Sunday, December 9, 2007

The developing world is turning me into a very bad consumer.

One thing I occasionally see down here is packaging that's designed to be useful even after the product that came in it is gone. While it does disturb me that everyone drinks instant coffee in a coffee-producing country, I like that one company sells it in these glass mugs.

It also comes in smaller glasses. They're what I drink out of every day, and hopefully I'll have room to bring them back to the States with me. Years ago, I brought back dulce de leche that came in nice little Tweetie Bird juice glasses. In Bolivia, our desert guides put small plastic tubs of margarine on the table that had handles so they could later be used as mugs.

You never see this in the United States anymore. I'm pretty sure this was common from the Great Depression through World War II, when it was patriotic to be frugal. Growing up, when my family went camping, we drank out of plastic mugs very similar to the ones I saw in Bolivia. Some of them even had markings inside to show 1/4, 1/2, 3/4 cup so you could use them as measuring cups too.

Of course you can use a peanut butter jar for a drinking glass, but unless it's actually designed to look like a glass, without a screw-cap lip, nobody wants to. I'm sure the demise of this kind of design-for-second-use had to do with the prosperity and upward mobility of the 50s and 60s. As middle-class people started to be able to afford to throw away perfectly good glasses and buy new glasses that had never contained coffee or jam, buying reusable packaging must have become a reminder of hard times, a sign you weren't prospering, an embarrassment. Not reusing became a sign of affluence.

Once reusability quit being a selling point, corporations must have had no reason to make it easy for you to forego buying more stuff. In fact, they could sell you the same item twice by making packaging less reusable. So no more refillable beer bottles (still the norm here), no more dishes that come free with your food, no more flour sacks printed so you can sew them into dresses. The civilized thing is to throw it all away.

By now, we've forgotten it's even possible. Maybe we should try to remember. Why waste the energy and resources to make everything twice? Why buy a glass when a jar of olives is so close to a glass? But why should we buy olives in jars, when they could just as easily be sold in glasses?


Anonymous said...


I couldn't agree with you more. I find it ironic that there is a green movement happening in this country, and yet everything has to be new. For example, if you drink bottled water, the label warns that you shouldn't reuse the bottle. Why not?

I'd love to see a comparison between the manufacturing and recycling costs of a plastic soda bottle today versus a glass deposit bottle from a generation ago that can be washed and reused. My guess is that it costs the bottlers less to have new plastic bottles. Once the full sodas leave the warehouse, the bottles aren't their problem anymore.


Cory said...

I think the idea is to recycle stuff now. If you saved every foodstuff jar with a handle on it, you'd end up like my grandmother who grew up during the great depression - a woman with a basement full of handled jars.

But I'm suspicious of recycling ever since I saw them throwing trash and recycling in the same truck bed at Tulane.

I'm looking forward to an age of time-sensitive biodegradables or some kind of protein-soluble plastics so you can personally dispose of stuff a la Appalachian trash fire but without the pollution. Wouldn't that be great? If instead of a dishwasher you had a dish incinerator that turned your junk into nutrient-rich topsoil or fuel for your car?

Cory said...

Whoah, weird . . . here's what I was talking about in my last comment:

Craig said...

Recycling and bioplastics are all well and good, but better than recycling your corn-based cutlery is just washing your metal silverware. The problem is that supply and demand economics treat the cost of manufacturing disposables as equivalent to the cost of employing a dishwasher. When in fact, hiring a worker is beneficial to the world and economy, while consuming more resources (even when reduced by recycling) has hidden unpaid costs. There was a reason that 'recycle' came last in the old slogan: 'reduce, reuse, recycle.'

Cory said...

Well, there will be plenty of washing to do when you start saving every coffee jar you buy. :P