Disposable Society

The Scourge of Single-Use Packaging

This article is another in my ongoing series on having compassion for the planet.


I read somewhere recently that something like 99% of everything we buy ends up in the landfill within a year. When I relate this disturbing fact to folks, they inevitably respond in astonishment, “That can’t be right. I know 99% of what I buy doesn’t get thrown away in a year. I still have the new bagel toaster and dish set I bought back in the spring.” “That may be true,” I reply, thankful that they took the bait. “But what happened to the cardboard boxes they came in? And what about those white pre-formed Styrofoam blocks that held the contents perfectly in place during shipping? And whatever happened to the plastic bags you carried the items home in from the store? What about the literature about the product and the limited warranty card inside the box? Not to mention the paper receipt.” Most folks don’t think about the packaging that comes with anything they buy. But packaging is one of the biggest contributors of garbage in the world.

Take for example fast food.

The other day I went to one of my favorite fast food chains for lunch. (Don’t tell my wife.) I ordered a burger, fries, and a cup of water to wash it down with. After a few minutes, an employee handed me a big brown bag with my burger in a cardboard box, my fries in a greasy paper bag, and a wax-coated paper cup full of water. She chucked in a few napkins and a straw. Within ten seconds I was seated at a table outside (fast food in the time of Coronavirus). I pulled out the burger box and the soggy bag of fries and threw the brown paper bag in the garbage. After devouring the mediocre salt and fat-laden meal, and tossed the empty cardboard burger box and fries bag into the trash as well. I took one last gulp of water, and dropped the wax-coated paper cup and accompanying plastic lid and straw into the bin. All in all, the packaging that came with my unhappy meal was useful for about three minutes. Multiply that by the slogan “Billions and Billions Served,” and you get an idea of how much fast food packaging ends up in landfills around the world every single day.


In a pre-pandemic world, my family enjoyed going out to Chinese and Mexican restaurants. Both of which are notorious for servings that are so plentiful that we end up taking the leftovers home for a meal the next day. I’m frugal. I love the fact that we get two meals for the price of one. As is usually the case, the waiter scoops the leftovers into those white Styrofoam boxes, which in turn goes into a large brown paper bag. Bingo! More trash to be discarded. Instead, we could learn to take our own re-usable glassware or plastic ware with us, thereby avoiding the landfill-filling single-use packaging.

Still related to food, consider your groceries. Without exception, everything you buy at the grocery store comes in some kind of packaging that is generally paper or plastic or some combination of both (think about your box of breakfast cereal: a plastic bag within a cardboard box).


I know what you’re thinking: Fresh vegetables don’t come in a package. Gotcha! But you pull one of those plastic bags off the nearby little roll and stuff your veggies inside. Why do you think you have to take out your kitchen trash bin every couple of days? Answer: because it’s full of the packaging that your groceries came in. And what becomes of the hundreds of flimsy white bags in which you bring home your groceries every year? Just the other day I took seven bags cram-packed with dozens of crumpled plastic bags to my local grocer where they have a recycle bin especially for their own used bags. Do they really get recycled, or is it just a marketing strategy to make people like me feel better about ourselves? I asked a young bagger if he knew what happened to all the bags and he replied that they just threw them in the big green dumpster out back with all the rest of the trash. My wife gave me a couple of those sturdy bags which can be re-used every time I go to the grocery store. They just sit patiently in my truck where they almost never get used, despite my wife’s constant reminder not to forget to use them. Invariably, I forget to take them inside the store (thereby explaining why I had all those white single-use plastic bags full of white single-use plastic bags to take to what I thought was the recycle bin).


I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I’m as guilty as you are when it comes to making savvy consumer decisions regarding packaging and recycling. It took me years, decades even, to realize that every day that I went to my favorite coffee house chain and ordered a cup of coffee (mocha with whip cream), it came in a paper cup with a plastic lid that I tossed into the trash a few minutes later. Some years ago, I purchased a re-usable stainless steel cup. Not only do I get a ten cent discount every time I refill it, but I estimate I have saved some 3,500 paper cups and plastic lids from adding to landfills in the past decade alone. It’s a start. If I can do it, perhaps there’s hope that we can all rethink our disposable consumer habits. Yes. That toaster you bought a year ago is still sitting on your kitchen counter gathering burnt crumbs at the bottom. But hundreds, maybe even thousands of cardboard boxes, plastic bags, and Styrofoam containers have been relegated to the landfill. Maybe that 99% number isn’t that far off.


JSmelcer 4


Dr. John Smelcer is the Inaugural Writer-in-Residence for the Charter for Compassion where he teaches a global online course called “Poetry for Inspiration and Well-Being.” He is the author of over 60 books, including A New Day, his timely new pocketbook of meditations to inspire love, compassion, hope, mercy, charity, tolerance, contemplation, and peace. He is currently working on a book about his discovery of Thomas Merton’s relics in the spring of 2015.

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