September 8th, 2017

The inconvenient truth about convenience

4 minute read

by Dominic Hogg


I recently chaired a session alongside the United Nations Oceans Conference in New York. It was the first time I’d been to the United Nations Headquarters, and the array of speakers, the diversity of representation and the passion for the subject was impressive.

Rather less impressive, though, was the building’s canteen. I was shocked to find that, unless you had the foresight to bring your own cup, plate and cutlery, it was nigh-on impossible to consume anything without using disposable items. That seemed especially wasteful, as it was forbidden to take your food outside to eat on the main plaza at the front of the building. So the vast majority – possibly all – of the disposables were used simply to move food few yards from till to table.


UN-conventional approach

Why? It wasn’t as through the café was lacking for space! It would have been simple to install a dishwasher somewhere in the building, which would have allowed reusable plates, cups, cutlery and spoons to be used. (And by the way, can anyone resolve the mystery of who invented the coffee ‘stirrer’? He or she, along with the creator of the plastic swizzle stick, belongs in the waste prevention hall of infamy).

It wasn’t just a problem at the UN building. It turns out that you can search a long time for a place in New York where you can get a relatively swift lunch without being bombarded with packaging. When Sarah Edwards, head of our New York office, and I actually found one, we all but jumped for joy. It was as if we’d pulled a reusable needle out from a haystack of disposables.


Pic: UN Headquarters

UN-convenient: despite the sustainable development goals, the attraction of convenient, disposable food packaging seems undiminished. Photo: Ashitaka San (CC BY-NC 2.0), via Flickr.


I’ve noticed something slightly odd, too, about some of the food outlets in Europe that make claims for their sustainability, and certainly seem to do really good fresh food. They are disproportionately keen to serve you whatever delicious food you choose in disposable packaging, even if you want to eat in. Whether it’s Friska in Bristol, or Exki in Brussels: the food may be ‘sustainable’ but it represents manifestly unsustainable consumption in other ways. What’s their excuse?


Own goals

Just as importantly, what is the excuse of the UK and US governments for allowing the unfettered use of disposables in their countries’ foodservice industries? Both have adopted the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The targets set under Goal 12, on Responsible Consumption and Production, includes the following target:

“By 2030, substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse”

OK – it’s a slightly confused target. Recycling can’t be said to reduce waste generation, but I get the rest of it. It’s obvious, I think, that using disposables instead of reusable items is not going to help us meet this goal. It seems bizarre, therefore, that the UN itself should be choosing to use disposables in its café!

Further, Goal 14, on Life Below Water, seeks to protect the marine environment. Its targets include:

“By 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution”

Well, we know that single trip and disposable items are a significant contributor to terrestrial litter, and that terrestrial litter begets marine litter. The widespread use of disposable plastics when these are obviously not necessary (and there is an interesting debate to be had about when they might be) is not going to help us in the quest to meet these goals.


Convenient fiction

At the heart of much of this is our desire for convenience. The explosion in the growth in consumption of plastics, especially as a form of packaging, has gone hand in hand with a change in the way our society looks to be fed. Now that we’re all ‘leading busy lives’, we want our food fast, and to consume it on the go. All too often, that means food that is pre-packaged, and which comes with all of the necessary equipment to eat it without mess. Apparently, we have so little time that we have to make use of disposable stuff.

In short, ‘it’s for convenience’ has become a justification for why things are as they are. What, though, is the price of convenience? What is the cost of meeting our expectation that anything we want should be available whenever we want it? And can we really justify trashing the land, beaches and oceans by appealing to the fact that ‘we’re busy’, or that ‘it was convenient’?

The SDG targets do not end with the rider ‘only insofar as it’s convenient to do so’. If they did, they would be pointless and meaningless. Instead, they are a reminder that there must come a point when the inconvenient truth about the iniquitous and profligate waste of resources, and the state of the terrestrial and marine environment, trumps the convenience of consumption.


Dominic Hogg


Pic: Dominic Hogg


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Paul Dumble

Dominic. Agreed the waste SDGs are a bit confusing. Waste touches almost every single one of the SDG’s as I am sure will be revealed in future UN documents. As for the UN canteen – it really needs to demonstrate practices are consistent or compliant with UN policies. I’ll leave it that.