EDITORIAL: Time to opt out of ‘throw-away society’

Anyone who has ever had to make a dollar stretch farther than they thought possible understands the value of a well-made product.

I remember when my daughter was a baby and we were living as a family of three on an income of about $1,000 a month in Portland, in the early ‘oughts. Our rent for a one-bedroom apartment was $650 a month, so you do the math. If it weren’t for breastfeeding and using cloth diapers, I’m not sure how we would have been (barely) able to afford food or utilities.

Those cloth diapers were a lifesaver in my family. They were handmade in Vermont using organic cotton and gifted to my family by a very generous woman I’d met in a community pregnancy group. When my daughter grew out of them, I kept the gift going. By the time those diapers ended up as rags, they had been used by four different families for five babies, including a set of twins.

Many other parents I met in the Portland baby groups I’d bike my daughter to several times a week — biking because we couldn’t afford to repair our 20-year-old car — also used cloth diapers, but their reasons were often less about money and more about helping the environment.

Disposable diapers, after all, are some of the worst things clogging up our landfills. Next to glass bottles, which take about one million years to break down, disposable diapers and plastic bottles are the longest-lasting landfill items, taking 450 years to decompose.

The impacts of our throw-away society — which began in the 1920s, when manufacturers started using a new business model of “planned obsolescence,” or making products designed to fall apart and stop working, in order to make more money and hook more customers — are starting to catch up with all of us.

The sheer amount of “stuff” we humans throw away every year is astounding. Worldwide, humans produce more than 2.6 trillion pounds of trash on an annual basis. The United States is the worst offender, producing about 255 million tons, or 510,000 pounds, of garbage per year.

Much of the garbage going into our landfills could be recycled or reused — according to a 2017 National Geographic study, as much as 91 percent of all plastics are not being recycled. And the consequences have dire impacts for all of us.

The modern-day practice of covering landfills with clay and plastic, which deprives the slowly decomposing waste of oxygen, is in many ways better for the local environment but also results in the production of methane gas, a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Although some landfill owners collect this gas and sell it, many others let the methane seep into the air. We all should recognize by now the devastating impacts climate change has on our planet and on our species: just read a few of the articles compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at noaa.gov/topic-tags/climate-impacts and you can see that climate change is contributing to everything from stronger, deadlier hurricanes to the greater risks to human health worldwide.

Fighting against a world in which planned obsolescence is the norm is not easy. We’ve all become dependent on products that seem to break after just a few years or completely stop working in a decade, and manufacturers have not built these items to be easily repairable. In many cases, they cannot be repaired at all.

Still, there are simple things we can all do to halt our consumption and take a bite out of the vast amount of garbage we produce.

Remember the 2012 Patagonia “Don’t Buy This Jacket” campaign? The company was trying to actually discourage rampant consumerism by urging people to think about the impacts on the environment before they purchased a new coat. Did they already have a coat that was usable? They should wear that instead of buying a new one. The company even joined with eBay to launch the Common Threads Initiative, which asks people to promise they will not buy clothing they don’t need. Short of not buying anything, we can look for more sustainable options — buying secondhand clothes and donating our old items, having shoes with good leather uppers re-soled instead of throwing them away and buying vintage goods that may be easier to repair than modern gadgets designed to be disposable.

One event going on this Saturday at the Camas Public Library is all about reusing and repairing “stuff” instead of throwing it away. We encourage those who are interested in consuming fewer disposable goods to read more about the Repair Clark County group in today’s Post-Record (page A1), look up some of the group’s events and tips at columbiasprings.org/repair and share the ways you are being more conscious about contributing to our “throw-away society” on our social media channels and website.

~ Kelly Moyer, managing editor

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