Do you fall in the 'I see plastic everywhere and feel a pit of hopeless despair' demographic? The anxiety often creeps up while walking to lunch and witnessing plastic in gutters, on the sidewalk, in the store, in the food you just bought. Considering humans eat three times a day, it’s no surprise that food packaging is the world’s largest source of plastic waste material. At what point did the cavemen swap out their backyard berries for Snack Pack pudding cups?
During a college lecture on built infrastructure, I heard a brief mention of the legendary Milkman who'd deliver milk to households, recollect empty bottles, refill and return them! Garbage patches and straw-impaled turtles are floating around in our oceans, and we're just going to skim over this shimmering memory of trash-less America? No way. I took it upon myself to figure out when and why we stopped reusing and started accumulating piles of plastic trash.
So what happened? Basically, as people started traveling more, so did food. Come the 1960’s, shoppers and food companies valued convenience and mobility. Here’s the quick and dirty on what happened:
- One-way food packaging was originally a wartime innovation. In the 1800’s, the French military developed the process of heating food in air-tight jars as an effective way of preserving and transporting rations for faraway troops. This turned into food canning which was adopted and scaled by countries fighting in the World Wars.
- The first disposable food-ware was developed in 1907 when a public health advocate witnessed people using communal drinking cups during the tuberculosis outbreak. A disposable paper cup was developed and renamed the 'dixie cup.' Paper bowls and disposable wooden utensils were soon after developed and commercialized. These were widely used to feed New Deal construction workers who were staying on site at remote dams and roads.
- Highways, cars, supermarkets, and fast food restaurants were built. Pick up food for a pic-nic or simply eat in your car! Pull up, grab food, drive away. You're in and then you're out. In and out. Oh, In-N-Out drive-thru! I get it now. As roads were built out and cars became affordable, supermarkets were built with parking lots and burger joints featured drive-up ordering.
- Businesses adopted 'take-away' food packaging. Restaurants realized that they could sell more if they weren’t restricted by table space, thus pushing the idea of take-away food. That meant more money made while spending less time and money on bussing tables and washing dishes. McDonalds completely discontinued reusable plates, cups and cutlery in 1948, to be replaced by disposable packaging.
- LIFE magazine published the ‘Throwaway Living’ issue in 1955 which further embellished the new, modern way of simply tossing foodware and packaging in the trash! The ancient ways of washing dishes was now an annoyance of the past! Yay!
- Companies disowned their packaging and responsibility. For example, "Property of Coca-Cola" embossed glass bottles were discontinued from recollection and replaced by disposable 'no-return' bottles and cans. Anticipating public backlash over widespread litter, Coke started the Keep America Beautiful campaign in 1953 which lobbied for people and cities to properly dispose of their waste by creating bins, waste management, and recycling centers. All of a sudden, taxpayers, municipalities, and the environment are responsible for cleaning up the mess that companies created.
- Plastic was widely adopted by all industries in the 70's because it was the cheapest, lightest, and strongest material that can take virtually any shape. Recycling systems were sparsely built years later, and has not since been able to keep up with the waste stream... waste river... waste ocean. Plastics have been introduced to poorer countries that have less waste-management infrastructure. Less than 10% of all plastics have been recycled- the rest goes to landfill, incineration, or waterways.
Well, shoot! We're doomed, right? Not necessarily. If you haven’t noticed, our values are changing.
Reality check for my fellow millennials: most people in the 1960's were actually not tree-hugging hippies. Most people didn't even anticipate an issue with plastic. Plastic food packaging is a relatively new thing and we’re quickly realizing it was a mistake. Out of all the plastic ever made, half of it was just in the last 15 years. However, environmental awareness has only recently become mainstream... which is an exciting first step! Much like my adolescent love of Emo music, America is realizing this could be a regrettable phase that we need to grow out of.
Grandpappy loved low prices, convenience, and feeling the wind in his hair while chomping down on a big mac in his convertible. Those things are great and all but we’ve developed a bit of an awareness on the issue at hand. Rather than paralyzing you with “X number of football stadiums worth of plastic enter our ocean every Y seconds,” ocean acidification, microplastics stats etc., let’s focus on the recent positive momentum:
- Support for environmental policy has increased. The percentage of Americans who say ‘protecting the environment’ should be the top priority for lawmakers has increased from 41% in 2008 to 64% in 2020.
- People are willing to pay more. In fact, 47% of US consumers reported they are willing to pay more for sustainable products. Just look at fast growing companies like Sweetgreen who charge a premium for natural fibre bowls and organic ingredients. So yes, we'll pay an extra 25 extra whopping cents for a paper take-out container in lieu of the plastic clamshell.
- Governments are banning plastic. Countries have been banning single use plastic items, most recently China and Canada. We’ll need to minimize exemptions, increase enforcement, regulate manufacturing at the source, and get through the COVID pandemic before we start seeing real results.
- Restaurants, brands, and grocery stores are taking steps. While many companies are still making vapid greenwashing claims, some smarter companies are making real changes. For example, Starbucks banned disposable straws. They were one-upped by Blue Bottle coffee to trial shops with no disposables at all. Plastic water brands are being replaced on shelves by brands like Liquid Death, a canned water company. National grocery chains are building out bulk shopping sections and several refill-stores are popping up around the country.
- Backpacks and bringing-your-own are now popular. Seriously. Backpacks were exclusively used by outdoorsy types and young school kids before the 70's. They have only recently become popular for everyday use amongst, well, everyone. People are realizing that it's more sustainable and oftentimes more convenient to throw in your own water-bottle, lunch container, straw, and cutlery.
- Personal, portable products are improving in design. Compact straws, insulated bottles, sanitizing cutlery are making life cooler, cleaner, and more convenient for today’s nomadic eco-warrior.
Before I set you loose on your zero-waste journey, hear some words of caution.
New reusable gear should be durable, reused, reused, rewashed, reused, again and again in order to become the more sustainable option. Sometimes it’s hard to resist buying every shiny new thing to hit the market, but all the more satisfying when your bamboo cutlery finally fails on you. See if there’s a secondhand option as well.
Be weary of bioplastics. Your ‘certified compostable’ spoon needs to successfully make it to an industrial composting facility for it to be broken down using heat treatment. It will behave a lot like regular plastic when it ends up in the landfill or ocean. A full switch to compostable bioplastics puts too much pressure on public infrastructure (if this doesn’t sound familiar, go reread the part that says ‘recycling couldn’t keep up’).
Once it’s again deemed safe, ask for bulk bins at your grocery store and encourage your friends to give it a try! Politely ask your favorite delivery spot for metal and paper containers if they can’t refill. Skip disposable utensils - business switching to upon-request cutlery will cut costs too. When you can't refill and reuse, vote with your dollars by choosing natural, highly-recyclable materials like aluminum. Advocate for plastic bans and improved waste management.
Assuming public discourse, preferences, and policy do not change, mismanaged plastic waste generation is expected to double by 2060. Let’s not accept single-use plastics as the norm because they’re relatively new and totally problematic. In the same way it did 60 years ago, holistic change can happen but first requires a cultural shift.
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