Living in a Disposable World

I sit with John Solow, an associate professor of economics, to chat about DVD players. Five years ago, his broke. It was a hulking, silver box, a relic of early-era digital technology. Motors whirled in an eh-eh-eh sputter, but, try as he did, Solow couldn’t get the disc tray to open.

LandfillWhere I would have reached for a user’s manual, or, quite likely, the trash bin, Solow grabbed a screwdriver.

“I took the damn thing apart,” he tells me in his University of Iowa office. “It was this I’m-not-gonna-let-the-bastards-grind-me-down kind of thing.”

Solow liked the challenge. He liked the novelty of fixing what he owned, like some mythical handyman great uncle. He found the problem — a loose gear — and repaired it with a few turns of his wrist. Satisfaction ensued.

A year later, Solow goes on, he garbaged the thing when its insides started wheezing again. Solow, like many of us each day, came to an unspoken conclusion: Time is money, and as our days become busier, it’s simply “cheaper” to buy new products than to fix existing ones.

This means cheap stuff and lots of it, but it also portends millions of tons of trash — rotting in landfills, emanating methane, contributing to climate change.

Americans generate 4.6 pounds of trash per capita a day — roughly the weight of an older-model DVD player. Three hundred sixty-five of those and you get 1.3 tons of trash per person per year. Those numbers dwarf those from our peers: the Swedes produce 2.8 pounds a day, the Canadians 3.7, the Germans 3.9.

Of course, richer countries generate more trash almost as a given. The more one produces, the more one purchases, the more one creates waste products. But our disparity in waste creation is too extreme to stem from natural economic growth; America’s GDP per capita is only slightly higher than the U.K.’s, yet Americans produce almost a pound of trash more per person per day.

At least two factors contribute to our national shift toward purchase-and-pitch culture. First, devices have become more complex. The mechanical has turned technological. Where it was once conceivable to fix a Walkman, a fritzed iPod is lifeless without a trained specialist. That such devices — mp3 players, cell phones, laptops — cyclically crash doesn’t help matters. All this means mounds of defunct electronics in our landfills, and, on a more esoteric level, a warped definition of newness that makes devices sold prior to 2005 “old school.”

In America, a second factor is at play. Our obelisks of waste result from our workhorse nature. Since the ’70s, Americans have worked longer hours than Europeans. With decreased free time and increasing wages, our time has gained enormous value. As such, time efficiency — a.k.a. convenience — can undercut environmental and even economic gain. Idiotic on-the-go products have thrived on this mentality for years. Most of us, for example, know bottled water is more expensive than filling a Nalgene in the morning, yet we continue to purchase Aquafinas and Smart Waters every day. Why? Somewhere inside us, we’ve decided the time it takes to fill and wash a Nalgene has greater value than the dollar it takes to purchase and pitch a plastic bottle. We act against our clear economic interests for a more dogmatic currency: time.

So how do we solve our mounting waste problem? Here are some ways we can’t:

  • Consumer self-control. We will always want what’s cheapest and/or most convenient, period.
  • Fix what you own. To an extent, sure, but time remains valuable, and most of us can’t fix today’s technological products.
  • Work fewer hours. Good luck sapping America of its Protestant work ethic.

Where the above ideas rely solely on changing consumer behavior, the most promising solutions lie in regulating environmental damage from producers and citizens. At present, dirty products remain inexpensive because their prices don’t reflect the environmental degradation they cause.

Graph“Things are cheap because we can dump stuff for free,” Solow says. “[Prices] reflect the cost of the labor (‘cause you gotta pay the workers), the cost of the raw materials (‘cause you gotta buy those from the people who own them), and the price of the capital services (‘cause people aren’t gonna let you use their machines for free). But they don’t include the price of dumping stuff into the air.”

In April, the Environmental Protection Agency classified CO2, methane, and other heat-trapping gases as pollutants, a major step toward greenhouse gas regulation. This would ostensibly force companies to decrease fossil fuel use — otherwise, they’d face higher production costs and higher prices for consumers. Ideally, price hikes for unsustainable products would be great enough to counter their convenience appeal. On a smaller scale, cities could reduce their waste by charging households per barrel of curbside trash, rather than a flat weekly or monthly rate. Like many incentive programs, such a policy could foster reform without mandating it.

“If you had to pay a price to dispose something — a price that reflected the injury it did to other people and society — you would do less of it,” Solow says. “Not because you’re particularly caring about other people and society, but because people do less of things that are more expensive.”

Cynical pragmatism doesn’t sound pretty, but it will prod us away from complacency and toward progress.