Battling a throwaway mentality: the perils of our takeout culture


Text: Life Magazine (1955), in which an American family celebrates the rise of disposable plastics.

(Photo by Peter Stackpole, Life Picture Collection/Getty Images)

by Ryan C., Global Development Studies student

The throwaway culture has permeated society and engrained itself in our very nature. Whether it be food, phones, or fashion, there exists a constant hunger for more. Having food delivered because it’s convenient, buying a new iPhone when your current one functions perfectly fine, or purchasing a new pair of shoes to add to your already massive collection… all of this leads to pre-existing goods being thrown out or going unused.

A large part of this is rooted in how our world operates in the modern era. “Supercapitalism” is a concept coined by Robert Reich, and it describes how businesses constantly try to outpace each other by producing more and more unnecessary goods. In a bid to stay at the top of the market, businesses end up creating extreme amounts of waste for consumers. New products are being pumped out at rapid rates, causing existing products to become out-of-date. Businesses ultimately aim to profit, and many businesses follow a “planned obsolescence” or “made to fail” model. The most prominent example of this occurs with lightbulbs, where companies produce lightbulbs with a 750-hour lifespan despite 100,000-hour lightbulbs having been produced, all in order to have consumers buy more. It is believed that many technological products like laptops and phones do the same, where they stop working after a few years and force users to either pay a ridiculously expensive repair fee or buy a newer model at a slightly higher cost.

To clarify, the problem is not new technology being developed, but rather the obsession we all have with having the best and latest product. While there may be minimal differences going from one model of phone to the next, both businesses and consumers have established the idea that newer is better, and as such we have a tendency to leave behind or throw away things that could still function for years to come.

It is clear to see that living in a throwaway culture is not sustainable. As such, several companies have started working towards creating a “circular economy”. In a circular economy, the philosophy of single use becomes obsolete. All goods are produced with the intention that they will be reused and recycled. Companies like L’Oreal, Mars, Marks & Spencer, and The Coca-Cola Company are working to create packaging that will be 100% compostable or recyclable by 2025. Other companies are working to reduce the throwaway mentality be offering easy access to repairs, providing consumers with the opportunity of fixing existing products rather than forcing them to buy new ones. Some examples of this are technology companies HP and Dell, which provide service manuals and also create computers that are easily repairable and upgradable. Another exemplar is the outdoor clothing company Patagonia, which reduces waste by providing free repairs for any of their products.

The throwaway culture is a huge problem. It exists largely because of these business models and societal structures, and in turn is being combated by large businesses and companies. However, that’s not to say that we, as individuals, can’t join the cause by practicing a more sustainable lifestyle. To do so, here are the three main tenets you should follow: 

1.     Think before you buy-Before every purchase, ask yourself if it is absolutely necessary. Consider the pros and cons of the purchase, and realize that there are many times when what you currently have is good enough and you should let the newest product slide.

2.     Invest in high-quality products-While you’ll lose money in the short run, a long-lasting product will pay off in the end and ultimately create less waste.

3.     Recycle-When you make the decision to upgrade, don’t just throw out what you had before or leave it lying unused in a closet. Recycling goods doesn’t mean just putting it in the correct trash container, it also means donating to places (like charities or orphanages) that could use those old products, even if they’re a little old or worn out.

Although the throw-way mentality is typically applied to material goods, we must consider the danger of how it might be applied in our day-to-day lives. How do we prevent the values of a throwaway culture from embedding themselves in our own lives and relationships?  Imagine if, rather than attempting to fix problems in one’s life, people gave up. If they chose to let go of everything broken and just wait for a new opportunity to present itself. If they found new friends, new family, new lifestyles as soon as an obstacle presented itself. As toxic as that life sounds, it may become a reality with the takeaway culture becoming increasingly prominent. If we are to prevent this possibility from becoming reality, we must find value in what we already have and seek to repair our broken planet rather than discarding it.

The circular economy, visualized by GoLOCAL.