Opinion: The cost of convenience
Turning down a long, fluorescent bathed aisle of my local Acme one early morning, my eyes strain at the sensory input that explodes from the bold array of typefaces and carefully crafted color schemes that compete for my attention. At first glance, our stores appear to be a paradox: absent of any actual food but filled with glossy photographic promises of it. Within the last half century, grocery store aisles have become ubiquitous with a comparable volume of cellophane, aluminum, polyethylene, and cardboard: wrapping, containing, preserving and presenting foods to us in service to our obsessive demand for convenience.
But let’s back up. Food, and other products have not always come with such a great volume of disposable, single use materials. Up until the 1930s, foods were often sold loose, with minimal wrapping. The high cost of materials limited packaging to luxury items in high-quality, multi-use containers. Soon, however, innovations in production and an affluent consumers base created a hunger for convenience, and the market responded.
A few decades later, and our supermarket aisles have cascaded into a truly gluttonous display of the unfettered free market. With such a large array of substitutable products, much of what is found in the store must withstand the possibility of sitting on a shelf for months before reaching a consumer. In an attempt to push against the natural process of decay, the foods we pull off the shelves are preserved and enveloped in polyethylene and other plastic derivatives that leach into our food, our bodies and our environment.
For every thing that is contained, the container is waste. It permeates our every purchase: Cereal bags, cellophane wrapped meats, vegetables sheathed in plastics, pre-prepared meals. In the context of history, we have never produced such high volumes of such indestructible material.
Of all plastic produced, only 9.5% is recycled, according to an Environmental Protection Agency report from 2008. With such a high volume of enduring material produced only to be discarded, the matter of where to put it all is a growing challenge, and poorly managed waste dumps release an undocumented amount of contamination into the water and air.
Extensive levels of systematic neglect has overload the natural dilution abilities of the oceans. The great pacific garbage patch, a massive ocean gyre collecting tiny particles of plastic that have been broken up in ocean churn, is just one visible sign of a system bloated with our waste. With current rates of consumption, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050, a 2016 report by the World Economic Forum found.
In 2018, the crisis grew even more acute when China extended a ban on the import of much of the world’s scrap and waste. Previously, the country accepted the worlds recyclable waste for decades. Now, even what is placed in the recycling bin may have no other destination but a landfill.
The majority of the single-use packaging that I acquire with my weekly groceries will not recycled, the decision dictated not by myself, but by a superstructure that is unprepared to deal with the waste it generates. Newark is not unique with its prohibitive local ordinances on the recycling of plastic film, styrofoam, plastic bags, aluminum trays, and plastic shell packaging. Across the country, a non-centralized recycling system results in areas where programs are non-existant or extremely limited to a narrow range of items.
Even at its best, recycling has never been the best solution. We have forgotten the first two R’s of “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Somehow, we now characterize waste as something that has been produced by individuals. This conceals any responsibility on the part of corporations that have chosen to manufacture increasing amounts of cheap disposable materials to better market or preserve their products. How many times can I truly reuse a flimsy plastic bag that I seem to acquire by the hundreds?
However as consumer concern grows, the market has conceded some minor consolations. In Acme, shiny labels may proudly proclaim “30% less packaging,” and I receive a ten cent discount for each reusable bag I bring, More drastically, scattered across the US are co-ops that offer waste-free bulk options. Still, there has been limited action in addressing the systemic issues of our wasteful culture: the markets that encourage the use of cheap plastics and the systems of productions in place that continue to make it cost effective to do so.
We are still far, far away from a zero waste reality. In a world where countries are engaging in zero emissions goals, perhaps it shouldn’t be that far fetched. Many states have, or are considering a ban or tax on plastic bags. However, to address the systematic pollution and corruption of our environment, more drastic actions must be taken. Our country and culture has yet to experience the desperately needed paradigm shift in how we consider waste. Until then, the market will continue to propel us down a trajectory toward an unsustainable future one plastic bag at a time.
Sarra Sundstrom is a senior at the university majoring in environmental studies & English. She works as a senior news reporter for The Review. The views expressed here are her own and do not reflect the majority opinion of The Review’s staff. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.