Disposable products are sanitary, efficient, and environmentally sound

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

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. …

The “progressive” past was unsanitary:

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. …

After watching train passengers with tuberculosis and other diseases drinking water from a common cup, [colorful 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. …

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.

It was the birth of the throwaway society, and Moore became its first great evangelist. …

Sales of disposable cups soared during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic …

Soda cans:

Disposability remained a self-evident virtue in the 1960s, when Bethlehem Steel advertised its new soda cans by showing photos of two women. One smiled as she tossed metal cans into the trash; the other looked miserable as she struggled to lug armfuls of empty glass bottles back to the store. The ad posed what, at the time, was a rhetorical question: “Why make hard work out of enjoying soft drinks?” …

The greens enter stage left, armed with fantasies:

The first popular objection to disposable products came in the 1970s, the decade of the first Earth Day and the “energy crisis” and best-sellers with titles like Limits to Growth and The End of Affluence. Scientists had supposedly determined that humanity was running out of oil and other natural resources, so it was everyone’s moral duty to conserve dwindling supplies for posterity.

The precious little petroleum remaining could not be wasted on frivolities like plastic plates. …

Ecologically conscious college students banished paper towels from their dorm bathrooms, in favor of cloth towels. Crumbine would have been appalled — another of his pioneering victories in Kansas had been a ban on cloth roller-towels in public bathrooms — but the planet’s health took precedence over the public’s.

The picture became even bleaker in the 1980s, when journalists and environmentalists came up with another objection to throwaway products: there was nowhere to throw them away. The “garbage crisis,” caused by a supposed shortage of space in landfills, prompted municipalities across America to launch curbside recycling programs. Towns expected to save money by reducing the need for landfilling, whose cost was projected to soar as space became scarce, and they expected to make money by selling recyclables and turning “garbage into gold.” …

But the dreaded landfill shortage never occurred — and it never made any sense, given how much open land there is in America and how little of it is needed to bury trash. Nor did the world run short of oil or other natural resources. Those gloomy predictions never made any sense, either — certainly not to economists who had bothered to study long-term trends.

Some resources do become scarce at times, causing prices to rise, but entrepreneurs respond by finding new supplies or cheaper substitutes. As a result, 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.

The throwaway society peaked a few decades ago:

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. …

What about all the valuable time that New Yorkers spend sorting and rinsing their trash and delivering it to the recycling bin? For a New York Times Magazine article in 1996, I hired a Columbia University student to keep track of how much time he spent recycling cans and bottles and how much material he gathered in a week. Using those figures (eight minutes to gather four pounds), I calculated that if the city paid New Yorkers a typical janitor’s wage for their recycling labors, their labor would cost $792 per ton of recyclables — over $100 per ton more than what the city pays its sanitation workers to collect it.

As the economics of recycling worsened, cities in America and Europe found that the only viable markets for their recyclables were in poor countries, chiefly in China and other Asian nations, where processing recyclables was still profitable, thanks to lower wages and lower standards for worker safety and environmental quality. But as those countries have gotten wealthier, they’ve become reluctant to accept foreign trash. As bales of unwanted recyclables pile up in warehouses, towns have had to start sending them to landfills, and dozens of American municipalities have finally had the sense to cancel their recycling programs.

Plastic:

American merchants and shoppers switched from paper to plastic packaging because it reduced waste. Plastic was cheaper because it required fewer resources to manufacture. It required less energy to transport because it was lighter. Plastic took up less space in landfills than paper, and it further reduced the volume of household trash because it preserved food longer. The typical household in Mexico City, for example, generated more garbage than an American household because it bought fewer packaged products and ended up discarding more food that had spoiled.

But activists eager to find some reason to oppose disposable products have ignored these advantages. They blame America’s throwaway society for polluting the oceans with plastic, though virtually all that pollution comes from either fishing vessels or from developing countries with primitive waste-management systems — mostly the Asian countries that were importing plastic recyclables from America.

Instead of castigating American consumers, environmentalists should blame themselves for creating the recycling programs that sent plastic to countries where it was allowed to leak into rivers. The best way to protect marine life is to throw used plastic into the trash, not the recycling bin, so that it goes straight to a well-lined local landfill instead of ending up in the ocean. …

It’s a moral thing, so they can feel superior to us:

Greens may feel virtuous lugging groceries home in a paper or tote bag, but the shoppers choosing plastic are actually doing more to combat global warming and reduce consumption of natural resources. …

Studies have repeatedly shown that dangerous bacteria and viruses linger on reusable tote bags unless shoppers wash them regularly, which few bother to do. The Covid-19 pandemic finally forced some public officials to heed these warnings and allow the single-use plastic bags once again, but Greenpeace and other groups are still hoping to reinstate the bans once the pandemic is over. The reusable bags would be perfectly safe, they argue, if only people would wash them regularly.

But why should people spend their valuable free time washing tote bags when there’s a cheaper, more convenient, and environmentally benign alternative? It makes sense only for those who consider the throwaway society to be intrinsically sinful. They derive solace from reusing and recycling because it eases their guilt for being rich enough to afford so much stuff. If they want to perform these rites voluntarily, fine, but there’s no reason to force everyone else to do penance.

But the left are the “party of science,” they protest. Bah humbug.