Throw-away society

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The throw-away society is a human society strongly influenced by consumerism. The term describes a critical view of overconsumption and excessive production of short-lived or disposable items over durable goods that can be repaired, but at its origins, it was viewed as a positive attribute. [1]


Origin of the term

In its 1 August 1955 issue Life magazine published an article titled "Throwaway Living". [2] This article has been cited as the source that first used the term "throw-away society". [3]

Rise of packaging waste

As a consequence of economic growth, we have seen both increased production and increased product waste during the last century. Between the start of New York City waste collections in 1905 and 2005 there was a tenfold rise in "product waste" (packaging and old products), from 92 to 1,242 pounds (42 to 563 kilograms) per person per year. Containers and packaging now represent 32 percent of all municipal solid waste. Non-durable goods (defined as products in use for less than three years) constitute 27 percent, while durable goods comprise 16 percent. [4]

Food service and disposable food packaging

Disposable tableware was a key part of the business strategy of chain fast food restaurants in the US. [5] In order for the business model to work, fast food chains found it economically advantageous to convince consumers through advertising campaigns to carry their own tableware to a waste bins, in order to avoid labor expenses incurred in clearing tables. [6] By establishing a custom in which customers are encouraged to carry disposables, some of the internal costs of the disposable tableware can be offset.

In 2002, Taiwan began taking action to reduce the use of disposable tableware at institutions and businesses, and to reduce the use of plastic bags. Yearly, the nation of 17.7 million people was producing 59,000 tonnes (58,000 long tons; 65,000 short tons) of disposable tableware waste and 105,000 tonnes (103,000 long tons; 116,000 short tons) of waste plastic bags, and increasing measures have been taken in the years since then to reduce the amount of waste. [7] In 2013, Taiwan's Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) banned outright the use of disposable tableware in the nation's 968 schools, government agencies and hospitals. The ban is expected to eliminate 2,600 tonnes (2,600 long tons; 2,900 short tons) of waste like disposable cups yearly. [8]

In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, laws banning use of disposable food and drink containers at large-scale events have been enacted. Such a ban has been in place in Munich, Germany since 1991, applying to all city facilities and events. This includes events of all sizes, including very large ones (Christmas market, Auer-Dult Faire, Oktoberfest and Munich City Marathon). For small events of a few hundred people, the city has arranged for a corporation offer rental of crockery and dishwasher equipment. In part through this regulation, Munich reduced the waste generated by Oktoberfest, which attracts tens of thousands of people, from 11,000 metric tons in 1990 to 550 tons in 1999. [9]

China produces about 57 billion pairs of single-use chopsticks yearly, of which half are exported. About 45 percent are made from trees about 3.8 million of them mainly cotton wood, birch, and spruce, the remainder being made from bamboo. Japan uses about 24 billion pairs of these disposables per year, and globally about 80 billion pairs are thrown away by about 1.4 million people. Reusable chopsticks in restaurants have a lifespan of 130 meals. In Japan, with disposable ones costing about 2 cents and reusable ones costing typically $1.17, the reusables better the $2.60 breakeven cost. Campaigns in several countries to reduce this waste are beginning to have some effect. [10] [11]

Waste and socioeconomic status

Garbage produced because of the rise in disposable products is often shipped from richer to poorer nations, causing environmental and social problems for developing nations. Most notable are the large shipments of trash from North America and Western Europe to Africa and Asia due to the relatively low cost of disposal. By the 1990s, over half of all nations in Africa have faced negative externalities from toxic waste dumped by richer countries. Waste, both toxic and non-toxic is often dumped without safety regulations. It is thrown in unlined and unregulated landfills where it contaminates soil and water, and even burnt, which circulates toxins in the air. Recently, electronic waste shipped to Nigeria has increased due to higher consumption of electronics by North America and Europe, with hundreds of shipments of old electronics dropped off at Lagos, Nigeria, every month. A significantly large percentage of the trash being hazardous waste shipped with the "explicit intent of cheap (and unsafe) disposal". China, also, receives huge amounts of waste, often toxic material, averaging 1.9 million tons per year, because companies find it cheaper to ship garbage away rather than dispose of it themselves. [12]

