The Throw-Away Generation
Why Americans want everything, but keep nothing.
By Lindsey Bartlett
As I write, I am reminded of my disassociation with all the materials around me. I bought my laptop at Best Buy, and that is all I know. I have no concept of all the individual parts, pieces of plastic and metal nor where they come from. Our materials are made up of fragmented parts from all over the world. The mouse is from Thailand, the keyboard from Indonesia, and the screen from Japan, all assembled in California and then sent to a store near you. Every possession we own is a puzzle, each piece a scrap made somewhere else.
Besides actual material items, there is an extreme disconnect from our popular culture and media. As the consumer, we are asked not to beg the question of where things come from. Because a News reporter says something, we assume it is true. It has authority because it is on TV. Americans tend to put a lot of trust into popular culture sources. All of our information is thrown at us and fighting for our attention. It creates what feels like a tornado of text. We have no concept of all the time, work, and effort that each product requires. At the very least, we know there was a process. An expensive one. With film and television, seeing “behind the scenes” feels like seeing underneath a womans skirt. It is secret, a hidden and mysterious process that the consumer is not invited to ask questions about.
This is also seen in the consumers most recent infatuation with “local” products. The idea of our goods deriving locally, whether it be a restaurant or a store, gives us a sense of comfort. We can actually picture the process. It is no longer huge and fragmented, but close to home. From-the-farm-to-your-table is an effective format for a restaurant to take because we feel less displaced from the food. It takes the impersonal and makes it personal again. But this idea of “localizing” materials has become a commodity of its own. We are selling the idea of a “localizing” material, without promising or explaining its true roots. As a consumer, we are also being asked to place these “local” products in a binary against “global”. Companies such as American Apparel have monopolized on our need to feel connected to our materials once again. For something to be Made in America, it must come at a price.
When we go into a supermarket, our senses are literally flooded with products. We are walking down aisles and aisles of choices, we have different flavors, prices, images, names, colors, etc. All of these products have particular ideas associated with the name and the image on the box. It is an illusion of free will. Americans love choice, and the more the better. The consumer is under the impression that we have a choice of gum between Juicy Fruit, Orbit, 5, Eclipse, Extra, Doublemint, and the list goes on. But in reality, no matter which gum you choose, the money goes to one company; Wrigleys. There is a new option called “Up2You” which gives the consumer 2 flavors of gum within one package. Even after choosing out of 60 types of gum, we still get to choose. We are never done with options. From an outside perspective, it would seem we are obsessed with this freedom of choice, and our materials. But the concerning part is that we don’t love them at all. We throw away, waste, and generally don’t care about our materials. This is because of the disconnect from where they come from.
We refuse to stop choosing. We live to choose, until we get bored and throw it out. The item is nothing but a means to an end. But, I wonder, do I participate in the throw-away culture because I have too many choices? I know that there will always be another store, another pack of gum, this gum means nothing to me. The Up2U brand represents American ideology in gum-form. We are obsessed with choice as a concept more than the items we are choosing between.
This leads me to the throw away phenomenon. Americans are the most wasteful country in the world. This isn’t news to us. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been told how wasteful I am, how terrible it is not to recycle, not to be conscious of the items I throw away. Our parents taught us how to use and abuse materials, and then condemned us for it.
Mira Engler is a scholar in landscape and architecture. In her book “Designing America’s Waste Landscapes,” she uncovers the dirty history of how we deal with waste. It is a necessary part of our functioning society, yet it is seen by all as disgusting “dirty work”. English gardens are clean, pristine, well manicured. But this is directly contradictory to our sewage and garbage dumps.
What does it even mean, to throw “away”? This word does not imply that these items go a place in particular. The diction of “away” just places the trash out of sight, out of mind. But we know that materials never truly go “away”. Even our garbage bags and trash cans are meant to look clean and orderly on the outside. All of this, according to Engler, perpetuates our wasteful ways. We are not asked to live with our garbage. It is placed in a separate and distant landscape, on the fringe of real society. Our ideas of beauty in nature do not include this waste. Garbage dumps are complex and contradictory places. They are both repelling and fascinating; they are full of cultural significance and substance. http://www.amazon.com/Designing-Americas-Landscapes-Contemporary-Landscape/dp/0801878039)
Famous architect Bernard Tschumi explained that margins, boundaries, and “edges” are the best place to break new ground and search for meaning. If we view these garbage dumps as a part of humanity, a part of nature and our life, then we can turn our guilt into hope. As poet A.R. Ammons believes, a world without waste is unrealistic.
(link image to the website where one can find this book Garbage: http://www.librarything.com/work/151245)
If you don’t feel bad enough about your naughty wasteful ways, here are some numbers…
United States waste disposal costs reach $100 billion annually. Thats a lot of trash. Americans only make up 5% of the world population, and produce 30% of the world’s waste. We only recycle 2% of the garbage we produce, of which over 50% is recyclable. The average American produces 600 times their own weight in garbage over a lifetime. This is about 90,000 pounds. (http://students.arch.utah.edu/courses/Arch4011/Recycling%20Facts1.pdf)
Unfortunately, the average American does not consider themselves one.
Okay, okay, we get it. We are wasteful dickheads who don’t care about anyone but ourselves. This is not news to us. But we choose to ignore it. Why is this? For what reason do we throw away objects like they mean nothing to us?
The real reason we practice such disregard for our objects and wastelands is that we are consciously disregarding ourselves and other human beings. Our society comodifies peoples. Instead of being seen as the complex creatures we are, we break humans down in the same way we do objects. For example, once a model is in a magazine, she becomes a piece of text. Literally to be “disembodied”. There are no longer human characteristics to the images we see in the world. Since we have so extremely objectified ourselves, we are able to throw away people like a pack of gum.
One obvious example is found in the older generations. In some cultures, the older relatives receive the most respect, adoration, and appreciation for their wisdom. In western and American culture, the older someone is, the less useful we deem them. We put our grandparents in homes, an equivalent to “throwing away” people we no longer need. The retirement home or hospice are representative of a garbage dump for people. This comodification of others is even more relevant for women. The older you get, the less use you have in our culture. There is a serious problem with this.
What we do to the earth, we do to ourselves. The next time you intend to get rid of an old shirt, or delete a friend off of your contact list, remind yourself of how many objects and people you throw away this year. People are not gum, and there is no such thing as “away”. Away is an illusion, a man-made concept that gives us peace of mind. Keep throwing things away. Whatever helps you sleep at night.