Trash Talk: A Christian response to our throwaway society
Every morning my colleague’s desktop captured my passing eye. Nestled beneath the computer screen between a cup full of pens and a stapler, she kept her midmorning snack. Sometimes it was two chocolates in gold foil or a pair of sugar biscuits bound together in cellophane, sometimes rose-colored paper enveloping a candy from the Philippines, and always fruit. One day it was an apple, another an orange, a third day a banana. Regardless of the variety, the fruit was invariably as meticulously wrapped as its companion foodstuffs.
Now plastic wrap around an apple struck me as redundant. Plastic wrap around a banana snug within its peel struck me as downright ridiculous. I could not help staring incredulously each morning at these doubly preserved specimens, but I never gathered the gumption to challenge my colleague’s packaging philosophy.
Why, I wondered, would a person spend so much time, energy and money to shroud a banana in plastic wrap, which would later require more time, energy and money to get rid of? After all, the good Creator already outfitted the banana with a protective cover. What purpose did that extra layer of petrochemical veneer serve?
By no means would my colleague stand alone in the dock before such questions. Retailers and consumers apparently believe that a licit commercial transaction cannot occur unless it terminates in a bag or a box, a bottle or a blister pack doomed to a final appointment with a garbage pail.
The Artificial Peel
In Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage, Heather Rogers estimates that 80 percent of U.S. products, like this plastic wrap, are discarded after a single use. Of course, it takes a special kind of person to use a banana more than once. Food, the quintessential consumer good, has become a Grade-A disposable in our overstocked markets. A supersized portion of comestible goods in this country does not receive even the fleeting honor of a single use. The average American household wastes a quarter of all the food it presumably worked hard to bring home. Add to that the other wastage that occurs along the entire length of the production and distribution line—from the farm to the supermarket—and the total percentage of food wasted before tasted approaches a shocking and shaming 40 percent.
But except in very rare instances, like pie-throwing contests, food is not intentionally created in order to be tossed out. The same does not hold for food’s protective accessorizing. Of all municipal solid waste, the single largest share, 30 percent, goes to containers and packaging: polystyrene “clamshells,” tin cans, plastic this, that and the other thing. Nary a bit of food comes to our lips that has not recently emerged from an artificial peel.
At first glance, it may seem that the plastic cling wrap and the organic banana peel differ only chemically, since they share the same function. Since Aristotle, philosophers have looked to an object’s putative purpose in seeking to define its essence. But only the consumer regards the banana peel as packaging. From the standpoint of the banana tree, the peel plays a vital part in procreation. To the soil, the peel means future nutrients and increased fertility.
Irreducible to a single purpose, natural things exist as waste only temporarily and conditionally. When out with me one evening picking Saskatoon berries, a friend expressed anxiety about the coming nightfall. “If we don’t pick these bushes clean, all their berries will go to waste.” I conceded a limited truth to this statement. As far as our stomachs were concerned, the berries would not fulfill their function if they never reached our mouths.
Had we consulted the bush and berries, however, we might have slowed our hurried harvest. With respect to reproduction, the berries existed as ingeniously designed aerial seed-distribution units. In boyishly biological terms: birds eat the berries, fly a bit and eject the seeds as they pass over the various kinds of soils one hears about in parables. We, the civilized consumers, on the other hand, would, by eating the seeds, destine them to destruction in a sewage treatment plant. So where exactly was the waste, on the bush or in our plumbing?
Plastic wrap does not enjoy this multiplicity of purpose nor the redemptive ambiguity of natural “waste.” Its design is much less intelligent. Once the wrap fulfills its single function, it is good for nothing. Or it is about as good as nothing because it has no more to achieve. If function and essence do go together in human-made objects, then a consumer item deprived of function will also be devoid of essence. It becomes waste unconditionally and forever, since it no longer serves any possible end.
Here we have an object that always existed as waste. Such absolute waste, waste considered from all possible angles, waste built right into the conception of an object, I philosophically classify as “trash.”
The Single-Use Lifestyle
The genius of modern technology lies in its unprecedented ability to split a product from its production. Consumers desire commodities, like tasty food, amusing entertainment, easy transportation. Devices deliver these desirables. Their delivery advances toward perfection the closer they come to providing in-demand products without demanding anything themselves. The perfect device remains completely hidden behind the convenience of the consumable commodity.
Convenience, the rock on which we have built the church of consumption, relies absolutely on the division between commodity and device. Digging one’s own potatoes is not terribly convenient, especially when compared with diving into a 7-Eleven for a sealed-fresh bag of salt-and-vinegar chips. A complex, technological and mostly invisible industrial food system is the globalized device that feeds our hunger for fast food. As an essential part of this “device,” the sole function of packaging is to deliver the food commodity in the most convenient and trustworthy manner possible. Its single function necessitates its single use.
