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Thread: How Did Disposable Products Ever Become A Thing?

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    How Did Disposable Products Ever Become A Thing? 
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    Question

    How did disposable products ever become a thing?

    By Mark Miodownik

    For us it seems completely normal to buy a cup of coffee, drink it, and throw the cup away. But it was not always normal, in fact for most of history it would have been regarded as a sign of madness. Materials were expensive, cups were valuable, and to throw something away after only one use was the road to poverty and ruin. So how did disposable products ever become a thing? The answer is that we had to be taught to like throwing things away, to accept it as normal. The story of how this happened is the story of twentieth century capitalism; yes of our liberation and wealth, but also of a growing environment catastrophe.

    The villain in the story is, of course, plastic. This is sad not just because plastic is an extremely useful and valuable material, but because at the beginning of the twentieth century, plastic brought us modernity. The telephone, the radio, and the TV all came into our lives as marvellous plastic stuff. More plastics followed, changing the way we lived in almost every way, from footwear to furniture, from stockings to tennis racquets. Indeed a poll in the 1940s ?cellophane? was rated the third most beautiful word in the English language.





    But there was a problem. The engine of this new ?consumerism? relied on people continuing to buy new things. This meant that products needed to break or be constantly replaced to fuel demand for more stuff. But plastic was too durable: its chemical structure makes it not just lightweight but also strong. Think about a plastic toy like a lego set, how often does it break? Hardly ever. Or the steering wheel on your car: strong, comfortable, grippy and durable, right? The steering wheel will outlast the car. But for an economy based on consumerism this is not good.

    A new profession rose up to address this problem, called marketing and its answer was surprisingly simple - persuade people to voluntarily throw things away. Thus in the 50?s and 60?s new plastic products came on the market designed to be single-use, such as single-use cups, single-use cutlery, single-use straws. Restaurants no longer needed to offer you a ceramic plate to eat from, nor a glass to drink from, nor a metal spoon to stir your coffee. These new single-use plastics created a new life style driven by the growth of the fast food chains. I particularly remember a McDonald?s advert which featured a bin that had to be fed, ?they are hungry too?, chimed Ronald.

    From a business perspective it seemed odd at first, since the costs of giving away plastic utensils and packaging added to the cost of a meal. But an increasing number of factors tilted economics in the favour of disposability. Firstly, oil, the feedstock of plastics, was super cheap. Secondly plastic objects are made through automated mass production - the big cost is the factory itself ? once paid for it?s approximately the same cost to make a million plastic spoons as it is to make ten. Thirdly, it was hygienic ? a point the advertising departments and lobbyists to government emphasised. The disposable spoons had never been used before that meal and would never be used again. This was the new future ? soon they envisaged everyone would only have disposable plastic cups and plates in their homes ? it was the cleaner way to live and there would be no more washing up! Indeed this is the origin of the TV dinner.
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    They became a thing because of the mentality that led us to the current climate situation we're facing. It's easier. It's faster. You don't have to worry because God will take care of it.
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    I'm questioning the chronology here.
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    I remember when I was young considering the disposable camera to be the absolute height of decadence...

    I wonder if there is some evolutionary moulding at play- for most of our history, being encumbered with lots of possesions was more a hindrance than a help; I imagine that our first tool makers probably just made tools for use on the spot and then discarded immediately after. Probably, humans are just lazy fucks and its easier to chuck something out than to wash it.

    Interesting article and not something I've really considered pursuing the origins of- good read, thanks mate

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    I'm questioning the chronology here.
    How so, friend?
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    CFC, great article.

    I think the key to disposable plastic becoming the norm is cultural as well as design, as mentioned in the article.

    But I think one cannot underestimate the influence of "culture". For example, "paper or plastic" has been replaced with "bring your own or pay x amount". People have adapted quickly now that it's phased in (or shoved down our throats).

    I done a few stints in countries where disposable products are not the norm. They're much poorer, which is glaringly bad, but they don't have people throwing stuff out their car window onto a packed freeway. Littering is so unnecessary and beyond a pet peeve.
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    CD, it's like I said earlier, in another thread, though, the litter problem isn't nearly as bad as it was in the 1970s when I was a kid. I remember he sides of roads were just COVERED in litter back then. Then came the barrage of PSA ads, increased penalties and fast food joints being shamed into stopping the use of styrofoam, and the issue isn't nearly what it was 40 years ago. I've also lived in can/bottle deposit states, and if you just throw your cans away, that can add up fast.

    In a positive development, Kroger, the largest grocery chain in the USA just committed to discontinuing plastic bags.
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    I always found that the amount of littering US-wide is mostly done in States (or cities) that are more conservative... hence one of the main reasons why I hate conservatives.
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    ^ great post!
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    Quote Originally Posted by aihfl View Post
    Then came the barrage of PSA ads, increased penalties and fast food joints being shamed into stopping the use of styrofoam, and the issue isn't nearly what it was 40 years ago
    We had a similar splurge of well-meaning public service advertising in the 1970s in the UK - tons of adverts directed at littering but also things like how to cross the road safely (for children), the dangers of fire, the use of seatbelts etc. Which is an argument in favour of the nanny state, especially when it comes to shifting habit-bound cultural paradigms like consumption, waste and safety.
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    I think you have to have a hard look at post world war II, and really its in Civilization (the game) for a reason...Refrigeration. As a tech milestone, its huge. How does this effect plastics?

    Well for one, canned goods. Historically, because people couldn't afford fridges or using an ice box, etc. So at some point you had food and things that came in a can. People didn't worry about where the cans went after they were used. So there is this idea of commodity, and of a consumable product where the container is disposable. Indeed the history of plastics seems to start post WWII as per the wiki article.

    And I think with the addition of mass production for cost, it has sort of evolved.
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