But now I see that instead of being a solution for anything, they are part of a huge problem--our disposable culture--a sickness that creates huge amounts of waste and is pushing Americans into deeper and deeper debt.
What's Causing Our Disposable Culture?
The causes are hard to pin down, but I think the following are some of the likely reasons we've opted for this new way of living:
- Allowing ourselves to be over-worked: Americans work some of the longest hours in the world, and therefore have less time and energy for tasks like cooking meals and cleaning. This apparently makes us more likely to buy things that promise to save us time like pre-cooked meals and magical cleaning products.
- An obsession with convenience: Sometime in the past, oh, let's say 50 years, savvy marketers convinced Americans that convenience is the way of the future. At first, this probably made sense to people, especially since we were (and are) over-worked, but these days, many of these needless products end up clogging our arteries and filling up our cupboards and closets (which we don't have time to organize).
- Watching too much television: The average American watches 4 hours and 35 minutes of television per day, which is exactly 4 hours and 35 minutes of time spent being persuaded by misrepresentations of what American life is really like and by the commercials and product placements on the air.
- Credit cards: Average credit card debt in the United States is now at $6,600 per household, which shows that most of us seem to have lost sight of just how much we should really be spending. Instead of being frugal, people feel like they have enough money to buy any of the myriad disposable goods on the market.
- A misunderstanding of the term "healthy": It seems that people are so desperate to lose weight these days that they will buy any processed food that claims to be healthy or low-calorie. The problem is that these products typically have loads of packaging and are usually a far cry from being good for you. My favorite example right now is Hostess' 100 Calorie Packs of Muffins. You can't find the ingredients on their website (I wonder why?), but I saw them recently, and it was the longest list of ingredients I'd ever seen.
- A need for cleanliness and a distaste for dirt: It seems like everyone these days wants their homes to be absolutely spotless, but can't handle the idea of touching something dirty. Case in point: this afternoon I read an article reviewing disposable cleaning products from the magazine Real Simple that said, "A majority of testers found picking clumps of hair and dust bunnies off [the mop] distasteful enough to throw their votes in favor of the pricier Swiffer system." So basically people have become so removed from the act of cleaning that they won't even touch dust bunnies? Strange.
- Fear of germs: Just about every other newscast and commercial I see contains a story about food borne illnesses or scary, scary germs. It seems we're being convinced to live in fear of sickness, and therefore to buy a huge array of cleaning products, many of which probably don't even get used (I mean, it's not like we have time to clean anyway).
- Fashion, fashion, fashion: Changing in the blink of an eye, fashion is continuously giving us an out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new mentality. And these days, this sort of fashion is spreading to things like refrigerators and the size of your floor boards. Whether we blame HDTV (which is surely part of the problem) or our appetite to spend, the need to constantly replace the things we own is expensive, time-consuming, and bad for the environment.
So these appear to be some of the fundamental causes of our disposable culture, but what are the symptoms? Obviously things like paper towels and disposable napkins have been plaguing us for awhile, but it seems that more and more disposable products get launched into the American buy-o-sphere everday.
Here are some perfect(ly annoying) examples in the cleaning products category:
- The Swiffer
- The Clorox Toilet Wand
- Scrubbing Bubbles Automatic Shower Cleaner
- Stainless Steal Surface Cleaner (This is wrong on many levels. It's basically a rag on a plastic handle. I don't get it.)
- Mr. Clean Magic Eraser (This product actually dissolves as you use it. What the heck?!)
- Wasn't there a time when people saw value in rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty? What's happened?
- How can we return to the idea that living simply and frugally is a valued way of life?
- Will people ever see that sometimes the disposable items aren't necessarily better?
- And the question on everyone's minds: If we can't find time to cook dinner, why do we have enough time to watch 4.5 hours of t.v.?
I'm going to make a bold and controversial claim and say that paper towels aren't really any better than rags. I can say this because I NEVER use paper towels anymore. When I have a spill, I reach under the sink, grab a rag and clean it up. Then I throw the rag in my "dirty rag box" and do a load of laundry a month later. It's not hard. In fact, it was probably the first thing I ever did when I started to become more concerned about the environment, and I barely noticed the change.
So maybe doing away with paper towels should be the first move we all make in our attempt to do away with our disposable mentality. After all, we've got to start somewhere.