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Sometimes the Throwaway Culture

Many Catholics criticize America for our “throwaway culture,” from throwing out scrap paper to euthanizing the elderly. But I question the validity of this criticism as it applies to throwing away physical objects. We may “waste” a thing to gain something more important.

I have heard people lament that while our grandparents fixed things or repurposed them, rarely throwing away things that had any possible value, my generation gladly dumps worn or broken items into the garbage. It is too cheap and easy to replace them. They were resourceful; we are wasteful.

A Valuable Resource

I question this assessment because human time is a valuable resource to be used wisely and because a replacement is inexpensive for a reason. Let’s say my toaster breaks tomorrow morning. My options are to buy a new toaster, throwing away or recycling the old one, or to fix it. I have never fixed a toaster, but I have basic tools and can look up instructions online. Total time might be anywhere from one to four hours. Which should I choose?

Buy a new one. A worker in a factory can produce many toasters in a single hour of work, compared to my hours-long exercise in electrical frustration. I use both of our time wisely when he makes toasters and I buy one of them to replace the broken one.

If I were not fixing the toaster, I might be spending the time on Facebook, but I might also be playing with my children, studying great Russian literature, or praying. If the factory worker wasn’t producing toasters, he might be able to get another job producing something more valuable, but he might also be unemployed. His producing the toaster during working hours provides income that will enable him play with his children, study great Russian literature, or pray during free hours; my fixing the toaster during my free hours prevents me from doing those same things.

This argument raises the question: what is waste? It would seem to me that waste is failure to put a resource to its best use, or at least a good use, in the context of what we are called to do. The same thing can be wasteful in one set of circumstances and resourceful in another, depending on our vocation.

If a man is paid to cook for a restaurant and is instead reading a novel, he is wasting his time and his employer’s money. But when he’s on the train on his way home, staring at his watch and thinking about what he ate for lunch, he is wasting his time. He would be better off reading the novel. If there is only one newspaper in the office and ten people wish to read it, using the paper to wipe up your spilled coffee instead of using a one-cent napkin would be a waste of the newspaper. But digging yesterday’s paper out of the recycling bin for the same purpose instead of using up the napkin, that’s resourceful.

Throwing away the toaster components, assuming that the toaster could be fixed, is certainly a waste of metal. In some cases, putting the parts in a landfill is a waste of space, too, since landfill space can also be used for buildings or maintained as a forest. Even recycling the toaster involves the time, labor, capital, and inefficiency needed to turn it into something else. What if fixing it would take my only free afternoon for the week, when otherwise I would be taking my children for a scenic walk, calling my grandmother in the nursing home, or reading an important book?

Which is Worst?

Physical resources are valuable and we shouldn’t waste them. But space is valuable. Human time is also valuable. So which is worst: Wasting my time? Wasting space? Or wasting metal?

Which one should be sacrificed to save the other depends on the circumstances and the other possible uses of each. We may have to waste one thing in order to have something better. This is the kind of choice we have to make every day – it is impossible to have and to do every good thing, every time.

Why, then, is there a popular opinion that Americans generally make the wrong choices, that we waste too much? Why do so many of us feel a little guilty when we throw away something that we could have fixed? Why are we expected to value physical resources over our time?

Some might object that physical resources like metal and landfill space exist in finite quantities that we are using up, while human labor is infinitely renewable. This type of thought should be particularly rejected by a Christian, who knows that there is a limit not only to the number of human generations but to the minutes and years of each individual person on this earth. To imply that my individual labor is part of a renewable cycle like a tree in a forest is demeaning and utilitarian.

Each year the Lord grants us is precious time to be spent in the light of my eternity; it is our duty to ensure that we are using that time wisely. That may mean tossing out the broken toaster, even if I could have fixed it.

