An Inconvenient Convenience

Best (sold out) poster ever, by Max Temkin.GOOD posted this print by Max Temkin on Tumblr last week in the midst of their current 30-day “waste less” challenge. They saw the print on Grist, whose headline pretty much sums it up: “Everything that’s wrong with our oil-soaked industrial economy, in one amazing poster.” I’ve been thinking about the poster over the past week, because it’s pretty freaking legit it neatly encapsulates not just the actual costs of production and waste in our disposable economy, it also addresses the willful ignorance that renders those costs relatively invisible. Our daily lives are centered on the idea of convenience and efficiency, and we consider it well within our right to use products once and get rid of them, because as soon as something leaves our hands, it’s whisked out of sight, destined for landfills — or, if it’s hazardous, to other countries. (Remember Homer Simpson’s “Can’t Someone Else Do It?” campaign platform in “Trash of the Titans?” As he puts it, “Animals are crapping in our houses, and we’re picking it up. Did we lose a war? That’s not America — that’s not even Mexico!”)

Fighting our disposable culture doesn’t just require green solutions, more efficient packaging and better supply chain management.* It requires shifting our attitudes and dismantling the sense of entitlement surrounding disposable culture. Not only do I want to be able to use as many damn napkins and plastic utensils as I want, I don’t want to hear you dirty treehuggers complaining about it. Actually, that’s the general I; the specific I would love it if we all used cloth napkins and brought our own utensils everywhere we went.

During lunch a few years ago, I noticed that my friend Dharmishta was eating with a foldable camping spork, which she regularly carries around with her. I started doing the same, though with a standard metal fork — which is less convenient and, occasionally, more stabby to have in my backpack. (But I can tell myself that I’m saving the energy costs saddled with producing a camping spork, right?) My mom carries around her own chopsticks, in part to avoid using disposable ones, in part because she worries that the non-disposable chopsticks in Taiwanese restaurants aren’t actually clean.

My favorite place for Thai food, a food stand in Portland that has deliciously spicy pumpkin curry and perfectly cooked brown rice, encourages customers to bring their own containers.** After leaving Portland, I longed not just for the curry, but for the community culture that encourages people to take responsibility for the transport of their food. I would love being able to carry my own containers into sit-down restaurants so I could take my leftovers home, but a mix of food-safety regulations, cultural norms and perceptions of my right to convenience are stopping me.*** For now …

I was finally able to break myself of my Starbucks cup habit by banning all coffee purchases until I bought a reusable mug (and I actually got a used one from a co-worker, so I think that counts as reusing squared). Those small attitude shifts can go a long way in changing consumer habits. For example, plastic bag taxes are extremely effective, more so than simply encouraging people to bring in reusable bags; a nickel per bag isn’t much, but that fee contradicts the idea that shoppers are entitled to bags with their purchases. The same concept hasn’t yet extended far beyond grocery stores, and the last time I said I didn’t need a bag at a thrift store and shoved a shirt into my bag, I kind of felt like a shoplifter, and the clerk was kind of weird about the whole thing. Of course, stores love to pass out bags branded with their logo — it’s free, mobile advertising, but that should be all the more incentive to encourage reuse and to build functional, reusable packaging. Here is where, if I were a social or cognitive scientist, I would write more specifically about how we can shift our thinking so that the production and shipping costs of our behaviors were less invisible, and how we can shift environmentally conscious behavior from fringe to norm. Instead, I’ll leave you with a request and a question:

  • The request: Don’t be grossed out when I wipe or lick my fork clean and stick it back into my bag. I wash it when I get home.
  • The question: What disposable habits of your own would you dispose of have you broken/will you break?

* UPS and the Harvard Business Review provide a nice overview in this white paper on supply chains, e.g. “Green supply chain management doesn’t end with delivery; it extends into product use and recovery.”

** I literally lost my train of thought here fantasizing about the pumpkin curry. The first time I ate there, I underestimated their spice scale and was crying into my food by the end of the meal because it was both too spicy for my sinuses and too delicious for me to stop. Also, since this blog is about digital identity, I should note that when Facebook added that little box where you could describe yourself, I entered “Pumpkin curry with brown rice.” That’s all the self-description I need.

*** This dilemma is further complicated by the fact that it’s pretty much culturally illegal for Chinese people to waste food. According to GOOD, by the way, 27 percent of the food we bring into our homes ends up in the trash. Incidentally, they also have a challenge up to create tasty meals out of leftovers; deadline is tomorrow.

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4 responses

  1. I’ve been using canvas shopping bags for years. I bring a metal spoon from home every day to eat my cereal at my desk when I get to work, and take it home and wash it at the end of the day. I bring my lunch to work most days in reusable containers, and at home we wash and re-use plastic bags and plastic utensils until they are dead, including the plastic produce bags from the grocery store. I also re-use bags from places I shop frequently, such at ULTA. And I NEVER put my bananas in a plastic bag when purchasing them–they come in their own packaging already! Thanks for this, Audrey, I will pass it along…

    • Thanks for re-sharing on Facebook, Janel! It’s cool to hear all of the ways you’re reusing plastic; you should make your own poster. There are some cool mesh produce bags that you can reuse — I have yet to invest, but I feel like it’ll happen sooner or later.

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