Friday, October 17, 2008

Wastelands—and Seas

Two or three problems affect nearly everyone in the developed world—and some of the nations that are not considered “developed.”  First on the list is what some people have called “built-in obsolescence.”  Immediately I think of the number of television sets in the average American home.  We started out with a TV that had tubes of all sizes and shapes.  It had a nice wooden cabinet that eventually became a decent looking bookcase after the tubes all went south.  And yes, those glass tubes were hauled off to a landfill somewhere, but some of the little tubes had been replaced two or three times before we finally had to give it up.

Since that first TV, everything that has even remotely resembled a TV around here has been made almost entirely of plastics and some kind of solid state gizmos.  Replacement parts are non-existent.  When something goes out, the entire TV might as well be thrown out.  And in February, anyone who has one of the non-digital types will have to get either a converter or a different kind of TV in order to watch the local news.  And this is called progress.

Once I read a short story about some civilization called Consumer.  In that story, everyone who was patriotic had to consume as much as possible in every product line in order to maintain a strong economy.  Does this sound familiar?  If we are given a tax cut, we are expected to invest our “excess” money or buy something.  We are given a tax rebate from our own money and are expected to help stimulate the economy.

Now, let’s think again about that “built-in obsolescence” idea.  My parents bought a Whirlpool hot water heater nearly a year ago.  The plumber told them that if something went wrong with it, they would just have to trash it and buy another one.  Well, something went wrong, of course.  But the parents grew up with the motto of “waste not, want not.”  They came from a long line of men and women who knew how to make everything serve twice.  In fact, on one of my chairs is a quilt that was pieced by Dad’s grandmother.  The entire quilt is made from pieces of flour sacks pieced together with those little cloth tobacco sacks that her husband bought when he rolled his own cigarettes.  Anyway, Dad bought a thermo-coupling from Sutherland’s and repaired the hot water heater.

The American Water Heater Company does not have to be overly concerned about very many little 82-year-old men repairing their water heaters, so they will undoubtedly continue to put out a product that may or may not last a year—despite the six year limited warranty.  And whoever comes out with the next line of TVs, computers, or laptops will just continue to crank out the latest and greatest without a thought of what will happen to the replaced product.

We ALL have a stake in what happens to our world—both now and later.  Right now we are each contributing to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  That four dollar watch picked up for little Susie at Wal-Mart comes in a plastic box, and the pretty plastic bow strings to decorate the package will looked nice tucked under the wing of an albatross.  However, the nice fish that eat near the garbage patch will ingest a certain amount of plastics that are broken down into the smallest particles of plastic.  If that fish is caught and taken to market, Susie’s plastic bow ends up on our plates and in our end of the food chain.

Once upon a time I rebelled at buying wrapping paper for a wedding shower gift and decided to be “different.”  The gifts I gave were a bath towel, four matching wash cloths, a hand towel, and some wooden kitchen utensils.  Folded, the bath towel made a “vase.”  The hand towel made the “bow” around the “vase.”  The kitchen utensils held four “flowers” made from wash cloths.  No surprise, but it got the point across.  I did not waste one piece of wrapping paper that was going to be thrown in the trash after everything was said and done.

We are coming up on the time of year when merchants expect to make their biggest haul.  Almost every item will be packaged in an attractive “gift box” of plastic with more plastic fillers around and over the products.  Most of those products could be bought separately and placed in a (non-plastic) basket or in a useful cloth bag.  I am thinking of my favorite woven straw basket as a container for an entire “grab bag” of goodies for a family gift giving.  Straw baskets can be lined with a small towel or pillow case for small items.  In fact, my linen rack in the bathroom has three small baskets for toiletries and wash cloths.  Nothing gets lost, and spills or leaks are as simple to clean up as tossing a wash cloth in the washer.

It isn’t easy being different, but it can be fun if an entire family makes it a point to be conscious of what is going to be thrown away after all the fun of surprising others is over.  Sitting here thinking about what a shock an outsider would get at seeing all these bundles in the living room wrapped up in towels, pillow cases, wash cloths, and maybe tied with colored crochet thread or knitting thread.  Grinning at the idea of starting a new trend….

1 comment:

Carla said...

I felt the same way when my old TV started acting up. I bought a new digital one but couldn't bring myself to haul the old one to the dump -- it was still good, as long as you didn't watch for more than 30 minutes at a time. So I engaged in a local custom and set it out on the sidewalk in the evening. It was gone by sunrise. Someone else got a free TV -- for 30 minutes at a time.