Food waste

In 2004, a University of Arizona study indicates that forty to fifty percent of all edible food never gets eaten. Every year $43 billion worth of edible food is estimated to be thrown away. [13]

The rise of mass consumption in America

Following the end of World War II, America experienced a boom in mass consumption. There was a sharp increase in suburban life, disposable packaging, and convenience goods as well as the development of new plastics. [14] Throughout World War II, it became a popular mentality that restricting the types of products consumed during the war by closely following the rationing put into effect by the United States Government was a way to help the wartime effort and aid America in winning. The promises of manufacturers that the effort that Americans put in during the war would then yield luxurious goods once the war ended assisted in deepening Americans belief in rationing. [15] Once the war ended, manufacturers held true to those sentiments promoted during the war. When the term "Throwaway living" was first coined by Life Magazine, [16] the magazine used the phrase in a positive way: one that depicted a life that was easier and still economical for the home's caretaker. This led to certain Americans viewing thrifting as "un-American" which was a stark contrast to how American society saw thrifting before the war. [15] This rise in consumption led American society is what allowed America to become a throw-away society. The practice of planned obsolescence, the act of creating products with the intention of those products needed a replacement, became widespread. [15] In addition to planned obsolescence, it was common for products to be slightly changed every year to encourage people to purchase a newer version, even when not necessary. [17]

Women's interaction with the start of American throw-away society

Women had long been the primary shoppers for the household and many of the ads that promoted these disposable and convenience goods also made women their target audience. In the aforementioned Life Magazine article, it specifically mentioned that "no housewife need bother" in regards to extensive household chores because disposable products will cut down on the cleaning time required. [18]

Women in these middle-class homes began earning an income in order to be able to purchase more of these convenience goods. Some did this through the means of finding a more traditional job, but many also turned to multi-level marketing businesses such as Tupperware to supplement their husband's income. [19] Tupperware encouraged women to sell as many Tupperware products as possible, so as the brand increased in popularity, the number of plastic goods in American homes did too. [20] Outside of direct sales, it contributed to consumption because the women who sold through Tupperware had the incentive that they would receive household appliances once they reached the sales goal set by the company. [19]

Early forms of pushback in America

Despite it being initially viewed as a positive attribute to strive for, at least early as 1967, some companies began separating themselves from other American advertisers. In a 1967 edition of the New York Times, an article discussing plans for expansion for the leather goods company, Mark Cross, used a slogan from a then recently published Mark Cross Advertisement: "It's a throwaway society, man. Buy it. Break it. Chuck it. Replace it. Do you believe that? Mark Cross is not for you." [21] Making it a growing company that was trying to expand off of marketing towards long-lasting products rather than disposable goods.  

Planned obsolescence

"Planned obsolescence" is a manufacturing philosophy developed in the 1920s and 1930s, when mass production became popular. The goal is to make a product or part that will fail, or become less desirable over time or after a certain amount of use. Vance Packard, author of The Waste Makers , book published in 1960, called this "the systematic attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals". [22]

Durability of goods

Producers make goods disposable rather than durable so that consumers must continue to repurchase the good, earning the producer a steady supply of customers, rather than a one-time purchase. Profit is maximized for the firm when the usefulness of a good is "uneconomically short", because firms can spend the least amount possible creating a nondurable good, which they sell repeatedly to the customer. [23]

Goods are often replaced even before their usefulness runs out. The perceived durability of a good in a throwaway society is often less than its physical durability. For example, in fast fashion, consumers buy the latest, novelty item because producers market styles that pass with the seasons. There is pressure on producers to advertise an increased number of "seasons", creating new styles so consumers can update their wardrobes often by buying cheap and flimsy, yet stylish clothes to keep up with current fashion trends. [24] Items that once were considered durable items are now almost exclusively disposable, so it is actually more difficult for consumers who want a durable version to find anywhere selling one. The shift to disposable was ostensibly because of reasons such as convenience or hygiene, even if the inconvenience of using a durable version is very slight, or there is no proven increase in hygiene. This can lead to higher costs over time, more waste produced, more resources used, and lesser quality goods. [25]

