Jean Barker

Trash culture USA

2012-07-06 12:26

Jean Barker

The first thing I bought when I arrived in the USA was a coffee mug. I couldn't get used to the taste of that polystyrene cup that the motel provided. Every motel guest used a polystyrene cup every time they had cup of coffee, and tossed away plastic water “glasses”, plastic plates, bowls, spoons, forks and knives... giving birth to a few big black bags of non-recyclable polluting garbage every day after every breakfast.

Weird. Why? Didn't America have dishwashing liquid? At first, I assumed this waste just occurred in motels, and maybe just in that motel - where I also experienced a thrilling epidemic of bed bugs.

But I soon realised it was everywhere. At eat-in restaurants, everything is served in takeaway containers to be tossed after you're done, leaving only the plastic tray it came in. Even sit-down coffee at Starbucks is served in a paper cup, unless you request otherwise.  A plastic reusable plate starts to feel like silver service, even when the cutlery is straight off a plane.

This routine waste scared me at first. But what's really frightening is how, after a while, it stopped scaring me and came to seem completely normal. Until, that is, I spent a bit of time back home in South Africa. Suddenly the default (at restaurants that cost less to eat at than a US burger joint) was a real plate, a real knife, a real glass! It took me a while to get used to it.

Obsession with sanitation

Someone finally explained it. A friend who worked in an American hotel had a run-in with a customer who called the front desk to demand a “clean” water glass. She went and checked the room because she was sure she'd provided this that morning. She found that the clean water glass she'd left there was still there, untouched. She queried the query and was told that the customer was asking for a plastic water glass, sealed in a plastic bag as proof that it hadn't ever been used by anyone else.

I guess this also explains why Americans feel it necessary to cover their toilet seats with a piece of paper before sitting down. No, of course, it's not much cleaner. But someone found a gap in the market when they noticed the US obsession with sanitation – as opposed to true cleanliness.

Many Americans disinfect their hands as they walk into buildings, wipe down their shopping trolleys with little baby wipes, drink only purified bottled water although their tap water is fine, avoid eating or drinking products from “dirty” places like Mexico. Then, New York fills ships with garbage and sinks it at sea. And it's not hard to see where all this pollution comes from.

It's not just where you eat out, but where you live, too.

Each week, my entire mailbox fills to the brim with junk-mail delivered by the US postal services from everyone from greener-than-thou Trader Joe's (spot the irony?) to takeaway places, to credit card companies, to direct mailers who address me as “valued customer” or “resident of...” - all delivered by the postal services, legally, whether I consent to it or not. I'm told that taking their junk back to them and dumping it in their stores will get me arrested. These companies pay lip service to recycling in store – even having the bald-assed cheek to ask you to buy reusable bags and save napkins. But if it's going to cost them? Then forget it.

They're just human

I'm getting used to it again. It becomes normal very quickly, mostly because it's easier. You want to leave with your food? You already have your doggy bag. Americans aren't bad people. They're just human – and therefore as paranoid, selfish and lazy as the rest of us. The problem is that this culture of use-and-toss is not just filthying up the planet, but also partly responsible for increasing the US's use of power and transport, pushing their oil use up to the insane figure of 1000 gallons per average American per year.

Most of this is swallowed up in commercial, not private, transport of goods for consumption. The result? Thinly veiled excuses for foreign wars for oil, pollution so bad that my balcony is covered in black grime within a few days – and rising gas prices in a country dependent on cars for transport over huge distances.

And South Africa, which is increasingly embracing the double standards of the global market, needs to guard against this kind of unsustainable pandering to “convenience”. Waste may be cheaper in the short term, but it isn't free in the long run.

Besides which, doesn't food taste better off a plate? Doesn't your drink taste better in a glass? Mine does.

- Jean is a screenwriting/directing dual MFA student in California, USA. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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