EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 6. Designing a New Materials Economy: Throwaway Products

Two concepts that emerged during the mid-twentieth century have shaped the evolution of the global economy planned obsolescence and throwaway products. Both were seized on enthusiastically in the United States after World War II as a way of promoting economic growth and employment. The faster things wore out and the sooner they could be thrown away, the faster the economy would grow.

For numerous consumer products, year-to-year changes in design became a key to stimulating sales. For automobiles, models changed each year. The unveiling of the new models, a major event on the economic calendars in leading industrial countries, automatically reduced the value of the previous year's cars. Model changes were intended not so much to improve performance as to sell more cars.

A similar situation exists with clothing, especially for women. Annual fashion shows trot out the latest designs. The changes for women's wear may involve raising or lowering hemlines, or emphasizing particular colors or fabrics in any given year. For many people, self-worth depends on wearing clothes that are "in fashion."

The throwaway economy evolved during the last half of the twentieth century. Throwaway products, facilitated by the appeal to convenience and the artificially low cost of energy, account for much of the garbage we produce each day and an even larger share of the material that ends up in landfills.

It is easy to forget how many throwaway products there are until we actually begin making a list. We have substituted facial tissues for handkerchiefs, disposable paper towels and table napkins for cloth, and throwaway beverage containers for refillable ones. In perhaps the ultimate insult, the shopping bags that are used to carry home throwaway products are themselves designed to be discarded. (The question at the supermarket checkout counter, "Paper or plastic?" should be replaced by, "Do you have your canvas shopping bag with you?")

The U.S.-based GrassRoots Recycling Network has calculated the "wasting rates" of products that is, the share that is thrown away versus that recycled or reused. (See Table 6-1.) Not surprisingly, products designed for disposal score the highest. By definition, the wasting rate of disposable diapers is 100 percent, as is that of disposable tissues, plates, and cups. Although Americans have markedly improved their record on newspaper recycling over the last decade or so, 45 percent of all newsprint is still discarded rather than recycled. Tossing newspapers is a way of converting forests into landfill.

The advent of disposable paper plates and cups, plus plastic "silverware," coincided with the emergence of the fast-food industry. The extraordinary growth of this sector helped ensure growth in the use of throwaway plates, cups, and eating utensils. These and other throwaways are routinely hauled by garbage trucks to landfills on a one-way trip through the economy.

Even while wrestling with traditional throwaway products, the world is now facing a new disposal challenge in desktop computers. Although they are not obsolescent by plan, the pace of innovation in the industry quickly makes them obsolete, giving the average computer a life expectancy of less than two years. In contrast to refrigerators, which are relatively easy to recycle, computers contain a diverse array of materials, many of them toxic, including lead, mercury, and cadmium, that makes them difficult to recycle. This helps explain why only 11 percent of computers are recycled, compared with 70 percent of refrigerators.10

A study by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition estimated that between 1997 and 2004, some 315 million computers would become obsolete in the United States alone. With each computer containing nearly 4 pounds of lead, the United States is facing the need to deal with 1.2 billion pounds of lead. While the world has been quite successful in getting it out of paint and gasoline, lead is still widely used in computers. Once in landfills, the lead can leach into aquifers and contaminate drinking water supplies. These same computers contain some 400,000 pounds of mercury and 2 million pounds of cadmium.11


Table 6-1. Wasting Rates and Quantities of Commonly Discarded Items in the United States, 1997
Wasting Rate
(percent discarded)
(million tons)
Disposable diapers
Disposable tissues, plates, cups
Clothing, footwear
Office paper
Aluminum cans
Steel cans
Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 1998 Update," as reported by GrassRoots Recycling Network (Athens, Georgia)


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10. Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Poison PCs and Toxic TVs (San Jose, CA: 2001); refrigerators from 77-percent appliance recycling rate in the United States, in Jim Woods, "Steel Recycling Rates Resume Upward Trend," press release (Pittsburgh, PA: Steel Recycling Institute, 7 April 2000).

11. Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, op. cit. note 10.


Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute