As this excellent article from City Journal reminds us.
“For half a century, it’s been a term of disdain: the “throwaway society,” uttered with disgust by the environmentally enlightened. But now that their reusable tote bags are taboo at grocery stores and Starbucks is refusing to refill their ceramic mugs, they’ve had to face some unpleasant realities. Disposable products aren’t merely more convenient than the alternative; they’re also safer, particularly during a pandemic but also at any other time. And they have other virtues: the throwaway society is healthier, cleaner, more economical, less wasteful, less environmentally damaging—and yes, more “sustainable” than the green vision of utopia.
“These are not new truths, even if it took the Covid-19 pandemic to reveal them again. The throwaway age began because of public-health campaigns a century ago to control the spread of pathogens. Disposable products were celebrated for decades for promoting hygiene and saving everyone time and money. It wasn’t until the 1970s that they became symbols of decadent excess, and then only because of economic and ecological fallacies repeated so often that they became conventional wisdom.
“In a strange turn of events, the most affluent society in history suddenly turned into a mass of neurotic hoarders. Sifting through garbage for valuables, an activity formerly associated with the most destitute inhabitants of Third World shantytowns, became a moral duty in American suburbs. Greens campaigned for “zero waste” and a “circular economy” in which disposable products would be outlawed. They confidently predicted that the throwaway society was doomed, but if they’d known anything about its history, they would have realized that it was created for very good reasons—and that it will endure long after their lamentations are forgotten.
“At the start of the twentieth century, American consumers were still living in what today’s greens would consider a state of grace. They carried their own baskets and cotton bags to the grocery store and brought home food wrapped in biodegradable paper. They didn’t use disposable towels in public bathrooms, which provided cloth towels attached to rollers. There were no Styrofoam cups for coffee and no plastic bottles of water. When people wanted water in a public place, they’d get it from the spigot of a drinking fountain by filling a tin cup chained to the fountain.
“This “common cup” was the ultimate reusable product—much to the horror of public-health experts, who blamed it for spreading tuberculosis, pneumonia, diphtheria, meningitis, and other diseases. Alvin Davison, a biologist at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, analyzed cups from public schools and reported in 1908 that a single sip from a student left a residue of 100 dead skin cells and 75,000 bacteria. He used the scrapings from one school cup to induce fatal cases of pneumonia and tuberculosis in guinea pigs.
“His article “Death in School Drinking Cups” provided support to “Ban the Cup” campaigns around the country. The first successful one was led in Kansas by Samuel Crumbine, a colorful doctor who had started his career in Dodge City (he was the model for Doc Adams in the long-running Gunsmoke television series) and went on to lead various public-hygiene crusades. The term “flyswatter” comes from a slogan he popularized, “Swat the fly” (which came to him while listening to the crowd at a baseball game urging a hitter to swat a sacrifice fly ball). After watching train passengers with tuberculosis and other diseases drinking water from a common cup, Crumbine got so upset that he threw the cup out the train’s window, and proceeded to persuade his colleagues on the state board of health to ban the common cup in trains, schools, and other public places in Kansas in 1909.
“The ban left Kansans with a new problem: What were they supposed to use at a public fountain? Fortunately, as Crumbine later recalled, “Necessity proved to be the mother of invention.” Shortly after banning the cup, Crumbine was visited by a former Kansan named Hugh Moore, who brought with him samples of a product that his brother-in-law had invented: round paper cups that could be stacked in a dispenser next to a fountain. Crumbine’s endorsement provided crucial help to Moore in selling his product, originally called Health Kups and later renamed Dixie Cups.
“It was the birth of the throwaway society, and Moore became its first great evangelist. He was an indefatigable promoter, and he wasn’t just selling cups. He had a genius for marketing fear. Later in life, he would launch another movement by publishing a pamphlet in 1954, “The Population Bomb” (a title later borrowed by Paul Ehrlich for a best-selling book) and founding the Population Crisis Committee. In 1910, Moore started a newspaper, The Cup Campaigner, filled with warnings from public-health experts and horror stories of respectable women and innocent children sickened by drinking from common cups. It was illustrated with cartoons showing unsavory-looking men sipping from metal cups and images of the Grim Reaper lurking at fountains.
“Soon, dozens of cities and states had banned the common cup, and Moore had plenty of customers, starting with the railroads. The Erie Lackawanna Railroad featured disposable cups in an advertisement that depicted a character named Phoebe Snow, dressed immaculately in white as she drank from a paper cup. The ad was a paean to disposability:
On railroad trips
No other lips
Have touched the cup
That Phoebe sips.
“Sales of disposable cups soared during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, a tragedy evoked long afterward in Dixie Cup ads with warnings like, “Now’s no time to flirt with Contagion!” The company expanded into making paper cups for ice cream and milkshakes, promoted with the slogan “Used but once and thrown away”—in hygienic contrast to the dirty glass from a soda fountain pictured in a 1930s ad with the headline “This Tainted Kiss Awaits Your Lips.”
Retrieved September 17, 2021 from Let’s Hold On to the Throwaway Society | City Journal (city-journal.org)