Throwaway culture is as ingrained in our lives as the single-use goods that enable it. In 2018, Americans sent 146 million tons of trash straight to landfills, according to the EPA’s most recent data. That’s the highest that number has ever been, and after you include recycled items, it breaks down to about five pounds of waste per person per day.
And whether it’s plastics, fast-fashion, unfinished meals or take-out Styrofoam, our constant discarding is causing serious harm to the planet—along with the people, animals and plants that inhabit it.
What Is Throwaway Culture?
The term throwaway culture traces back to a 1955 article in Life magazine, which glorified the ease of so-called “throwaway living.” The article noted that, thanks to a rise in disposable, single-use products, “no housewife need bother” with the annoying cleanup of dishes, utensils, towels, or even flower vases. Just buy disposable ones and then toss them right into the trash!
In those post-war years, spending money had become an act of patriotism. With the restrictive rationing of World War II safely in their rearview, Americans were drunk on consumerism—not just buying things, but also throwing them out. That raging consumerism overlapped with the accelerated production of plastics, a rise in planned obsolescence (producing goods that quickly became obsolete), and a revved-up interest in products that you could use once and then throw away.
By the 1960s, America had entered a “decade of disposability.” And even as the 1970s saw a rise in environmentalism, throwaway culture statistics revealed the dark realities of the harm being done to our planet.
Now here we are today—with a single-use plastic problem, high carbon emissions, and ocean pollution reaching an all-time high. Grocery stores are packed with single-use goods—and plastic bags to carry them home in. Everything from fast-fashion clothes to paper plates has become cheaper to make, cheaper to buy, and still just as easy to toss out.
Just as that Life article hinted at 66 years ago, throwaway culture today refers to the rampant use of products that are meant to be used only once—or at most for a short period of time—before heading into the trash.
How Throwaway Culture Creates Environmental Problems
The impacts of our throwaway society are vast and overwhelming. Part of the problem is what we’re throwing away: lots and lots of plastic, which can take up to 500 years to degrade. Part of it is that we’re running out of places to stash all this trash, with many landfills nearing capacity and a staggering 91 percent of the plastic we use never getting recycled.
So where is it all going? According to a 2016 study, eight million tons of plastics leak into the ocean every year—the equivalent of dumping a full garbage truck into the sea every minute. As a result, our oceans are on track to contain more plastic than fish by 2050. Almost a thousand marine species have been found to ingest that plastic debris, and many of us are eating some of it, too, in the form of salt.
Making all those thrown-away products also inflicts serious harm on our planet. Whether it’s plastic water bottles, fast-fashion clothes, or disposable coffee cups, manufacturing processes release greenhouse gasses—which contribute to global warming, smog and air pollution—and soak up massive amounts of water, energy and non-renewable resources.
Big Contributors to Throwaway Culture
In 2014, people were shocked to learn that the number of (non-recyclable!) Keurig coffee pods used that year alone would be enough to circle Earth more than 12 times. That’s just one small example of the big throwing away we’re doing every day, often without a second thought.
There is no one single culprit for our throwaway culture, which is of course part of the problem. From planned obsolescence to an obsession with convenience, from single-use plastic water bottles to cheap clothes and shoes that are meant to be tossed out rather than fixed, throwaway culture is all around us.
The pet industry contributes to it, too. Low-quality pet products, often produced in China, are not designed to last more than a few years at best. Instead, these cheaply made leashes, beds, and collars soon become more trash in a landfill or plastic in an ocean. And all those biodegradable poop bags you think are good for the environment may actually be contributing to the pollution problem.
How You and Your Pet Can Resist Throwaway Culture
With throwaway culture so deeply ingrained in our society, bucking it takes a concerted effort—but once you start, things should fall into place quickly. While embracing recycling culture is both crucial and commendable, you’ll need to think beyond that, too. Here are a few tips for starting to untangle yourself from throwaway culture.
Don’t Buy Based on Convenience
Stop making your purchasing decisions based solely on convenience. That means ditching the single-use plastic water bottles and bags, passing on items that involve excessive packaging, and trying to avoid anything plastic, unless you plan to use it for a long time.
Decline Single-Use Plastic
While more restaurants are making environmentally friendly changes with their take-out packaging, they’re still likely to include single-use cutlery with your orders. If you have the option, ask them not to include plastic silverware. Additionally, if you’re going to a coffee shop, see if you can get your order in a mug or travel container you bring from home. When grocery shopping or clothes shopping, bring a reusable shopping bag or tote instead of bringing home more plastic bags. These small changes can all add up.
Avoid Cheaply Made Pet Products
Before buying toys, collars, leashes, and bedding for your pets, do your research into the brand’s manufacturing process and mission and read reviews about the durability and longevity of the items. Instead of buying items you know will break or that you’ll have to get rid of after a few weeks or months, opt for things that will last. These may include things like chew-resistant toys and pet beds, strong collars and leashes, and products made from recycled materials.
Consider Repairing, Reusing, or Repurposing
For a few weeks, before you buy or throw away anything, pause for a minute to consciously notice what it is and ask yourself a few questions. Is there a way I can repair, repurpose, or reuse this? You’ll be surprised how much use you can get out of old items if you just look to reinvent or repurpose them.
Avoid Single-Portion Pet Foods
As we make efforts to reduce our own food-packaging waste, we should look at what we’re buying for our pets, too. While there is a lot of convenience in single-serve pet-food packaging for both cats and dogs, this packaging contributes to promoting throwaway culture. So while it might be easy to open up a package of food and serve it directly to your dog or cat without measuring or scooping, these items exacerbate the packaging waste that winds up in landfills.
Buy Used and Second Hand
While we all like new, shiny things once in a while, there’s a lot to be said about opting for buying items that are used and secondhand. Consider thrift shops and second-hand stores for clothes, household items, and furniture where you can find gently used pieces in good condition. You can also visit yard and estate sales. The more secondhand items that get circulated into new households, the less likely they are to take up space in landfills.
Recycle or Donate When You Can
Before buying items, ask yourself if it is something you can recycle or donate when you no longer need it. Lots of gently used pet items can be donated to local rescues and shelters to help offset some of their costs. The same can be said for children’s items like toys and clothing—many of these things can be donated to organizations that provide for kids and parents in need. Pay attention to the materials and look at the packaging to see if you can recycle items when you’re finished with them.
By making conscious decisions, doing research, asking questions, and zeroing in on long-lasting, high-quality products for both yourself and your pets, you’ll join the mounting movement to resist our throwaway society and save our planet.