We Need to Dispose of the Word Disposable

I’ve often written here [1, 2, 3, 4] about how word choices can affect how we see things. Problematic connotations can sometimes arise by stigma and sometimes by subtle associations. A classic environmental example is how we refer to global warming. In the 90s, the Republican strategist Frank Luntz encouraged rebranding it as climate change because it seemed less frightening and would therefore make it less of an issue. (The irony is that it’s actually a more accurate term. But because it minimizes perception of the problem, as Luntz desired, many of us prefer to call it something more emphatic like climate disruption.)

In a similar vein, years ago, before the advent of LED lights, when improved fluorescent lights were the most energy-efficient technology, I wrote in a guest column in a lighting industry magazine that the word “fluorescent” had too many negative associations with its older, uglier versions. So, to get people to come around to the newer, more pleasing fluorescent bulbs, I wrote that they needed to be renamed.

The impetus for this current thought about words that can have misleading connotations occurred as I was sitting in a waiting room that had a coffee station. In need of caffeine – I had forgotten my coffee travel mug – I grabbed a cup. As I finished making my fix, I looked at the counter and saw the disposable Styrofoam cup, the disposable “K-cup” coffee pod and the tiny – you guessed it, disposable – milk container. My “garbage guilt” set in.

Those little ketchup squeeze tubes are another pet peeve. My order of fries inevitable needs a half dozen or more of them. They make a messy pile of garbage that can be neither recycled or composted. Plus they get all over your hands. They’re a rare example of something both disposable and inconvenient.

The litter atop that coffee station caused me to ponder the word “disposable.” For many people, disposability connotes convenience (finger-coating Ketchup pouches aside). You don’t have to bring stuff – containers, utensils, plastic bags – with you and you don’t have to worry about cleaning or taking care of them. Just toss it. No problem. Disposability is seen as a positive thing, reinforced by the “able” suffix.

The word makes the use of disposable things and the resulting garbage seem OK. They’re meant to be guiltlessly thrown away because that’s how they’re designed and perceived.

When I advocated for renaming fluorescent bulbs, I couldn’t come up with a replacement term. I’d like to do better here, especially as single-use plastics are being increasingly recognized as a major problem. (The issue is being addressed in part by bans and fees – see my “Status of Plastic Bans” list – but even then, there’s pushback by both users and producers.)

So, how can we retitle disposability? My first thought was an obvious one. Just call it what it is: “landfill.” But that doesn’t work as an adjective in front of “cups” or “bags” (or with the current fixation on straws).

Next, I attempted to channel Stephen Colbert’s coining of “truthiness” with “disposiness.” But I’m not as clever as Colbert and it didn’t feel like it solved the problem.  There was, though, some, er, truth to it as the garbage never really gets disposed of. It’s still here, just relocated. When we throw things away, there is, as Bill McDonough is fond of saying, no “away.”

I’ve concluded that our new term needs to have that suffix “able” in it, but with a prefix that drives the point home. Garbagable? Trashable? Wastable? They still imply, though, that because something has the ability to be thrown out – e.g. it’s trashable – it’s OK. The word needs to communicate that single-use stuff that doesn’t decompose or effectively recycle is NOT okay. It’s wasteful and it’s a problem so it needs to be discouraged. But I don’t usually advocate for guilting people into environmental action. That’s been repeatedly shown to not work. Better to play upon self-interest and desire. “Wasteful” (I rejected “wastable” even though I like creating new words) heads in the right direction – who wants to be wasteful? – but still doesn’t quite get us there.

We need to somehow say you really don’t want to do this. Not an admonishment that you shouldn’t do it.  And it needs to be “sticky,” meaning the word will attach itself to the item the way disposable does.

I’m reluctantly left for the moment with “garbagy.” But it still doesn’t fully meet my criteria. Plus, the English language being what it is, you wouldn’t be sure how to spell or pronounce it.

Maybe I should ask Colbert.

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