It’s Time to Renounce Our Throwaway Ethic

We’ve all heard of the throwaway society, and many of us vigorously oppose it through our activism, our buying habits, and our worldviews. In most cases, the throwaway mentality is associated with the wasteful use of consumer goods, like electronics, appliances, or clothing. But manifestations of this insidious ethic can also be seen in less obvious areas—including food waste and the euthanizing of millions of unwanted pets.

In the case of consumer goods, items are bought, used briefly, and then discarded, whether because they break quickly or because they become outdated or out of style. Many usable, even valuable items—from washing machines to computers—are thrown out, and new ones are bought to replace them. Meanwhile, as we overwhelm our landfills with perfectly good items and squander limited natural resources to make new ones, a sizeable portion of our population still lacks many material comforts.

By failing to appreciate the value of older items, the throwaway ethic creates an inefficient system of distribution in which many people go without, while the landfills prosper. Unfortunately, the situation is strikingly similar when it comes to food waste and animal euthanasia.

The value of food

With regard to hunger, many believe that there are “too many people” and that we simply cannot produce enough food for everyone. This is not the case: the world already produces more than enough food for everyone, with some to spare. One analysis suggests that we may currently produce as much as seven times the amount of food needed for global adequate nutrition.

The real problem is not the volume of food that’s available, but its distribution. Most of it ends up in the wealthier countries, where a fantastic share is simply wasted: as much as 40 percent in the United States, and Europe is not far behind.

If equitably distributed, the food waste alone from the United States and other wealthy countries would go a long way toward addressing world hunger. But, as with our consumer goods, the abundance of cheap food obscures the immense value of food: for us in the United States, a loaf of bread is worth merely its monetary price—perhaps two or three dollars. For the mother in the developing world whose child faces starvation, can we even put a price on that loaf of bread? Yet the wasting of food in the wealthier countries can have the effect of exacerbating hunger among those who need food most.

In popular culture, food waste is standard fare on many food-related television shows, helping to mainstream the perspective that waste is “normal.” The worst offenders might be British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s host of competition-style cooking shows. In one of them, Ramsay’s Best Restaurant, Ramsay explains that a good restaurant must allow the customer to send back a dish for any reason, even if the chef hasn’t made a mistake. In another, The F-Word (the "f" stands for food), Ramsay routinely orders his subordinate chefs to throw out food ranging from slightly burned fish filets to sushi-grade tuna loins that were cut improperly.

Sure, in fine dining attention to detail is paramount, and customers certainly pay enough to cover the waste involved. But it’s difficult not to see a moral problem here, especially when simple malnutrition is still a leading cause of death in the developing world.

“New” versus “used” pets

The throwaway ethic is even more disturbing as it relates to animal euthanasia. Here, the ethic is tragically applied to living beings (at least no television can suffer as it is dragged off to the dump). If the routine euthanasia of stray animals is not disturbing in itself, the sheer number of animals killed each year should be. According to the animal rights group PETA, “approximately 3 to 4 million cats and dogs—many of them healthy, young, and adoptable—must be euthanized in animal shelters every year.”

At first this may appear to have little to do with the throwaway ethic. But the striking part of it is the phrase “healthy, young, and adoptable.” Just like all the “perfectly good stuff” that goes to the dump, “healthy, young, and adoptable” animals are euthanized. The analogy becomes even more pointed when we realize that there’s actually plenty of demand for pets, just as there’s always demand for consumer goods: according to the American Humane Association, 17 million Americans acquire a new pet each year—or more than double the number of shelter animals.

The reason we “waste” so many animals is that most people choose to buy new rather than “used” pets. One animal adoption website explains, “The stigma that shelter pets have been stuck with for many years is that they are damaged goods [emphasis added].” And the American Humane Association blames this all in part on the fact that “many people consider pets to be disposable.” “Disposable”; “damaged goods”; “healthy, young, and adoptable”; all these phrases reflect the creeping of the throwaway ethic into aspects of our lives that have nothing to do with conventional consumerism.

