Case study: the luffa

Luffa (also spelled “loofah”) is a genus of plants in the cucumber family. The fruit they produce (which is technically a berry), when harvested early, is a squash-like vegetable used in the cuisines of several parts of Asia, including India and China. However, when the vegetable is allowed to fully ripen and dry on the vine, its tough fibrous “skeleton” can be harvested and used as a natural scrubbing sponge in the shower or kitchen.

Luffa is a renewable resource, and can be grown in a range of climates. But when I go shopping for a bathroom scrubbing sponge in the US (even at natural food stores that carry bath and cosmetic goods) it’s impossible to find them for sale. Instead, I find rack upon rack of plastic mesh “shower poufs” (sometimes sold as “shower puffs” or even, confusingly, “loofahs”).

These plastic poufs are strictly worse for the environment. They are made from petroleum, and produced abroad to be shipped here and sold. After a few months of use, they start to unravel, and at this point, a small fraction of each one goes down the drain to ultimately pollute the hydrosphere as microplastics. Eventually the remainder of each pouf will wind up in a landfill, where it will last for centuries.

Defenders of the status quo would argue that “consumer choice” has led to this state of affairs. If people were buying luffa sponges more often than plastic poufs, they argue, then there would be more of the former and fewer of the latter. But this argument doesn’t hold water when I don’t have the choice to buy my preferred product in stores, and a shrinking number of firms control the majority of retail sales.

It’s curious that these poufs — and their natural, biodegradable replacement — escaped the plastic straw ban discourse in the late 2010s. Certainly, there’s no conspiracy behind this. Rather, we live under a system that incentivizes some behaviors, such as oil extraction and sending production abroad (to places with cheaper labor and lax regulations) at the expense of others, such as encouraging the use of renewable materials and localizing production (to reduce the carbon cost of transporting goods). The plastic pollution and landfill waste are the fault of this system, not consumer choice.