- Politics and Social Issues
What does convenience cost? A look at convenience foods and waste disposal
I remember my maternal grandmother's washing machine. She filled it with hot water from a hose, added the clothing and the detergent, and started the agitator. When that had worked long enough, she ran the wet and soapy clothes through a wringer into a tub of rinse water. Then, of course, she had to use the wringer again before she could hang the clothes on the line to dry.
Think of it! A washing machine with no spin cycle or rinse cycle! But it must have seemed like a luxurious blessing when she got it--probably some time in the 1920s. Just imagine what her grandmother had to go through to do her laundry. By the first time I ever saw that machine, everyone else I knew had newer, fancier ones. She must have figured that the convenience of a fancier washer wasn't worth the money.
As it turns out, there was a cost to the convenience of any kind of washing machine that no one knew about until maybe the 1970s. They worked so much better than earlier means of washing clothes because of another modern convenience: detergent. Unfortunately, the phosphates in the detergent caused algae blooms. The algae produced toxins that killed lots of fish and some people. They also increased water treatment costs, and even so, the water tasted and smelled bad.
Nowadays, not many of us can remember a time before so many of the conveniences we all take for granted became common. It's time to look at what they cost. I will concentrate on various convenience foods from the time we buy them to the time we dispose of leftovers, packaging, etc.
Convenience foods at the grocery store
Grocery stores sell two major kinds of convenience foods, which we can call prepared ingredients and prepared meals. Prepared ingredients, usually found in the produce department, include things like bagged lettuce, peeled baby carrots, apple slices, etc. The meat department also has such items as packages of boneless chicken breasts or stew meat.
With prepared meals, all or nearly all of the food preparation has been done at a factory somewhere. All we need do is heat it up. The old TV dinners were the first prepared meals. Now instead of heating individual servings in the oven, we can more quickly heat them in the microwave.
We can also get frozen casserole-like dishes to heat up in a skillet to feed two people or enough frozen lasagna, etc., to feed a family of six. Prepared meals also come in cans, some with enough for one serving and some with more.
Lots of stuff also comes in boxes: Hamburger Helper™ and pancake mixes, for example. These are not really as convenient as they seem. In the time it takes mix everything up and prepare it, you could have made something similar from scratch. Pancake mixes, in particular, offer no advantages to anyone.
These convenience foods may or may not cost more money than it would to make the same dish from scratch. As a percentage of household income, they probably all cost less than a home cooked meal did 50 or 60 years ago. The earliest TV dinners tasted just awful, but today's are much better. We no longer have to give up taste for convenience.
There are, however, nutritional, energy, and environmental costs. Fresh produce begins to lose nutrients as soon as it is cut. That bag of shredded cole slaw has fewer vitamins and other nutrients that a fresh head of cabbage shredded immediately before serving it.
More serious, packaged, prepared ingredients usually come from a large factory where produce from numerous different farms is mixed together. The past several years have seen massive recalls of these products. It is nearly impossible to find whether the problem originated at one of the farms or at the factory itself. Chances are most of the recalled packages are wholesome, but there is no economical way to determine which few are contaminated.
The nutritional costs of prepared foods differ somewhat. They all contain far more sugar, fat, and salt than any home cook would use to prepare a similar dish. The food industry has worked hard to prepare the tastiest dishes they can in order to encourage consumers to buy them again and again.
Unfortunately, it turns out that the high concentration of sugar, fat, and salt is addictive. It is directly related to our current epidemics of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc.
Manufacturers use machines instead of human power for such tasks as cutting, mixing, stirring, or moving ingredients and finished products from one place to another. Therefore, they consume much more energy than home cooks and add to the carbon footprint of everyone who uses them.
Manufactured food also has energy costs associated with packaging, storing, and transporting it that the home cook does not have. I am well aware that our produce may come great distances from the farm to the grocery store. It thus comes with its own storage and transportation costs, but not manufacturing and packaging costs.