If the consumer had to fold the plastic wrap and bring it home for tomorrow’s snack or had to wash and dry the take-away cup in preparation for the next injection of java or had to return the aluminum can to the cola company for a refill then these devices would be delivering their goods inconveniently. The whole point of the device is to disappear.
So the banana peel and the plastic wrap differ much more than just chemically. The peel is multivalent, it exists and functions within an integrated web of relationships. Each relationship lets it be in a unique way.
The plastic wrap, on the other hand, is expressly designed to deliver just one value: the protection of goods from air, dirt and germs. Once the food is gone, so goes the plastic’s raison d’etre. Materially, the object has the same qualities it had when first spooled off the roll. But ontologically, it has become irredeemable waste. How many of us would entrust another sandwich to it? No, it must be trashed. It has no place in our consumer world.
We all know that the disposables we discard do not really disappear. Yet as consumers we have precious little to do with the trash we generate. Our elaborate system of garbage collection, incineration, disposal and recycling is a sophisticated device that delivers to most urban consumers the commodities of sanitation, cleanliness and obliviousness.
Hiding our trash within the technological division of commodity and device allows us to consume without concerning ourselves about consequences. Christians ought to look warily on deeply divided houses; we have been told they are fated to fall. In fact, the collapse has long since begun. In spite of all our environmental consciousness and the dematerialization of the digital age, the quantity of trash compounds. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans generated 2.68 pounds of municipal solid waste per person per day in 1960. By 2010 that total had bloated to 4.43 pounds. The fatter the wedge we drive between the commodity and its device, the more trash we stuff into the gap.
We Catholics consider ourselves people of the book, but we are equally people of the body. Our belief in the incarnation and physical resurrection of Christ requires us to take matter very seriously. We are living in a material world sanctified by these twin mysteries. A real feel for this place allows us to join Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s praise to the “Glorious Lord Christ: the divine influence secretly diffused and active in the depths of matter, and the dazzling centre where all the innumerable fibers of the manifold meet.”
As both inheritors and inhabitants of these mysteries, we are called to concern ourselves with the material of our world. Raw convenience, as far as I recall, did not figure in the Beatitudes. Contemporary, consumer culture is not merely a culture of death. It is a culture of nullity, built out of the “antimatter” of disposable objects. Trash is the technological outcome of reducing a richly interrelated organ of creation to a single self-destructive function. Should it not trouble us that our entire system of production is a device that is efficient at transmuting “the divine influence secretly diffused and active in the depths of matter” into landfill? Shouldn’t we, as partakers of the Eucharist, where Christ reconfirms his real presence in matter, cultivate a distaste for disposables—objects that, made to be good for nothing, already are as good as nothing?
Some years after World War II, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said, “We were never more free than during German occupation.” Sartre was an atheist, but Catholics can appreciate his flair for paradox. Under occupation, every act took on significance; every act, no matter how prosaic, held out the chance for bravery and nonconformity. In a throwaway society, analogous opportunities offer themselves. Every shopping bag you refuse, every coffee cup you re-use, every piece of plastic you eschew, takes you another step toward “the dazzling centre where all the innumerable fibers of the manifold meet.”
Bottles, Bottles Everywhere
Of all overpackaging, the most egregious offender is the disposable plastic water bottle. Bottled water consistently ranks below tap water in terms of bacteria count and even, in blind taste tests, flavor. In North America the typical bottled water consumer voluntarily pays a price inflated about 6,000 times for this inferior product. Some would call this stupid. I call it uncivilized.
In The Myth of the Machine, the historian Lewis Mumford points out that were it not for watertight containers capable of storing and transporting liquids, the construction of higher civilization could never have begun. Water bottles form the basis of all modern societies. To trash them thoughtlessly after just one fill is a modern act of barbarity.
After two decades of such atavistic practices, North American water drinkers are again striving to be civilized. Some college campuses and municipalities have banned bottled water. In Canada, much of the initial impetus for getting off the bottle came from the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (www.devp.org). This lay-led organization, established by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, has mounted campaigns for intelligent hydration. Its goal was to have all Catholics sign the following pledge (It’s not too late to add your name): “I commit to working to create bottled-water free zones in my home and in the public places where I spend my time. These include my university, school, parish, workplace and community. I will also support efforts to have bottled water replaced by tap water in all municipal, provincial [or state] and federal spaces where safe water is available.”