Not only has there been a movement by manufacturers towards goods that are less durable and not maintainable, producers have also withheld technology that would make common goods more durable, such as in the manufacture of light bulbs. [26]

Catholic church attitude

Pope Francis frequently speaks about a "throwaway culture" in which unwanted items and unwanted people, such as the unborn, the elderly, and the poor, are discarded as waste. [27] [28] [29] In his encyclical Laudato si', he discusses pollution, waste, the lack of recycling, and the destruction of the Earth as symptoms of this throwaway culture. [30]

Francis stated that in a throwaway culture, even human lives are seen as disposable. [29] [30] He also cited the dangers of this culture in connection with immigration, saying, "A change of attitude towards migrants and refugees is needed on the part of everyone, moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization – all typical of a throwaway culture – towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world." [31]

See also

Related Research Articles


Consumerism is a social and economic order that encourages the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts. With the industrial revolution, but particularly in the 20th century, mass production led to overproduction—the supply of goods would grow beyond consumer demand, and so manufacturers turned to planned obsolescence and advertising to manipulate consumer spending. In 1899, a book on consumerism published by Thorstein Veblen, called The Theory of the Leisure Class, examined the widespread values and economic institutions emerging along with the widespread "leisure time" in the beginning of the 20th century. In it, Veblen "views the activities and spending habits of this leisure class in terms of conspicuous and vicarious consumption and waste. Both are related to the display of status and not to functionality or usefulness."

Overconsumption resource use exceeds carrying capacity

Overconsumption is a situation where resource use has outpaced the sustainable capacity of the ecosystem. A prolonged pattern of overconsumption leads to environmental degradation and the eventual loss of resource bases.

Take-out A prepared meal or other food items, purchased at a restaurant or fast food outlet

A take-out or takeout ; carry-out or to-go ; take-away ; takeaways ; grab-n-go; and parcel is a prepared meal or other food items, purchased at a restaurant or fast food outlet that the purchaser intends to eat elsewhere. A concept found in many ancient cultures, take-out food is common worldwide, with a number of different cuisines and dishes on offer.

Cutlery Eating utensils

Cutlery includes any hand implement used in preparing, serving, and especially eating food in Western culture. A person who makes or sells cutlery is called a cutler. The city of Sheffield in England has been famous for the production of cutlery since the 17th century and a train – the Master Cutler – running from Sheffield to London was named after the industry. Bringing affordable cutlery to the masses, stainless steel was developed in Sheffield in the early 20th century.

Durability is the ability of a physical product to remain functional, without requiring excessive maintenance or repair, when faced with the challenges of normal operation over its design lifetime. There are several measures of durability in use, including years of life, hours of use, and number of operational cycles. In economics, goods with a long usable life are referred to as durable goods.

In economics and industrial design, planned obsolescence is a policy of planning or designing a product with an artificially limited useful life or a purposely frail design, so that it becomes obsolete after a certain pre-determined period of time upon which it decrementally functions or suddenly ceases to function, or might be perceived as unfashionable. The rationale behind this strategy is to generate long-term sales volume by reducing the time between repeat purchases. It is the deliberate shortening of a lifespan of a product to force consumers to purchase functional replacements.

Consumables are goods that are intended to be consumed. People have, for example, always consumed food and water. Consumables are in contrast to durable goods. Disposable products are a particular, extreme case of consumables, because their end-of-life is reached after a single use.

Durable good

In economics, a durable good or a hard good or consumer durable is a good that does not quickly wear out, or more specifically, one that yields utility over time rather than being completely consumed in one use. Items like bricks could be considered perfectly durable goods because they should theoretically never wear out. Highly durable goods such as refrigerators or cars usually continue to be useful for three or more years of use, so durable goods are typically characterized by long periods between successive purchases.

