Laws and Packaging | A Stranger Reflects on American Life 2


[ Laws and Packaging 1 ]

I am a stranger in the US. But, as Georg Simmell says, perhaps strangers can offer insights that natives can’t see. Not that these things aren’t also problems in the UK. But that’s for some other stranger to point out.

The first thing that’s hit me each time I’ve come here is the huge number of laws. Everything is ‘legalised.’ The second thing is the packaging.

I go for breakfast. I am eating in. But still my sandwich has to be wrapped in paper, then in foil, then in more paper, and put in a bag, on a plastic plate on a tray with a paper-slip cover, with plastic cutlery in a cellophane wrapper. In the hotel room I stayed in on the first night the glasses were covered in pieces of paper, each thing given it’s packaging, it’s protective cover.

The waste is one thing: it’s monumental. But I don’t think that this is simply a case of indulgent waste – we can so we do. Instead, I think the obsession with packaging is about dirt. Wrapping everything up in plastic and paper, layer after layer, is a way of assuring people that what they are touching is clean, has not been sullied by an-other. Disposing of it straight away is not simply about convenience – it means that each thing we use/touch is new. Not washed by someone we don’t trust in a kitchen we can’t see – but new.

And I think that this is what connects these two excesses. Both the huge layers of laws and the endless layers of packaging point to a deep fear of dirt. And I’ll summarise what I think that points to in one last post.


4 responses to “Laws and Packaging | A Stranger Reflects on American Life 2”

  1. barry taylor

    Sorry, we didn’t make it to NY, it was too long a journey for too short of an occasion–next time. I completely agree with you regarding the last two posts. Having lived here for a long time I am still surprised by the deep legalism that permeates the culture–this is a country built on the ‘law,’ points of law are everything–supreme court etc.– hence the continual recourse to lawyers for everything and the proliferation of ambulance-chasing lawyer ads on telly!!
    And I do think that the packaging points to the very thing you speak of–an almost manic obsession with cleanliness, which I think is more about a fear of dirt than anything else–by that I mean I think the American psyche is so afraid of being ‘dirty’ that they resort to cleanliness, not for cleanliness sake, bit convoluted but I hope you know what I mean. Perhaps this finds it’s way back to the Puritan roots of the society, I don’t know, that might be too easy of a link, but something in the formation of the American soul orients things this way. The ocd tendencies towards cleanliness–the products–the bathroom signs in restaurants about washing hands–of course, but it always feels a bit manic–like the employees cannot be trusted once they have been told…don’t want to rag but wanted to say that as someone who lives on the ‘inside’ but remains somewhat of an outsider I resonate completely with what you are saying–B

  2. I totally agree with you, although it’s interesting to note that the first time I went into a UK supermarket I was appalled at the excess packaging. Never before in my life had I seen a single cucumber shrink wrapped in plastic!

  3. I hear you – and I agree with Kari as well. Supermarket shopping with my cousin in Oxford this past summer was an eye opener. I also remember grabbing a bite at a London Supermarket at a supposed organic shop and was surprised at how plastic the packaging was. Somehow I expected it to be more eco-friendly.

    BTW-NYC is starting to embrace the slow food movement with a number of greenmarket options starting to open up. There are some unpackageable options here but you do need a guide to show you around.

    Some buddies of mine from Radical Living NYC, an intentional living community in Brooklyn are hosting a free social justice email screening tomorrow night. Email me at if you want to come and need more info. and directions.

  4. i ate dirt as a young lad and tho im far from normal im certain it had nothing at all to do with the dirt.