Waste: Then and Now

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By Michelle Atkin

“They just don’t make things the way they used to!” I’ve said it before, you’ve said it before, you’ve heard it before, and it is true. Devastatingly, it was not an accident. Product quality started to diminish in the 1950s when the editor of Modern Packaging Inc. said, “The future of plastics is in the trash can.” Products were designed durable, easy to fix, and limited in variation (such as color or style), so opportunities for growth and profit were declining when society focused on preservation, reuse, and frugality. Prior to 1917, a communal tin cup was used for water in train stations and before the 1920s, women used cloth and reusable pads before disposable sanitary pads were available.

Now Dixie Cups and Solo Cups are everywhere. Instead of reusing glassware, the marketing companies of the industrialized world have capitalized on a society of convenience. The disposability of cheap, single-use items have led us to the landfill capacity problems we have today. North Americans use 130 billion disposable paper coffee cups alone, which come from the loss of millions of trees and lead to 253 million pounds of waste. If we were able to exist in a reusable way before, we should be able to again, but the culture has changed and now you have everyone trying to keep up with the Jonses with the latest iPhone even though their old one still works perfectly.

This concept contributes to our ever growing amount of trash and is called planned obsolescence. Instead of building high quality cars, appliances, televisions and toys, inferior materials are often used in critical areas to limit the amount of time a product will be operable. Manufacturers then make repair costs so similar to replacement costs that it often makes more sense from a consumer’s perspective to buy a new product, regardless of how much space the television or refrigerator will take up at the dump.

The fashion cycle is another way customers are driven to buy more despite their perfectly functioning current wardrobe. The decrease in the perceived desirability of unfashionable pieces can be a powerful marketing ploy.

There is hope for the future of the environment with the extended product responsibility approach. This holds producers responsible for the environmental effects over the entire product life cycle – the cost of compliance cannot be shifted to a third party and therefore may be incorporated into product prices. As far as our clothing goes, hopefully reuse can be promoted through donations, yard sales and hand-me-downs.

To learn more about the historical roots of modern waste or what you can do to improve the future outlook, visit:



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