How I’m Rethinking the Ease of Disposable Items

Read this author's case for rethinking our disposable culture habits.
For all of our advancements in technology, efficiency, and general environmental awareness, there are areas in which money still does the talking, even when it opposes common sense.

Ever since the advent of the industrial age, the consumer market has been focused on short-term solutions for short-term needs — it is actually designed to be wasteful. Is it possible to change this design?

Before we had readily-available disposable materials, we used real materials as containers, we mended and tailored clothing before throwing it out, and we didn’t need plastic packaging. Now, though, products are designed for quick turnover, and people buy them with the understanding that they are for one-time or few-times use: water bottles, coffee cups, and even clothing. For companies, more purchases mean more profit, so there’s not much incentive to transition to products intended for long-term use.

With our increasingly hectic lifestyles, we are attracted to what is convenient and cheap. I am no exception. Here’s an example: Shampoo at the CVS around the corner is much more expensive than I’m used to, but I don’t have many alternatives for such a basic and necessary thing. My mom suggested I order a bottle on Amazon that would be both cheaper and more convenient. I didn’t love the idea of all the extra packaging that comes with a mail order, but my mom made the point that there are some things we have to let go when dealing with a small budget. So, I am a frequent Amazon user, because — she’s right — I feel compelled to just do whatever is less expensive.

On the whole, though, it’s obvious that this set-up doesn’t make sense for society. Let’s take a bird’s-eye view: everyone is buying objects on the daily, then turning right back around to throw them away, making it necessary to buy things very frequently. From this wider perspective, it looks nonsensical and expensive. It is as if people are renting their lives, refraining from settling down and taking responsibility for their belongings. There is no risk involved, because if a choice is imperfect, it can be pitched and repurchased.

When viewed from an individual level, though, it does seem to make sense. It might actually be less expensive for me to buy cheaper boots for one season, even if they don’t last beyond a few months — I simply might not be in a position to spend more money on a better product. For my current state in life (recently graduated, frequently moving, and not settled into a steady job), ease and lower cost are worth a lot.

Not only do companies appeal to convenience; they take advantage of the social trend to “keep up with the times.” Fads — and these are not solely reserved for clothing — are invented to create a rapid turnover. Companies can afford to make lower-quality products, because they know that they can invent a new fad before the old items fall apart. The rate of change is incredible — cell phones manufactured only five years ago are now obsolete.

Fighting this manipulation of our desires could be as simple (and challenging) as renewing and maintaining a grounded sense of ourselves without reference to material things. If we, as consumers, shift our attitudes, the system will follow us.

Sticking to the basics — things we need instead of things we want — can help us step away from trends and focus on the important and substantial parts of life. Buymeonce.com could support this approach — the site sells basic clothing and home products that should only need to be bought once.

If cost is the issue, buying things secondhand is almost always a good way to go. There is something humbling about not being able to choose whatever you want, but instead letting whatever is available dictate what you can buy. Thrift stores, eBay (which is essentially a thrift shop version of Amazon, if you think about it), and hand-me-downs take the pressure off of finding “just the right thing,” and instead, move us to gratitude for the things that are available. Family hand-me-down furniture and kitchenware are free, and they are much more meaningful than a coordinated apartment.

Less and less does shopping require walking into a store. Storefronts are being eclipsed by online sales. Again, the convenience cannot be ignored, but sometimes one has to wonder whether the loss of personal interaction is worth it. And when a purchase requires the effort to get off the couch and go outside, you might be more likely to invest in a better product than you would if all it takes is the click of a button.

There is rarely a complete lifestyle change that comes easily, nor is there an easy answer to anything that involves a list of pros and cons. But thinking about our habits when it comes to buying and consuming is a worthwhile place to begin. This will help us gain a simple awareness not only of how our actions affect the market and culture at large but also the ways in which the market can affect us.

Mass production needs a mass of people to sell to, and it is easy to let the market flow carry us along. Rather than allow an impersonal economy to determine our direction, however, we should aim to purposely shape our lives around matters less material, and more lasting. As we shop, use, or discard, there can be many conflicting considerations, but by at least actively choosing when and what to buy, we can live life with more intention.

Even shopping, then, can turn into an opportunity for personal growth. So, while I don’t regret my Amazon membership, maybe I’ll think twice tomorrow before buying my espresso to-go and dust off my coffee maker.

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