The convenience of the drive-through
Cooking, even cooking from scratch, has become so much more convenient over the past century that it is truly ironic that people eat out so much. Restaurant foods (not just fast food restaurants) and foods for takeout or delivery have the same nutritional costs as prepared meals from the store. They have similar manufacturing and transportation costs.
Over the past several years, however, a new convenience has arisen. Now we can get food on the way home from work without ever leaving our cars. Of course, most of our cars run on gasoline. When the line at the drive-through gets long, most of the cars in line still keep their engines running. How much more gasoline does it take for a dozen cars to work their way through the line than if all the drivers parked and went into the store?
As those dozen cars idle in the drive-through, the gasoline costs more than just money. We buy most of our oil from countries that do not share much of our values. I won't belabor the geopolitical costs and world instability.
All that idling and inching forward has costs in terms of air pollution and its health effects on everyone that spends much time in or around the lines. Not only do people have to breathe the exhaust, but they burn fewer calories than they would simply by parking and standing in the line indoors.
Occasionally, drive-through lines get longer than restaurant's property can accommodate. The end of the line extends out into the street, partially blocking traffic. Perhaps that is part of the reason why so many chains occasionally tear down their stores and rebuild them. The drive-throughs at those stores therefore bear some of the costs of finding landfill space for all the construction rubble.
The convenience of not separating garbage
I have not yet said anything about the cost of disposing of leftovers, along with all the extra packaging and utensils associated with convenience foods. It's much worse now than it would have been without a convenience that became common in the 1960s.
When I was a child, our household disposed of three distinct waste streams. My mother wrapped all of the food waste (wet garbage) in newspapers and put it in a garbage can by the garage. All the cans, bottles, jars, broken toys, and other non-wet garbage went into a different trash can. Different companies hauled off the two different kinds of waste and disposed of them in different ways and places. Meanwhile, my job was to collect all the wastepaper and burn it in the back yard.
I suppose that was fairly common all over the country. According to my research so far, Los Angeles County, California, outlawed backyard incineration in 1957. Thereafter, households had to deal not with two, but three companies to dispose of their trash.
Sam Yorty became Los Angeles mayor in 1961, running partly on a campaign to eliminate separating trash. According to his plan, households would commingle wet garbage, trash, and wastepaper in a single receptacle and a single company would haul it to the landfill.
Being an eighth grader living in Ohio, I knew nothing about that. I still don't know how much influence Yorty had when my own hometown adopted the practice of a single collection of commingled solid wastes. But I do know that before the end of the 1960s the environmental movement began, culminating in the first Earth Day in 1970.
At about the same time, recycling became a mainstream idea, but because of the new convenience of not having to separate garbage, it took much longer to become a mainstream practice. In fact, a high percentage of recyclables still go to the landfill.
The wet garbage creates a bad smell and attracts vermin. It would be much worse if the practice of sanitary landfills had not displaced the old dump. If we were still separating wet from dry garbage in this country, we could easily compost wet garbage, or burn it as fuel for generating electricity.
It would be comparatively easy to separate out all recyclable glass, metal, paper, and plastic at the landfill, meaning it would not require household by household participation. The landfill would not stink and would not attract vermin. The cost of this convenience? Today's landfills require expensive leachate collection systems and top covering with a quantity of dirt that lowers its capacity to receive trash.
Without the wet garbage, therefore, landfills would not fill up as fast as they do. The geological constraints on siting a new one would be less stringent, and opening a new landfill would probably be much less controversial. As it is, many municipalities must build transfer stations and then haul trash to a distant landfill, wasting lots of extra gasoline.
Thank you so much, Sam Yorty, for your time-saving idea. And of course, without all the extra packaging and energy required for convenience foods and drive-throughs, we could be less dependent on foreign oil in addition to having less of a problem with waste disposal.
I am not advocating that we give up all our modern convenience. There are some conveniences I still want even knowing what I have discovered for this article. Someone else might prefer different ones. But as a society, we can much more easily find a consensus on what conveniences are worth keeping and which can go away when we understand how much they cost.