needed to clean plates and cutlery, but could simply throw them away. There was also a hygiene aspect to the marketing, suggesting that single-use items were better in terms of cleanliness. After all, that disposable fork had never been used before and would never be used again.
You can see some of these messages in action in the adverts below. They’re all promoting ‘Dixie Cups’, which were one of the first brands of disposable plastic cups:
Single-use items weren’t just infiltrating homes, but also businesses and restaurants. For fast food restaurants, it became clear that it would save them money if they could persuade customers that using plastic cutlery and clearing their own table by putting this cutlery in the bin at the end of the visit, was a good idea. They would be able to cut table service from their front-of-house staff, and plastic items were super cheap because they came from oil and were mass produced.
There was also a huge push from the oil industry to get plastic single-use items adopted widely. For Mobil Chemical (now ExxonMobile), for instance, it was all about the plastic bags. During the 1960s they had been patenting all the plastic bag ideas they could . By 1977 they were producing their own brand of plastic bags. In 1979 plastic bags were introduced to grocery stores, with Kroger and Safeway both adopting them in America by 1982 and 75% of supermarkets offering plastic bags by 1985 .
The problem was, that customers weren’t interested, with just 25% of customers opting for a plastic bag over the usual paper bag option. The initial showings of plastic bags in stores didn’t go well, with staff struggling to open them and several instances of ripping.
Mobil approached this with a new name, and reinvented the ‘plastic bag’ as the ‘plastic sack’. They created a Plastic Grocery Sack Council in 1985 with the sole aim of making a strategy to get customers to use plastic sacks widely. This strategy included engaging with the press and media, as well as holding training days for retail staff to teach them how to efficiently pack groceries in the new plastic sacks.
Beyond plastic: disposable everything
It may have started with plastic, but it didn’t stop there. Now, pretty much everything we own is disposable to some extent.
Take fashion, for instance. During the wartime it was all about ‘make do and mend’ and everyone knew how to fix a hole in their socks to make them last longer. Today we throw clothes away (or off to the local charity shop to appease our feelings of guilt) before they get anywhere close to having a hole in them. High street shops have new clothes for sale every couple of weeks, driving the desire to constantly shop and buy new clothes to keep up with trends. According to the Environmental Protection Agency in 2013 15.1 million tons of clothes was generated in 2013, of which 12.8 million tons were discarded as waste.
The same is true of technology. We’re encouraged to sign up to contracts in which we’re able to swap in our phones for a new model every few years. Apple make a huge PR and marketing splash each time they release a new version of the iPhone, making you feel instantly outdated if you keep an older model. Plus, it seems like Apple are actually manipulating their previous models to make them slow down as soon as a new iPhone model is released. A Harvard University study by economics student Laura Trucco, found that there was a huge spike in Google searches for ‘iPhone slow’ whenever a new model was released . They were put under a lawsuit for this in 2017.
‘Planned obsolescence’, like the Apple scandal, is now a business model in itself. The idea is that by making a produce which will eventually fail or become less popular, you force people to replace that item regularly. This, therefore, increases profit.
As early as 1960 there were warning signs that this wasn’t a good model long-term. American journalist Vance Packard published the book The Waste Makers in 1960, in which he called planned obsolescence:
“…the systematic attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals.”
This certainly seems to be the case now. We’re starting to wake up to the hidden costs of our throwaway society, and the environmental impacts which were not considered (or ignored) in those exciting first few decades of the mass consumer society. We’re also starting to see that shopping and having material items doesn’t make us happy, and instead leaves us constantly wanting more — ‘permanently discontented’, as Packard put it.
So what can you do about it? It seems that businesses and policy-makers are starting to listen to their frustrated customers, and see that making profit from waste is not sustainable. McDonalds removed plastic straws from their restaurants, and most coffee shops offer discounts for reusable cups. In the meantime, opt for simplicity where you can and engage with consumerism only when truly necessary, and choose quality and durability over cheapness and fashion-ability.
 Information from ‘American Beauties’ in Topic Magazine