Friday, December 14, 2007

The use-once-and-toss treadmill

It seems the businesses surrounding us, the businesses that fill our stores with products, that these businesses are dependent on ever growing sales. The stock market values companies whose earnings are always growing, and punish those whose earnings are stagnant or declining. But, what does this have to do with "use it once and throw it away"?

It used to be that products were reliable, that they would last for years, that you could repair things, and that people did actually repair things and keep using them for years on end. Today most products are cheaply built, they don't last, they are unrepairable, they tend to fall apart quickly, and many products are meant to be used only once and then thrown away.

If a product can only be used once doesn't this encourage more consumption of products? If your eating utensils are plastic and unwashable, then you have to buy a new set of them after every meal. If your pen cannot be refilled then you have to buy a whole new pen, rather than buying just a refill. If your MP3 player cannot have its battery replaced, if the circuit board is too complex to repair, what do you do when it breaks? It goes on and on like this with product after product.

This makes for an ever increasing flow of stuff being sent to landfills, and ever increasing destruction of the planet to make raw materials. Well, to be precise there is always a constantly increase in products being made simply because the population constantly increases. But I think that compounding the ever increasing population is the higher quantity per person on the rate of consumption, that we are consuming more per person than did our ancestors.

Making any raw material, whether it's a metal, a plastic, a fabric, or a wood, requires taking some sort of resource and converting it to the raw material. For example it might mean mining and smelting copper ore, and the copper ore is gotten by tearing rocks out of the depths of the earth or in some cases by destroying mountains. Producing the copper leaves a residue of many other chemicals and slag left over from the industrial processes. And, then, say the raw material is turned into a product that's used once, and thrown away. This isn't making very good use of the resources given to us by the planet. An ever increasing use of raw material means an ever increasing destruction of the planet.

If a resource is reused multiple times then that planetary destruction rate is lessened. But a use-once-and-toss paradigm hastens planetary destruction.

Our ancestors did a lot of recycling through simply reusing discarded stuff. Recycling and repairing used to be normal, but today recycling seems to be so completely foreign that one almost has to beg and plead with everyone to get them to recycle.

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