A final good or consumer good is a commodity that is used by the consumer to satisfy current wants or needs, rather than to produce another good. A microwave oven or a bicycle is a final good, whereas the parts purchased to manufacture it are intermediate goods.

Water bottle

A water bottle is a container that is used to hold water, liquids or other beverages for consumption. The use of a water bottle allows an individual to drink and transport a beverage from one place to another.

Disposable product

A disposable is a product designed for a single use after which it is recycled or is disposed as solid waste. The term is also sometimes used for products that may last several months to distinguish from similar products that last indefinitely. The word "disposables" is not to be confused with the word "consumables", which is widely used in the mechanical world. For example, welders consider welding rods, tips, nozzles, gas, etc. to be "consumables", as they last only a certain amount of time before needing to be replaced. Consumables are needed for a process to take place, such as inks for printing and welding rods for welding, while disposable products are products that can be thrown away after it becomes damaged or otherwise unuseful.


Reuse is the action or practice of using an item, whether for its original purpose or to fulfil a different function. It should be distinguished from recycling, which is the breaking down of used items to make raw materials for the manufacture of new products. Reuse – by taking, but not reprocessing, previously used items – helps save time, money, energy and resources. In broader economic terms, it can make quality products available to people and organizations with limited means, while generating jobs and business activity that contribute to the economy.

Waste minimisation

Waste minimisation is a set of processes and practices intended to reduce the amount of waste produced. By reducing or eliminating the generation of harmful and persistent wastes, waste minimisation supports efforts to promote a more sustainable society. Waste minimisation involves redesigning products and processes and/or changing societal patterns of consumption and production.

Product lifetime or product lifespan is the time interval from when a product is sold to when it is discarded.

The consumer revolution refers to the period from approximately 1600 to 1750 in England in which there was a marked increase in the consumption and variety of luxury goods and products by individuals from different economic and social backgrounds. The consumer revolution marked a departure from the traditional mode of life that was dominated by frugality and scarcity to one of increasingly mass consumption in society.

Sustainable consumption is the use of material products, energy and immaterial services in such a way that their use minimizes impacts on the environment, so that human needs can be met not only in the present but also for future generations. Consumption refers not only to individuals and households, but also to governments, business, and other institutions. Sustainable consumption is closely related to sustainable production and sustainable lifestyles. "A sustainable lifestyle minimizes ecological impacts while enabling a flourishing life for individuals, households, communities, and beyond. It is the product of individual and collective decisions about aspirations and about satisfying needs and adopting practices, which are in turn conditioned, facilitated, and constrained by societal norms, political institutions, public policies, infrastructures, markets, and culture."

Disposable food packaging

Disposable food packaging comprises disposable items often found in fast food restaurants, takeout restaurants and kiosks, and catering establishments. Food-serving items for picnics and parties are very similar. Typical disposable foodservice products are foam food containers, plates, bowls, cups, utensils, doilies and tray papers. These products can be made from a number of materials including plastics, paper, bioresins, wood and bamboo.

<i>The Waste Makers</i>

The Waste Makers is a 1960 book on consumerism by Vance Packard. It was bestselling when it was released. The book argues that people in the United States consume a lot more than they should and are harmed by their consumption.

Disposable cup Drinking cup intended for a single use

A disposable cup is a type of tableware and disposable food packaging. Disposable cup types include paper cups, plastic cups and foam cups. Expanded polystyrene is used to manufacture foam cups, and polypropylene is used to manufacture plastic cups.

Plastic container

Plastic containers are containers made exclusively or partially of plastic. Plastic containers are ubiquitous either as single-use or reuseable/durable plastic cups, plastic bottles, plastic bags, foam food containers, Tupperware, plastic tubes, clamshells, cosmetic containers, up to intermediate bulk containers and various types of containers made of corrugated plastic. The entire packaging industry heavily depends on plastic containers or containers with some plastic content, besides paperboard and other materials. Food storage nowadays relies mainly on plastic food storage containers.


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