Our Disposable Society
As Americans, we are privileged to many luxuries. Not every country allows its citizens to start their own businesses or provides the education it takes to run a company. Our free market system allows for many different goods and services to compete fairly for people’s dollars. The freedom given to us by our forefathers grants the opportunity to choose between these goods and services. Put all these realities together and it’s no wonder we have so many different forms of products. A relatively recent phenomenon that has subsequently emerged in our society is the prevalence of disposable products. Because of their convenience, efficiency, and relatively low cost, disposable products have become the choice over their reusable forms for many consumers. Everyday activities such as grooming, cleaning, eating, and child care are where most disposable products enter our lives. It is possible for one individual to use dozens of disposable products daily, from blowing noses to changing a child’s diaper. Considering the amount of disposable goods being bought and discarded after one use, problems have inevitably arisen. The most obvious and tangible problem is environmental damage. Other consequences include declining values of family, relationships, and human life. Thus, the disposable phenomenon is worth studying and researching not only because it plays a large part in nearly everyone’s life but because the problems that arise from it could be pinpointed and possibly solved.
The popularity and prevalence of disposable products can be attributed to several sociological factors. First, disposables fall in line with Ritzer’s “McDonaldization of society.” The values of efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control are all espoused in disposable products. Take disposable contacts, for example. They are more efficient than regular contacts because the user doesn’t have to think about cleaning them or worrying about them getting lost or damaged. All thought has been removed from the process. Disposable contacts take less time to set up and there are multiple pairs in each package, thus illustrating the calculability aspect. They are predictable, meaning each contact is the same and the problems associated with cleaning solution and trays are eliminated. And the user has control over when to dispose of the contacts and start a new pair. Another reason for the popularity and acceptance of disposable products is the ideal images we associate with them. “Ideal culture” is a set of values, knowledge, and beliefs we hold as a society. For many people, the disposable product represents the values of freedom of choice, cleanliness, and convenience. Finally, the disposable phenomenon has been promoted to us through mass marketing and advertising tactics. Ritzer explains the reasons for our country’s “hyper consumption” in his piece Enchanting a Disenchanted World. One of the explanations he gives for the increase in consumption is the marketing geared toward people to buy more and more products. In this respect, the companies that produce disposable products engage in mass marketing tactics to convince consumers to buy their products. The attractive features of the disposable product are highlighted, such as its efficiency and ability to make life easier. For example, the television commercial for Swiffer depicts maids and butlers from popular television sitcoms and shows them relaxing and having fun at a tropical resort. The ad claims that “cleaning doesn’t have to be a full-time job” and tells viewers to “Stop cleaning. Swiffer.” The marketers hope the audience will buy a Swiffer to make cleaning easier and less time-consuming. Thus, marketing influences our society a great deal and contributes not only to our “hyper consumption” but the popularity of disposable products.
What advertising doesn’t tell us, however, is the dark side of disposable products and their consequences to society. Disposable products cause trash, hence the reason for their name. In fact, we throw away 2 billion disposable razors and 16 billion disposable diapers each year, this number growing each year as our hyper consumption of disposable products continues. Roughly eighty percent of all household trash goes to landfills, which are hazards unto themselves. Toxic chemicals leak out of the landfills and contaminate ground water and surface water. Also, space for new landfills is constantly needed, but no one wants a landfill near them, thus creating political problems and angry citizens ( Bormann and Kellert 100-102). Although some disposable products, such as plastic cups and cameras, can be recycled, the recycling rates are still quite low ( only thirty percent of household waste gets recycled). Britt Anne Bernheim, in her article “Can We Cure Our Throwaway Habits by Imposing the True Social Cost on Disposable Products?”, brings up another negative point about disposables.
“The true social cost of a product includes both the cost of its production and other costs that are not reflected in the product’s market price. Examples of costs that are absent from the products price include: the deferred cost of disposal…, and the future cost of depleting domestic and foreign natural resources… Because the market price of disposable consumer products does not reflect their true social cost, the difference must be borne by individuals who are not involved in the production and consumption of those products” (University of Colorado Law Review 956-957).
Aside from the social cost of environmental externalities, disposable products have the potential to affect our views of relationships and values. If we become (or have already become) a society unconcerned with throwing things away, will we be just as flippant about our relationships? Our values of long-term relationships, possibly marriage, could become affected. Even further, our value of human life may decline to the point where lives can be thrown away and ended just like a product is thrown away. “Hollywood films that suggest that urban kids who are black, brown and poor are not simply dangerous and pathological but disposable” ( Campbell 75). If films are depicting life as having a disposable quality, it is possible we may become influenced into thinking along those lines.
Thus, the consumption of disposable products has the potential to affect our society, and may have already done so. In the case of our environment, the evidence is conclusive, but in other social arenas it’s not as irrefutable. Research should be conducted to find out what’s in consumer’s heads when they buy and use disposable products. This will help determine the true implications for our society. Do people who use an abundance of disposable products value relationships less than others? Do people think about the environmental effects of the product when they buy it? To find some answers to these questions would be extremely beneficial for our society. We could learn exactly how severe the implications are for our society and let the public know the answers.
To conduct the research, the primary source of collecting information would be focus groups. The focus groups would be comprised of strictly individual consumers, not of institutions such as hospitals. Some of the groups would contain only disposable consumers, some would contain consumers who don’t use disposables, and the rest would be a mix of the two. Also included in the research would be telephone, internet and mail surveys of random consumers. The five primary questions asked in the research would be: 1) Do you consume disposable products?; 2) Do you oppose/promote the use of disposable products or are you impartial, and why?; 3) On a scale of one to ten (ten being the highest value), how much do you value long-term relationships with friends/lovers and explain your reasoning for your choice; 4) If you use disposable products, do you think about the long-term effects of the product or simply the short-term benefits, and to what extent?; and 5) Have you ever used both forms of a product (disposable and reusable) and if so, which do you prefer and why? Along with these questions, several demographic facts (age, income level, sex, job, age, and family status) will be ascertained about the individual participating in the research.
The information collected through the research will hopefully show more about the effects of disposable products on our society. It will show how concerned we are as consumers about the social costs of our consumption of disposable products, if our use of disposables is in some way connected to our life values, and if our thoughts and actions as a society are contradictory. All of these answers will be significant in coming to a conclusion about the true societal implications of our disposable society. Actions can subsequently be taken if it turns out that our disposable society is detrimental.
In conclusion, our society is inundated with disposable products that promise to improve our lives. There are dozens of new products invented yearly for manufacturers to cash in on the disposable craze. A disposable digital camera just came out on the market and a disposable cell phone is in the works for 2005. But disposable products aren’t perfect. They carry unseen environmental and social costs. The research proposal outlined above will provide more answers for our society in terms of how we are affected by the deluge of disposable culture. Knowledge is power, and knowing the truth about disposable products will help us better gauge the actions we should take as a society. Perhaps we should think about saving our future, rather than a couple minutes.
Bormann, Herbert F. and Kellert, Stephen R. Ecology, Economics, Ethics: The
Broken Circle. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.
Campbell, Neil. American Youth Cultures. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University
University of Colorado Law Review. Boulder, University of Colorado Law Review, Inc., 1992.