Throwaway Society by Ed Douglas

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Sometimes, something stupendously boring makes you realise what’s wrong with the world. For example, I plug in my mobile, but it fails to start charging. So I cram the thingy further into the whatsit. Again, nothing. I get cross and jab the switch a few times. Come on, damn you! Finally I waggle the wire feeding the plug and – hey presto! – the phone’s backlight flickers on and off. Ha! The charger is duff.

Phones do not excite me but I have to sort this out. At the mobile shop the assistant produces the correct replacement. It costs £25. Gosh, I say, that seems a lot of money for a short stretch of copper wiring and a few cheap electrical components. The assistant shrugs, and asks if sir is on a monthly contract with his service provider. Sir nods. Then just get a new phone for free, he says. He doesn’t quite say ‘granddad’, but I know he wants to.

Of course, he’s right. Despite the fact that a new mobile phone costs a lot more than its charger the service provider will give me the phone, because of the yearly contract thing. Most people don’t think twice about this. I mean, who doesn’t want a new phone? But I’m weird like that. My phone’s not that old. It works okay. Isn’t it wasteful just to toss something that still functions in a landfill and start again?

Of course, and waste is one of the hallmarks of our age. And despite the Daily Mail raging about draconian recycling regulations, Britain is still hopelessly behind the rest of Western Europe when it comes to managing the stuff we throw away. In the Netherlands, where they started running out of landfill long before we did, almost all waste is now recycled or incinerated. Even big countries like Germany and France are way ahead.

In Britain, each one of us produces 509kg of waste each year and most of it, 352kg, gets buried in the ground. That’s four times my bodyweight. How ironic that most of us choose to be incinerated when our garbage-producing days are over, but the tonnes of rubbish we generate in our lifetimes will still be festering underground decades after we’ve gone up the chimney.

Slowly we’re beginning to make progress, but it’s patchy. There’s a town in Devon that is close to recycling or recovering half its waste, but in Glasgow and Liverpool the figure is just 8%. That, as they say, is rubbish. But in the context of spiralling food and fuel prices, and the realisation that the world’s population is only going to get bigger and more resource-hungry, I think most of us are adjusted to the idea that we can’t go on like this. The government has made it a lot more expensive to bury rubbish, and this is driving big changes in how we manage our waste.

But is that enough? Shouldn’t we be thinking more about relationship with the stuff we buy? What do we really want from it? Do we value the things we spend our hard-earned cash on, or has everything got so cheap that we’ve lost an emotional connection to the objects that fill our lives? It’s not so much that my phone is or isn’t being recycled that worries me the most. It’s the fact we don’t think twice about replacing something that is still useful.

The acceleration of our consumerist ways can breed some very unhealthy attitudes, like an addiction to shopping. That burst of excitement you get at seeing something shiny that you instantly want and instantly get, only for that thrill to burn itself out. It’s what designer and writer John Thackara calls “the schlock of the new”. Manufacturers and retailers have to work hard to keep up with its rapacious demands. We’re addicted to novelty, and it’s killing us.

For most of human history, stretching back around 200,000 years, we had very few possessions. Those things we did have were built to last and then handed on to the next generation. Stuff was just too valuable to throw away, no matter how much people liked new things. Not only that, when something new was needed, chances are you were either related to the person who made it, or you knew them. That kind of personal connection builds attachment. Touching something your grandmother used every day is a way to keep her memory alive.

If you’re passionate about the outdoors then you understand these things very well. Everybody gets the idea of a favourite pair of boots. It’s not just that they’re comfortable, although that’s important. It’s about all those scuffs, and creases. It’s about the fact they look worn. Because all those imperfections are physical reminders of the great experiences you’ve had in beautiful places. And those are the things that make life special.

Yet the stuff we use to make our dreams reality has undergone the same transformation as all the rest of it. When you can buy cheap outdoor gear made in Asia in a sports chain store the size of four football fields for next to nothing, what’s the point in having your favourite boots resoled, or a loved jacket mended by a kindly old gent wearing half-moon specs and wielding a needle and thread? You just buy new ones from a bored student on minimum wage.

My guess is that’s all about to change. And not just because I’m an old romantic who can’t bear to throw anything away. Last summer, my youngest complained his sleeping bag now only came up to his chest. So I took an old one of mine in urgent need of a clean with a couple of holes in the seams back to the manufacturer. Could they fix it?

They did a lot better than that. They took the down out, cleaned it, and put it into a new, better shell. It feels like a new bag, but cost £100 less than the equivalent product. I don’t know how much less profit the manufacturer made, but for what it’s worth, I think they are onto something. As wages in Asia rise, along with transportation costs, the era of cheap everything could be about to come to a juddering halt.

If that happens, then all those little shops that used to fix things and have long since disappeared from the High Street will start to return. Manufacturers will revert to making things that last, and can be maintained. We’ll all be a lot more conscious of a product’s durability. Those companies that can figure out business models where service and maintenance are part of the price tag could do very nicely. The era of the cheap trick could be over.

Oh, and my mobile? I almost succumbed to the lure of a new one. But instead I got on eBay and bought a new charger for £1. Then I phoned my service provider and negotiated a new contract that will save me £150 a year. And do you know what I’m going to do with that money? Take the day off work, and go out somewhere nice to play. Because the one thing you can’t recycle is time.

Ed Douglas writes about mountain areas and their people, recently covering Tibet, renewable energy and the environmental campaigning of poet Ted Hughes. He also writes on landscape and psychology and has profiled leading scientists like Steven Pinker and E. O. Wilson. His articles have appeared in National Geographic, New Scientist, Outside magazine, The Guardian, The Observer and The Daily Telegraph. He is also a regular broadcaster on radio.

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