 

Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Farmer EightThirtyOne

    Typical Protestant/secular myopic focus on “efficient use” vs a truly Catholic appreciation of the thing itself. The Lord does not give us time to be “used”, girl. Neither is the real purpose of a toaster to make toast. Question: what is the purpose of your life?
    Read more Chesterton. Try especially, “A Somewhat Improbable Story”.

    I don’t blame the author for her misunderstanding. We are so steeped in secular Protestantism that it requires an intellectual act of will to see things as they really are (the Catholic way).

    • LawProf61

      It’s “Protestant” to think that the real purpose of a toaster is to make toast??? What, pray tell, is the “Catholic” view of a toaster’s purpose? While I’m waiting, since it’s breakfast time, I’ll be grateful that the person selling it to me thinks that it *should* make toast. And that the coffeemaker should make coffee. 😉

      • Farmer EightThirtyOne

        What, prayer will tell, is the ultimate purpose of ANY of the myriad motes of Creation?

        • LawProf61

          In other words, you don’t have an answer? To paraphrase Dr. Freud, sometimes a toaster is just a toaster.

          • Farmer EightThirtyOne

            Now you are being deliberately obtuse…
            Freud was a hack.

    • Ralph Coelho

      Beware of sneering at Protestsn thinking! They take the risk of thinking and being different while too many Catholics refuse to listen leave alone read! Remember the servant who buried the money refusing to think of using his meager knowledge !

      • Farmer EightThirtyOne

        Beware of condoning heresy in a misguided effort to be liked by heretics.
        With respect to the many wonderfully good Protestants, they remain heretics.

      • LawProf61

        And too many Catholics assume that they have all the answers, and anyone who disagrees is a heretic.

    • tmirus

      “Girl”?

    • tmirus

      “What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.”

  • Ralph Coelho

    I believe that the fallacy lies in believing that God gave us intelligence to use creation, sometimes others whom he created in his image, to minimize my lab our, maximize my wealth through possessions and exercise the option to share! We presume that we glorify him when we raise ourselves above the level of our fellows!

    • Rachel Meyer

      But can’t buying low-quality merchandise from the third world actually contribute to raising their level by creating wealth for their country? How is buying a toaster raising my level, or raising it above others?

      • Ralph Coelho

        In the first place it is made in a third world country because you will get it cheaper and not to benefit him! He is at the mercy of his employer who pays him as little as possible and effectively enslaves him!
        You believe you benefit from an easy life because you can afford so much more and lose the growth effects of work,perseverance, punctuality, discipline and enervate yor and your children!

        • Rachel Meyer

          It doesn’t matter whether the intent of the employer was to benefit the impoverished. It matters whether it does in fact benefit them. Millions upon millions have risen from abject poverty thanks to manufacturing locating there.

          American employers also pay their employees as little as possible – it’s just not possible to get an American to work for as little as a worker in Vietnam because we have more options. You’re right that working conditions are often deplorable, but creating wealth for the country is the most effective way to change that, and the citizen is probably better off with the terrible job than starving without one.

          You have no idea what my work ethic is like. Americans are still very hard workers compared to most other countries, actually. And punctuality is an odd choice as it’s not really seen as a virtue anywhere but here.

          • Ralph Coelho

            The work ethic of the American worker and the buccaneering attitude
            of the American employer is what have made America what it is. This attitude survives
            to this day and imbues those who settle down in America – until they return to their
            homeland for even a temporary visit.

            Some American employers like Ford beloved that their workers should earn enough
            to own the products they made. This pegged the price of the Ford Model T. Other
            like the founder of GM beloved that what is good for GM is good for the USA and
            politicians even to day believe that what is good for the US is good for the
            world.

