Toddlers learning to use the toilet used to wear cotton “training pants” that were just like underpants but made of thicker material. Now, nearly every supermarket sells synthetic disposable “pants” intended to give kids the ego boost of wearing a new type of undergarment, while still providing all the functionality of disposable diapers. These products brag about how much they resemble real cloth underwear, and the fact that they absorb far more liquid than underwear is presented as a selling point. Kids get to feel that they’re dressed just like grownups, without having to learn bladder and bowel control–what a great idea!
These disposable pants come in sizes for preschoolers, because many kids “need” them for a long time. They’re designed to feel dry and resist leakage, so kids remain unaware of the consequences of not getting to the bathroom in time. The ads imply that it’s good for self-esteem to “feel like a big kid” and avoid the embarrassment of wet pants–but what about the self-esteem that comes from learning a new skill? The transition to using a new product is marketed as equivalent to achieving a new accomplishment. “To you, they are underwear!” chirps one ad for disposable pants. To this generation of parents, buying a slightly different model of expensive disposable product is toilet training.
Each generation is told by the consumer culture that new products offer a better life for our children, and we take their word for it: We raise children who may never in their lives use durable items like those that were staples of everyday life for generations. Most disposable products are not innovations but replacements for higher-quality, durable items.
We think those older products are quaint at best, and in many cases we consider them laughably primitive. Putting a clean cloth handkerchief into your pocket every morning, blowing your nose into it all day long, and then laundering it to use again–that sounds like an idea that goes along with silent movies and high-button shoes! We don’t want to do that when we could be blowing our noses on handfuls of disposable paper tissues, do we?
Have you ever tried it?
To you (if you’re like most Americans born since 1950 or so) paper tissues are handkerchiefs–they’re the thing to use when your nose is running. Milk bottles are made of plastic, and you might recycle them, but you certainly wouldn’t send them back to be washed and filled with fresh milk, and buy milk in bottles previously used by strangers–ewww, gross! Flour sacks are paper and–if you can keep them from falling apart until you’ve used all the flour–have no further utility; you’d never think to dry your dishes with them.
Many disposable products are not as good as their durable ancestors. Some cause rashes, odors, or other effects that the manufacturers tell us can be remedied by buying another product. Some become disgusting or useless after only brief use, so that we need several of them to get through a day. Others become unsanitary long before they become useless, encouraging poor hygiene that threatens our health. Most cost less per item than the durable alternative but cost much more per use. All are damaging our environment.
The main idea driving our desire to use disposables is disgust with ordinary life processes. To a certain extent, this disgust is healthy and natural–most people find handling feces unpleasant, for instance, and that helps to protect us from fecal bacteria that can make us sick. However, the human immune system needs to be exposed to low levels of hazards in order to develop properly. The consumer culture urges us to feel revolted by natural processes so that we will buy more and more products to distance ourselves from ourselves. (Then, when we notice that we feel distant and self-loathing, we’ll buy something else to cheer us up.) We detach from the experiences of real life, accepting instead the constant stress of earning enough money to buy the ever-increasing amount of stuff we “need”.
To one generation, disposable diapers are diapers. To the next, disposable training pants are underwear. Now marketers are trying to convince us that disposable wet-wipes are cleaning cloths, that disposable plastic trays are pet litter-boxes, that single-serving plastic bowls are elegant dinnerware, and on and on and on. They want us to think that when something has been used once, it is dirty and needs to be thrown away for our own safety. Manufacturers love disposable products because they’re cheap to produce but bring in a lot of money, because consumers constantly have to buy new ones.
Consumer culture is cursing us with mountains of garbage that cost billions of dollars to create and that threaten serious health risks in the future. It is burdening us with “needs” for purchases that many of us can’t afford without working ourselves into misery. It is telling us to our faces that it’s giving us everything we need to be happy, while whispering from behind that we are such repellent creatures that everything we’ve touched is ruined.