I start the new year with a reflection about something most of us use every day and we don’t give a second thought to it.  I don’t object to whiter teeth or reduced halitosis, because those are good things for us socially and personally.  But the lowly toothpaste tube is emblematic of a subtle disease that has crept into our collective thinking unawares.

In the early days of toothpaste in the old lead-tin tubes (yes, before plastic and the FDA, lead was used to provide a flexible and malleable container – it took a metal shortage in WWII to get the lead out) the nozzle on the tube was about half the diameter of today’s tubes.  Consumers used far less toothpaste to brush their teeth because, for practical reasons, the brush sizes were about the same, so a smaller diameter but same length squeeze of toothpaste meant that consumers must have used less of it back then.  (I have no scholarly data to back this up other than the size of the original nozzles).

At some point, a marketing wizard figured out that you could increase the nozzle size and thereby increase consumption of the product.  Sales would go up instantly by the nozzle diameter relative increase.  With no training of the consumer as to how much was actually needed, it was a windfall for the toothpaste manufacturers.  I watched one Sunday after church when someone preparing to do the dishes squirted a long squirt of concentrated dish detergent onto the cleaning pad for handling a small bus tub of dishes.  Later, I repeated the experiment by making the same size squirt visually on a plastic plate and measuring it back in my lab.  15 grams or half an ounce of detergent went onto that cleaning pad.  In my quick review of reasonable web sources, 1-2 grams for a sink full of dishes is all you need.  Do the math on this problem.  If every US household uses an additional 12 grams of detergent per day, 12 grams * 200,000,000 * 365 = 876,000 TONS of unnecessary dish detergent down the drain into our waterways every year! (metric tons are 10% bigger than US tons.  It doesn’t matter for this estimate.)  I am not writing this to pillory the marketing wizards who figured out how to make more money by duping the consumers.  I just want us to consider the dangerous thinking underneath these things that “more is better.”  Questions I ask myself are related to this thinking.  “Do I really need a bigger house, newer car, more expensive vacations, or all the socially acknowledged trappings of success?”  We are almost programmed by our culture to recognize bigger and more as signs of success, of dominance, of better, or of importance.  When does the spiral of more come to an end? What if we changed our thinking?  What if we changed our criteria from “more” to “enough”?  Could we admire and praise each other for living well with enough?  Our needs are met, what is the purpose of having or using so much more than we need?  I wonder if shifting our thinking from “more” to “enough” could be a sign of gratitude and humility?  Could living with enough be a matter of stewardship of the things we DO have?  Do I need to be duped by toothpaste tube nozzle sizes, detergent squirters and all the unseen forces of our culture into believing that I must use far more than I need?  I conclude with the Jewish “Shehechiyanu blessing prayer” – Blessed are You Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe who has given us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this day.  (because you have given us more than we need)  Amen