            These are variations, on the same theme are all
            considered legitimate. A similar phenomenon of temporary virtue is seen in
            religions across the world. Even those who visibly follow the rituals of a religion
            claim they follow no religion because they find one or more important tenets unreasonable
            because they deny them easy pleasures. The USA that still sets world standards in
            science in society. In 1930, it was contraception; in 1975, it was Abortion
            today it is choice of gender to live in! US democracy drives demands to
            legalise choices were traditionally rejected by societies and incorporated into
            religions. The same people demand that that love of people should dominate social
            relationships; they would be non-judgemental, non-discriminatory, embrace anyone
            irrespective of their life style, social practice and clothe everyone in love.
            In this mood, they come out in their thousands to collect food and material and
            contribute hard earned money. Somehow, they continue not to see the smelly, importuning
            beggar whom they step over as part of the landscape.
            Health care in the USA is a scandal because they related organizations affirm their virtue in practices that deny many citizens the health care that third world countries provide their citizens.

  • RoamingCatholic

    This approach is all well and good in terms of an individual decision such as your example of the broken toaster. But the larger systemic problem underlying that situation is the strategy of planned obsolescence, whereby some products are designed not to last. And this is abetted by marketing that teaches us to crave new products and upgrades beyond what is necessary.
    So in addition to your worthwhile suggestions for considering what constitutes waste and resourcefulness, I would add that we should also consider production practices when it IS time to buy that new toaster or what have you – and, in some situations, to at least pause and consider whether we can just as well fix a less complicated item or make do with an older model rather than automatically throwing away and buying the newest thing simply by default.

  • Thomas Storck

    Perhaps in a culture that really valued useful things, toasters would be better made and more easily reparable. I agree that right now there are many gadgets that it’s easier to throw away and just replace. But that need not be the case. Things could be better made and more easily fixable.

    • Rachel Meyer

      Do you think that high quality items can be made by the same labor force that currently makes low quality ones?

      • Thomas Storck

        By the same workers? Yes, absolutely. Using the same tools, machines and organizational techniques (e.g., assembly line)? Most likely, not.

        • Rachel Meyer

          I’m no manufacturing expert, but I wonder if that’s true. Maybe higher quality demands a higher level of skills, like welding, machining, sewing, woodworking, than third world laborers actually have now.

          • Thomas Storck

            Perhaps, but they could be trained. Same people, different training. Any economic or technological arrangement always establishes the educational or training regime it needs for its own purposes. An assembly-line system will value unskilled labor, and take no trouble to train workers. But this need not be so.

  • Indeed, and what would happen to all the thousands of new toasters in boxes, already sitting on shelves, if one could not squeeeeeze its way into your budget? The problem is glut of products, and it is always a race to bottom for quality, to squeeze into people’s tight budgets, and keep the wheels turning.

    We are but hamsters in a wheel, and our wheel turns others. But somehow only a few collect the energy from all the senseless efforts, or haven’t you noticed?

  • tmirus

    Frankly, I didn’t expect this kind of economic understanding (the *why* of the choices we make) from EP. Not that the site doesn’t have other merits, and not that there isn’t more to the issue than efficient *use* of resources, of course.

  • brucenyc

    It seems to me that throwing away something that is broken is not inherently wasteful, even if it can be repaired. The fault lies in the idea that putting an object in landfill means it is “destroyed” while in reality it is actually being “recycled”, not by humanity obviously, but rather by the natural processes of the earth on which we live.

  • Fred Putnam

    Thanks for writing–two thoughts.

    In an article (source now forgotten), the author pointed out that an electronic door-lock on his car could be made so that it would last for 500,000 cycles instead of the 80,000 cycles they are usually designed for (the figures are made up), but then they would outlast the rest of the car, and if the entire car were engineered to match the longer-lasting locks, no one could afford to buy it.

    On the other hand, as pointed out in The Story of Stuff, planned obsolescence–the length of hemlines, style of bookbag (I teach at a university), “in” colour of the year or season, “style” of this year’s automobile, &c.–manipulates us into thinking that we are somehow happier (at least) because we are not wearing “last year’s colour/style”, or because we are participating in whatever is “in” this year. This seems to be both truly wasteful and the greater waste by far.

    Thanks again.