A plastic culture of convenience

Credit: stvcr. Flickr.

Consumption, in the mind of man, begins with desire and ends with fulfillment writes Gabriella Morris. In the social psyche, waste is merely a by-product of this equation. Plastic, then, is not only detrimental to the earth because of the toxins that it emits, but its perceived irrelevance to immediate gratification.

The multitude of our snacks, beauty products, vegetables, the resources that inhabit our daily life, are all housed in this common artificiality, plastic. The fact that these polymers are polluting oceans and possibly our health is not unknown. But, it doesn’t tessellate with our social beliefs that, in our daily worlds, take precedent. It seems contradictory to our biological evolution, that the various threats to our future are absorbed so willingly into our lifestyles, so, the questions remains, why?

In Western philosophy, concepts are thought of as entire. Ideas of failure and success are presented as antithesis. Right and wrong are in opposition to one another, and not accepted as being of the same hue. But if we look to concepts in Eastern philosophy, that of partial realities, and the ‘mutual arising’ of the yin and yang, this can give us an insight into how and why our thought patterns have developed in this way. The rationality that governs our intelligence, is of the same grain that ignores threats to our environment, our species. Nowhere is this more evident than in our unrelenting use of plastic. Despite the access to photos of the ocean seeping with plastic, the associated symbolism of wastefulness and unsustainable progression,  has yet to penetrate the overriding principle that adorns our immediate worlds, convenience.


A feature of working culture in consumer societies, is the elective decision that there is a ‘lack of time’. At lunch break, the frantic chaos in urban environments seduces us to the mediocre sandwiches of chains like Pret. Their packaged products signify a disposability and beacon of convenience, we think we need to fit into our schedules. In an inefficient working culture, people are expected to work longer hours, not only as a mark of prowess, but of durability. This not only makes the work itself less efficient, but allows the rife decoration of unnecessary packaging an established position in working life. It is a social and economic action, to deliberately compress time in this way, which limits our ability to make mindful, considered decisions about what to consume. This is a value of culture, and not of ecological ignorance, that deems the overflowing recycling bins at the end of the working day, an almost certain reality. We choose the lack of time, which anticipates a lack of resources in the future.


In no other country have I witnessed such prolific use of plastic than in Japan. All kinds of fruit, including bananas and oranges, are individually wrapped in plastic. The biodegradable skin of natural fruit appears an insufficient substitute for artificiality. Whilst teaching there, I asked one of my students why this occurs, and she replied, ‘dirty’. Cleanliness is a value steeped in Japanese tradition. Emanating from beliefs in Shinto religion, cleanliness is associated with an esteemed level of spiritual ‘goodness’. As with our value of convenience, these beliefs are prioritized over the wastefulness they engender.

These beliefs, however, do not render our use of plastic inevitable. We can take what we’ve learnt from Eastern philosophy, to see that even our negative beliefs have the capacity for goodness. Such human qualities have the capability to manufacture a more sustainable future. Within the Japanese values of cleanliness and presentation, is an overarching sense of mildness and consideration, that respects the spirits of animals and humans.  It is the sense of vitality, gained from work in many Western, developed nations, that not only values convenience but innovation and growth. These ideals can craft an innovative future for the environment, where the parameters of plastic, are but a latent dream.

About Gabriella Morris

Gabriella is a researcher and Anthropologist at Captioning Culture.