Six months after we Americans buy something, only 1 percent of those products are still in use.
If everyone consumed the way Americans do, we would need 3 to 5 planets to support us.
When we look at all the resources we use for production – air, water, land, plants and animals – American-style consumption is not sustainable. This isn’t immediately apparent, because when we look at the products we hold in our hands, what goes into manufacturing them is invisible to us.
Welcome to an introduction to the ‘invisible stream’ of stuff that lies behind the things we buy.
New can vs recycled can
Let’s begin with extraction, which means digging up minerals, consuming water or cutting down trees – taking resources from the earth to make the basic components of a product.
One third of the planet’s natural resource base has been used to the point of depletion.
And extraction is very energy intensive. For instance, the making of pure aluminum from a naturally occurring ore called Bauxite uses a tremendous amount of electricity. Recycling aluminum cans, aluminum trays and foil eliminates this step and the electricity needed.
100,000 synthetic chemicals
Materials that have been extracted (or collected for recycling) then move into production.
Pure aluminum is molded into cans, foil, and trays at this stage. The production process requires a lot of input – energy, chemicals, water – and usually creates a lot of toxic waste and water as a by-product.
For instance, in order to make paper from trees, caustic chemicals are needed to convert the lignin (cellulose which makes the tree rigid and dense) to a supple fiber. Bleach is added to make the paper white. Clays, coatings and sizing are added, depending on the end use of the paper.
It is estimated that there are 100,000 synthetic chemicals used in production. We tend to think they’re tested and safe, but that’s not true. And in fact, none of the chemicals used today have been tested for their synergistic health impacts – meaning, what happens when synthetic chemicals are combined?
One common chemical we are exposed to is brominated flame retardants, which are used on computers, pillows, furniture and many other household products. If you have a house fire, these items will be resistant to fire. Sadly, brominated flame retardants are neurotoxins.
What about that cell phone?
The next stop in the invisible stream of the things we buy is distribution, which is all about getting the product into the stores, as well as keeping the prices as low as possible.
Because much of the cost of products is externalized, we do not pay the total cost of the stuff we buy. Rather the people in the places where the natural resources are extracted or where the product is produced pay through degradation to the environment and low wages.
Consider the example of a cell phone. Coltan, a metal used to make cell phones, may have been extracted from the Congo, where gorillas and their habitat are being destroyed for this metal. Other metals may come from South Africa. The plastic components may have been made in China. The oil for the transportation may have been extracted from Iraq. And all the cell phone components may be assembled in Mexico. Is it possible that a $70 cell phone covers all these costs?
More stuff, less happiness
And then there’s consumption, which is the engine that drives extraction, production and distribution.
Six months after we Americans buy something, only 1 percent of those products are still in use. It’s interesting to note that our consumption rate has doubled since 1950, and yet polls have shown that our “national happiness level” peaked in the 1950s and continues to plummet.
Two things keep consumption going: planned obsolescence, which means products are designed to break after a certain amount of use and cannot be repaired so we have to buy new ones; or perceived obsolescence, which means marketers convince us that we have to stay in fashion – they get paid well to persuade us to believe that we need the latest model of their product.
Another way of looking at it – Americans are targeted with 3,000 advertisements per day aimed at making us unhappy with what we already have. To all outward appearances, marketing strategies seem to be working.
Where does it all go?
The last part of the life of a product that is outside of our field of vision is disposal. For every can of trash that we produce, there were 70 cans of waste produced upstream.
Most of our trash, by the way, gets incinerated, and that has air pollution associated with it – dioxin, a carcinogen, and mercury, a neurotoxin, to name two. Half of the mercury in Connecticut’s lakes and streams is from our incinerated waste.
What’s the solution?
Buy less and better quality products. Shop around for something that’s durable and/or that can be repaired. It may cost more money up front, but is a better value because it will last longer. Ask the question “Do I really need this?”
Recycle. Mansfield has an extensive recycling program. In Mansfield, residents recycle about 36 percent – it could be well over 40%, but off-campus student housing has driven this percentage down. If you interact with college students, then why not exercise the power of example and become an advocate for recycling.
By recycling, the extraction step is eliminated, so less energy and waste is produced in the life of the product.
Lastly, look around. I mean, really look around. Recognize all that you do have. Cultivate gratitude and you will have out-witted the marketers.
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