Disposable Culture

Disposable culture – a “use once, throw out after” mentality. I use this phrase a lot when I’m talking to store owners, baristas, and people in general about sustainability and coffee shops. I don’t know if the term was manufactured in my mind or I unconsciously acquired it from somewhere, but I have a clear idea of what it means. I think it’s good to spend a few minutes qualifying it.

As part of my coffee shop hop spiel, I usually mention how the coffee industry is increasingly focusing on (and advocating for) sustainability at the farming and production level (e.g., direct trade, fair wages, agriculture education programs, including methods to reduce carbon impact etc.), and developing premium product. When you go to stores, however, you see coffee being served in paper and plastic cups. That just seems contradictory. Why?

When it comes down to it, I think the existing (service) system is reactionary to our lifestyle. We seek convenience. We want things quickly and with minimal effort. One could give a whole evolutionary explanation for why this is the case (like how it is adaptive behavior inherited from our hunter-and-gatherer ancestors), but that’s not the focus. All I have to say on this subject is is that we are no longer face with the same conditions of the past, yet we still retain an archaic mod. We seek convenience without (properly) evaluating the consequences.

The “to-go” food and beverage industry is simply catering to (and making money off of) our demand for convenience. The explosion of delivery apps exemplifies this. Grab your phone, use an online service (like GrubHub, Seamless, or Caviar), and vualá – food comes to you. There is no need to leave your home (or office), let alone get off your a$$!

Part of the convenience of takeout is the packaging. It’s disposable. Enjoy your meal and/or drink, then toss out the (normally paper, plastic, or styrofoam) containers and cups. That’s it. You don’t have to think about anything. That’s nice, but there’s a flip side to this. The fact that you don’t have to think about anything means you’re less likely to become aware of the consequences of your actions.

Each time you get takeout and throw away the containers or cups, they enter a cycle. They accumulate in bins, waiting for collection, then are transported and dumped in landfills, taking hundreds to thousands of years to decompose. There’s also a whole cycle involved to bring you disposable packaging. Often raw materials (such as trees and oil) are needed, manufacturing and production occurs, and supplies are shipped and distributed. Large amounts of energy (like fossil fuel) and human labor are required for both these cycles.

These cycles are driven by demand. Purchasing to-go drinks and food served in disposable packaging endorses (whether intentionally or unintentionally) how our demand is being met. This doesn’t mean we should stop buying things to-go and not seek convenience. We just need to become aware of the type of system in place and how it is feeding a culture that does not encourage accountability or responsibility.

I’ve got more to say on this subject, but it will need to wait for future posts. I’m sure the concept will become refined over time, so will update this post as well. For now, I think it’s important to get the conversation going and convey explicitly what I mean by “disposable culture”.

4 thoughts on “Disposable Culture

  1. I make a point of asking for a ceramic mug. If enough of us do it, and respond with disappointment at the only available choice of disposable, the coffee shop owners will realize there’s a demand they’re not filling.

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    1. Hi tintotina311! Thank you for sharing your thoughts! That’s great to hear about your efforts. I totally agree and think that’s a great way to begin a shift. I think if we speak up, voice our values, and are persistent, store owners will need to adapt their practices.

      Liked by 1 person

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