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Excerpt from What We Leave Behind

Manufacturing Consumers (p. 331)

From chapter "Technotopia: Producing Waste"

In the years following the Second World War, the rapid rate of plastic production began to cause a major problem for plastics manufacturers. By churning out economically inexpensive items so rapidly, they had begun to saturate the market. The solution? As plastics manufacturers were told at a 1956 industry conference: “Your future is in the garbage wagon!” The production of huge amounts of waste became not merely a by-product of capitalism, not accidental, but an explicitly stated goal of industry. The priorities of manufacturers should be “low cost, big volume, practicability, and expendability. ”And so it was. The subsequent production of vast quantities of disposable items like plastic plates, diapers, and sunglasses was combined with marketing campaigns emphasizing fashion and a need to throw away unfashionable old items and purchase new ones.

Consumers were unaccustomed to such behavior, and the memory of a long Depression was still fresh for many. Plastics companies found that in the late 1950s customers were still saving and reusing their “disposable” cups. So they created major “educational” campaigns to convince consumers that it was appropriate (as well as classy and hygienic) to promptly dispose of their plastic consumables.As a major advertising journal had previously observed, “The future of business lay in its ability to manufacture consumers as well as products.”Instead of advertising the virtues of their particular product compared to other similar products, they increasingly began to glorify consumption itself.

And when they can’t convince people to buy their products, they simply destroy the alternatives. Clive Ponting describes one example in his book A Green History of the World: “In 1936 three corporations connected with the car industry (General Motors, Standard Oil of California and the tyre company Firestone) formed a new company called National City Lines whose purpose was to buy up alternative transport systems and close them down. By 1956 over 100 electric surface rail systems in forty-five cities had been purchased and then closed. Their biggest operation was the acquisition, in 1940, of the Pacific Electric system, which carried 110 million passengers a year in fifty-six communities. Over 1100 miles of track were ripped up, and by 1961 the whole network was closed.”

Governments also have incentives to encourage wastefulness. Governments rely on tax money, tax money comes from economic activity, and economic activity usually consists of turning parts of the natural world into garbage, directly or indirectly. And governments themselves buy and use huge amounts of disposable goods. Governments benefit by encouraging production, and by encouraging corporations, which (in theory at least) creates jobs. Governments want to keep the economy going. As president Herbert Hoover proclaimed in 1931, a time of dangerous frugality, “The sole function of government is to bring about a condition of affairs favorable to the beneficial development of private enterprise.”

Author Richardson Wright summed up a lot of this in 1930 when he wrote (in a glowing endorsement of industrial-scale disposability): “We live in a machine age. To maintain prosperity we must keep the machines working, for when machines are functioning men can labor and earn wages. The good citizen does not repair the old; he buys anew. The shoes that crack are to be thrown away. Don’t patch them. When the car gets crotchety, haul it to the town’s dump. Give to the ashman’s oblivion the leaky pot, the broken umbrella, the clock that doesn’t tick. To maintain prosperity we must keep those machines going.”