Capitalism’s Not-So-Secret Dirty Little Secret

August 26, 2008 at 12:34 am (environment) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Once, when we were kids, my brother and I accompanied my dad to a new public golf course in town.  He assured us we could drive the golf cart.  What he failed to mention until we got there was that the course was built on top of a landfill and that there would be “smell showers,” as my brother and I came to call them, all over the place–literally 6″ PVC pipes sticking up out of the ground, taller than a grown man, and curved at the top in such a way as to keep rain from entering but also to literally shower passersby with the noxious odor of civilization’s excrement.  I haven’t thought of that golf course in a very long time…

That is, until yesterday when I had the distinct non-pleasure of visiting Vancouver’s Transfer Station.  The Transfer Station is not exactly a landfill, but close enough; it is a small (as far as warehouses go) warehouse-like building with a huge garbage pit in the center.  Supposedly, trash gets sorted and packaged there to be sold to reclamation companies.  Some trash is treasure, but I’m guessing most is still just trash.

The stench made me want to retch; it also made me hope that the guys working there are well-paid.  The rope I had used to tie my old box spring to the top of the car for transport there fell in a puddle of trash juice and when it got on my hand, I totally freaked.  I’m not a germ-a-phobe by any stretch of the imagination; it wasn’t even the dirt and germs I wanted off my hands so much as the guilt that accompanies participation in this cycle of waste, consumption, and more waste.

Waste pervades our culture; we cannot escape it.  Indeed, waste turns the wheels of the capitalist economy.  There is so much more money to be made in selling people the same cheaply-made goods over and over than there is in selling a few well-made goods to consumer-collectives.  It just isn’t in the interests of the capitalist owner/producer to build his product to last or to encourage it to be shared amongst consumers (think anti-piracy laws).  No, he wants each and every consumer to buy his product an infinite number of times (either because it is made to be disposable or because its construction is so shoddy that its use-pattern is virtually disposable); in this way does he insure the future of his business.  Does he care what ultimately happens to his products?  No; the fact that they wind up in landfills, on beaches, or in the stomachs of unsuspecting marine mammals–and the cost of cleaning all this up–is not accounted for in his books.  For all its free market rhetoric, Capitalism’s blatant disregard for true accounting is an abysmal shame.

And yet, it is me who bears the burden of shame.  My visit to the Transfer Station, that stinking garbage pit on the south side of town, left me with a feeling, not just of nausea, but of guilt and overwhelming sadness at the thought of every consumer good I’ve ever bought and had break on me far before its time.  There’s the lamp I just bought at Ikea the other day, off of which a plastic clamp broke as I pulled it out of its package.  (When I go to exchange it tomorrow, there’s no doubt in my mind they will give me a new one and toss the broken one, having never been used once for its intended purpose.)  There’s the fancy Cuisinart coffee maker with the automatic timer I got two Christmases ago, the clock-set function of which ceased to work within six months.  With some simple math, I could still utilize the automatic timer function… that is, until it, too, stopped working.  (There’s nothing more disappointing than waking up to find the coffee you prepared the night before did not brew as intended.)  Then there’s the electronics kit my partner ordered to help him learn the basics of circuitry; it arrived with malfunctioning switches (no good for a beginner who spent a full day pulling his hair out trying to figure out why his closed circuits weren’t making the dang light light up).  There’s the reusable coffee mug I spent a whopping $16 on to save all those paper cups from winding up in a landfill.  I ask you: Whats worse: throwing away a paper cup every day or a heavy-duty plastic and metal mug once every six months?  If the “reusable” mug isn’t built to last, I’d just as soon toss the paper–at least its made of a renewable resource.

By far, the worst instance of business-as-usual waste that I’ve encountered in the last year comes from, of all companies, Snugli, the original maker of baby-carrying devices.  I was given one of their backpack-style carriers when my daughter was not quite a year old.  By the time she was eighteen months old and a scant twenty or so pounds, a snap had broken off the adjustable waist belt.  I contacted the company for mailing instructions, assuming I would have to send it back to the factory for repair; in all the two pounds of canvas-type fabric, nylon straps, plastic buckles, and metal rods and fasteners, all that needed replacing was one measley little half of a snap–a single cmponent the size of a dime.  Their instructions?  Destroy the product, send us the cut-off straps as proof, and we’ll send you a brand new one.  Customer service replaces craftsmanship.  Un-freaking-believable!!!  When I sent in the straps of the hardly-used and hardly-broken first carrier, I enclosed a letter to the company stating my severe disatisfaction with their wasteful policy.  Their response?  Silence…

And nothing to break the silence but the ping-ping of balls and clubs on a smell-showered golf course…


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