Monday, February 26, 2024

In with the Really New, Out with the Almost New

July 10, 2010  
Filed under Coffee Table

By Rod McLaughlin —

I have a confession to make. My cell phone is old. I mean really old. My cell phone is so old that once when I took it to the Verizon store for a new battery, the girl behind the counter audibly chuckled upon seeing my device. OK, it’s only about four years old but in the world of cell phones, that’s ancient—especially when you consider that I’m on one of those “new every two” plans and could have replaced my phone eons ago. So why, in this time of the Android, iPhone4 and iPad, do I hang on to this relic?

It’s simple. I have a problem with throwing something out that works as well as it did when I acquired it. There’s always going to be something newer and better but that alone does not assuage my guilt over throwing out something that works perfectly well.

The corporate push compelling us to dispose of products that are still perfectly useful is called perceived obsolescence. Where planned obsolescence is the design of things to stop working over time, perceived obsolescence is the process of getting us to dispose of things even though they are still working fine.

Those of you born in the 80s may not remember this, but there was a time before wireless when the phone in your home would basically last until you sold your home. In fact, the phones in common, high traffic rooms such as the kitchen were so permanent that they were actually bolted to the wall. Remember that? I’m sure you’ve seen it in a movie…or on the History Channel.

When I was growing up, there were two phones for five of us. One phone was upstairs and one was downstairs. That’s it. And they would last 15 to 20 years. Today, that same family of five would consume and dispose of between 35 and 50 phones during that same 15 to 20 year time period.

Sound like too many? Let’s do the math. Five people consuming a new phone every two years for 15 to 20 years equals 7.5 to 10 new phones per person times five people – 37.5 to 50 phones consumed and disposed of for one family! This doesn’t even consider the fact that almost all of these phones still work perfectly fine when they are replaced—not to mention the fact that with their batteries and components, they are much more toxic than their predecessors bolted to kitchen walls across America.

Cell phones are just one of the most obvious examples of perceived obsolescence, but this could be said of much of what we consume—which brings us to The Story of Stuff.

The Story of Stuff is a fantastic 20-minute, animated documentary that illustrates where all of the things we consume come from. Referred to as “the materials economy,” The Story of Stuff looks at the whole supply chain including extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal. But the key to the narrative is that this is a system in crisis. The film focuses on how our current way of doing things is not sustainable and needs to be re-evaluated. We cannot keep consuming at the rate we are because the environmental and human costs are just too high.

Some of the facts highlighted in the film:

  • 99% of all things we consume are thrown away within six months.
  • In the past three decades one-third of our planet’s natural resource space has been consumed.
  • In the United States, we have less than 4% of our original forest left and 40% of our waterways have become undrinkable.
  • The U.S. has only 5% of the world’s population but we’re using 30% of the world’s resources and produce 30% of the world’s waste.
  • If everyone consumed at U.S. rates, we would need three to five planets to satisfy the consumption.
  • The average person in the U.S. consumes twice as much as they did 50 years ago.
  • In the U.S. we shop 3 to 4 times as much as our counterparts in Europe.
  • Each of us in the United States disposes about 4.5 pounds of garbage per day, twice as much as 30 years ago.
  • For every garbage can of waste an American disposes of, the equivalent of 70 garbage cans of waste are created just to produce the stuff you are throwing away. The implication: recycling alone is not the sole solution.

The Story of Stuff is a slightly acerbic, highly entertaining and immensely educational look at where all our stuff comes from and where it all goes. Please take 20 minutes to watch this very important film.

Go to to see the short video and Stephen Colbert’s interview with Annie Leonard, the founder of the project.

(The film is also viewable on YouTube)

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