Our Lives Have Been Co-Opted by the Convenience Industrial Complex

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
credit: Swanson TV dinner

Nobody ever lost money making things easier or more convenient, and our planet is paying the price.

After the Second World War, the aluminum industry had a problem; there were all these dams built to make electricity and all these aluminum refineries that used the electricity, but it all went into airplanes and there was no demand for the stuff. So, as we learned from Carl A. Zimrig, the industry started inventing uses. They even held competitions for inventors to come up with ideas; that's how we got the aluminum pie plate and other disposable aluminum packages. Zimrig quotes an Alcoa exec: “The day was at hand when packages would replace pots and pans in the preparation of meals.”

President Eisenhower

President Eisenhower via Wikipedia/Public DomainThis was the start of what we will call the Convenience Industrial Complex, in honour of President Dwight Eisenhower, who in his 1961 farewell address warned of the dangers of the Military Industrial Complex, speaking to a nation that was "giddy with prosperity, infatuated with youth and glamour, and aiming increasingly for the easy life":

As we peer into society's future, we – you and I, and our government – must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.

Everything connects.

credit: Wisconsin Historical society

Wisconsin Historical society/Public Domain

This is all one big connected story. Along with Eisenhower's Interstate and Defense Highway system, we got the National Industrial Dispersion Policy to make America bomb-proof by de-densification, which led to driving everywhere, which led to the explosion of the fast food industry which couldn't exist without disposables. As Emelyn Rude writes in Time: "By the 1960s, private automobiles had taken over American roads and fast-food joints catering almost exclusively in food to-go became the fastest growing facet of the restaurant industry." Now we were all eating out of paper, using foam or paper cups, straws, forks, everything was disposable. But while there may have been waste bins at the McDonalds' parking lot, there weren't any on the roads or in the cities; this was all a new phenomenon.

The bottling industry also came up with disposable glass bottles. Nobody had ever done this before, and customers didn't know what to do with the paper and glass, so they just threw it out the window, or, as Susan Spotless complains, just dropped it.

So, as we have been noting for years, the industry invented the Keep America Beautiful (KAB) campaign to deliver the message, "Don't be a litterbug." Where cleaning the table and washing the dishes used to be the responsibility of the restaurant, it became ours. Heather Rogers wrote in Message in a bottle:

KAB downplayed industry's role in despoiling the earth, while relentlessly hammering home the message of each person's responsibility for the destruction of nature, one wrapper at a time... KAB was a pioneer in sowing confusion about the environmental impact of mass production and consumption.
©. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

© Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Then came disposable plastics, which just overwhelmed the system and started filling the dumps. Rogers writes:

With landfill space shrinking, new incinerators ruled out, water dumping long ago outlawed and the public becoming more environmentally aware by the hour, the solutions to the garbage disposal problem were narrowing. Looking forward, manufacturers must have perceived their range of options as truly horrifying: bans on certain materials and industrial processes; production controls; minimum standards for product durability.
ad for recycling

It's like a human saying "I want to be a slug"- downcycling to a lower level./Promo image

So, in the seventies, the industry invented recycling, which I have described as:

...a fraud, a sham, a scam perpetrated by big business on the citizens and municipalities of America. Recycling makes you feel good about buying disposable packaging and sorting it into neat little piles so that you can then pay your city or town to take away and ship across the country or farther so that somebody can melt it and downcycle it into a bench if you are lucky."
actions that. people take graph

© The Standard Issue

They did such a good job of it. A recent study by the US Green Building Council found that most people believe that recycling is the greenest and most important thing they can do.

And now of course, we know that recycling was a bigger fraud and sham than I previously thought, that almost none of it is being downcycled or recycled. When China closed the door on importing waste plastic, the stuff piled up and the value of it dropped so much that it is really not worth the trouble of recycling at all, and many cities are cutting back their programs. With natural gas feedstocks so cheap, virgin plastic is often cheaper than recycled, so the only recycled plastic with much value at all is #1, PET, the clear stuff that pop bottles are made of.

bird with stomach full of stuff

US Fish and Wildlife Service/ Chris Jordan/CC BY 2.0

For the industry, it's that seventies show again with the industry in panic. It's the birds and the turtles that did it; the public has responded viscerally to those images and to stories about the ocean. Straw bans are just the start of campaigns to ban single use plastics.

The industry is responding by convincing states to impose bans on plastic bans. They are talking about more waste to energy projects. They are peddling unproven technologies to "depolymerize" plastics and turn them back into oil, rebranding recycling as the "Circular Economy." But as I noted previously,

This sham of a circular economy is just another way to continue the status quo, with some more expensive reprocessing. It is the plastics industry telling government "don't worry, we will save recycling, just invest zillions in these new reprocessing technologies and maybe in a decade we can turn some of it back into plastic." It ensures that the consumer doesn't feel guilty buying the bottled water or the disposable coffee cup because after all, hey, it's now circular. And look who is behind it – the plastics and recycling industry.

And what is the plastics industry? In fact, it is the petrochemical industry, and they are really worried. We wrote earlier that they have been investing untold billions in expanding petrochemical production; they are worried that electric cars will eat into their main market. As Tim Young noted in the Financial Times, "It is the only major source of oil demand where growth is expected to accelerate. These forecasts assume a steady, strong demand for plastic will translate into increasing consumption of feedstock."

Jack Kaskey writes in Bloomberg about how all the oil companies are pivoting to petrochemicals.

Demand for gasoline is flatlining as electric vehicle sales surge and conventional cars become more efficient. But oil is essential for much more than just transportation: It’s broken down into chemicals and plastics used in every aspect of modern life. Growth in demand for chemicals already outstrips the need for liquid fuels, and that gap will widen in coming decades, according to the International Energy Agency.

He notes that there is some worry that the plastic panic might slow things down a bit:

The global crackdown on plastic trash threatens to take a big chunk out of demand growth just as oil companies like Saudi Aramco sink billions into plastic and chemicals assets. Royal Dutch Shell Plc, BP Plc, Total SA and Exxon Mobil Corp. are all ramping up investments in the sector.

But they are still all investing serious billions in making more solid petrochemicals to meet the demand that will still keep growing. TreeHugger's Katherine Martinko thinks all the protests will have an effect on the industry:

While municipal bag bans, the zero-waste movement, and anti-straw campaigns are miniscule when faced with the construction of multi-billion-dollar petrochemical facilities, remember that these alternative movements are far more noticeable than they were only five years ago – or even a decade ago, when they didn’t exist yet. The anti-plastic movement will grow, slowly but steadily, until these companies cannot help but pay attention.

I am not sure that these moments will move the needle very quickly. The problem is that, over the last 60 years, every aspect of our lives has changed because of disposables. We live in a totally linear world where trees and bauxite and petroleum are turned into the paper and aluminum and plastics that are part of everything we touch. It has created this Convenience Industrial Complex. It's structural. It's cultural. Changing it is going to be far more difficult because it permeates every aspect of the economy.

More to come.