Disposable products are sanitary, efficient, and environmentally sound

Disposable products are sanitary, efficient, and environmentally sound. By John Tierney.

The throwaway society is healthier, cleaner, more economical, less wasteful, less environmentally damaging — and yes, more “sustainable” than the green vision of utopia. …

The throwaway age began because of public-health campaigns a century ago to control the spread of pathogens. Disposable products were celebrated for decades for promoting hygiene and saving everyone time and money.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that they became symbols of decadent excess, and then only because of economic and ecological fallacies repeated so often that they became conventional wisdom.

Back in 1900:

At the start of the twentieth century, American consumers were still living in what today’s greens would consider a state of grace. They carried their own baskets and cotton bags to the grocery store and brought home food wrapped in biodegradable paper. They didn’t use disposable towels in public bathrooms, which provided cloth towels attached to rollers. There were no Styrofoam cups for coffee and no plastic bottles of water. When people wanted water in a public place, they’d get it from the spigot of a drinking fountain by filling a tin cup chained to the fountain.

This “common cup” was the ultimate reusable product — much to the horror of public-health experts, who blamed it for spreading tuberculosis, pneumonia, diphtheria, meningitis, and other diseases. Alvin Davison, a biologist at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, analyzed cups from public schools and reported in 1908 that a single sip from a student left a residue of 100 dead skin cells and 75,000 bacteria. He used the scrapings from one school cup to induce fatal cases of pneumonia and tuberculosis in guinea pigs.

After watching train passengers with tuberculosis and other diseases drinking water from a common cup, [a doctor Samuel Crumbine] got so upset that he threw the cup out the train’s window, and proceeded to persuade his colleagues on the state board of health to ban the common cup in trains, schools, and other public places in Kansas in 1909.

The ban left Kansans with a new problem: What were they supposed to use at a public fountain? Fortunately, as Crumbine later recalled, “Necessity proved to be the mother of invention.” Shortly after banning the cup, Crumbine was visited by a former Kansan named Hugh Moore, who brought with him samples of a product that his brother-in-law had invented: round paper cups that could be stacked in a dispenser next to a fountain. Crumbine’s endorsement provided crucial help to Moore in selling his product, originally called Health Kups and later renamed Dixie Cups. …

Sales of disposable cups soared during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, a tragedy evoked long afterward in Dixie Cup ads with warnings like, “Now’s no time to flirt with Contagion!” …

Until robots get pretty good, economic rationalism dooms the recyclers:

The real prices for energy and other natural resources have been falling for centuries, especially compared with the cost of labor, which has been rising for centuries. The only resource becoming consistently more expensive is humans’ time.

These trends created the throwaway society: as people grew wealthier and raw materials got cheaper, they could afford to buy more products and throw them away in order to save their increasingly valuable time. And these trends doomed the fantasies of recyclers because their industry required increasingly expensive human labor to produce decreasingly valuable raw materials.