Disposable humanity?

Although unrelated to world hunger or animal euthanasia, there’s one more incident worth mentioning here. In 2008, a Walmart employee was trampled to death by a mob of Black Friday shoppers too impatient to wait for the store to open. Is this, too, the throwaway ethic at work? Already, food and animals are disposable—will even human life become disposable?

In 1947, industrial designer and advertiser J. Gordon Lippincott dismissed fears about the consumer society’s damaging effects on human morality, predicting that the fast pace of materialism would instead improve national morals and increase our appreciation of fundamentals like security, family, faith, and love. Sixty-five years of the throwaway ethic have proven the exact opposite. The throwaway mentality has instead exacerbated costly and tragic trends like needless resource exploitation, food waste, and animal euthanasia, and threatens to degrade our society’s respect for human life itself.

The lesson here is that if we cannot contain the throwaway ethic, then we must do what we can to renounce it. And the good news is that, as I’ve discussed in some of my previous posts, we are already beginning to do so.

Addison Del Mastro is a student at Drew University and an intern with the Center for a New American Dream.

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Thank you Susan, I was thinking that exactly.

Posted by Selina at August 24, 2012 at 7:43am

Thanks for including pets in your article! I would really like to see decreased breeding of pets, so that the “scarcity” would make them more “valuable”. In other words, people would have to think harder about getting a pet, it would not be an impulse purchase at a mall.

Posted by Dr. Norton at August 23, 2012 at 8:15am

It seems human life is already disposable…“healthy, young, and adoptable” could also apply to the unborn babies aborted and thrown away every day in our American society.

Posted by Peggy at August 23, 2012 at 12:23am

Free Enterprise ceases to be progressive and free with the advent of guaranteed obsolescence , throw away tools and products of the Big Monopoly Corporations

Posted by brian at August 22, 2012 at 11:13am

Wish there was a share button so I could link this to facebook directly and share with my friends. No worries, I’ll do it by hand, but perhaps there are others who might not take the time? Great post. I would take it farther on the disposable humanity bit: the mentally ill, the imprisoned, the poor… we have many “throwaway” humans in our society, especially children, and that is inexcusable.

Posted by Rebeca at August 21, 2012 at 6:33pm

Yes, I remember that terrible event in 2008, and may we never forget.

“Already, food and animals are disposable—will even human life become disposable?”

Unfortunately it already is. How many babies were aborted this year, despite waiting lists over a year long for people desperately longing to adopt?

Posted by Susan at August 21, 2012 at 6:03pm

I think war better illustrates the ‘throw-away’ ethic of our society in terms of human life. In war, human life become disposable, whether that of the ‘enemy’ or the ‘ally’.

Corporate/institunional externalities also demonstrate this well; when the unwanted products of industrial activities are ‘thrown out’ into the wider environment, thus affecting the lives of others, often those whose lives are lived out of sight of the perpetrators, and whom are also perceived to be disposable. And yet often these externalities also affect ourselves. The rise of greenhouse gases, due to the activities of industry and those of the wider society in our use of vehicles and other sources polution, also signals a careless throw-away society, which will affect everyone and everything on the planet.

Posted by Andy at August 10, 2012 at 6:12am

Great blog entry. I absolutely despise the throwaway mentality (and consumerism and capitalism in general). I use things until they are unusable, and then I try to upcycle or at least recycle them. And I can’t have pets, but if I could, I would NEVER buy one. And food to me is something very valuable; I expend great effort to use everything before it expires and I use stuff past their expiration dates too.

I’m not doing anything to fix the problems with the throwaway mindset in others, but then again I don’t really know what I could do. Hopefully when people see my deliberate lifestyle, even if it doesn’t inspire change, it makes them see their habits a little more objectively.

Posted by Amanda at July 31, 2012 at 7:03pm


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