Designed for the dumpby Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio
Each year the average Minnesota family sends approximately one ton of waste into a landfill. That's in part because of manufacturers who are creating cheap clothing, electronics and furniture that don't last very long. However consumers have become more environmentally conscious, and they're looking for more long-lasting alternatives.
St. Paul, Minn. — To understand how much garbage Minnesotans generate, says Don Kyser, a waste engineer with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, you have to imagine you're heading north from the Twin Cities in your car.
"Imagine driving from here to Duluth, past 16 lanes of garbage trucks, bumper to bumper," says Kyser. "That's how much garbage is picked up and disposed of in Minnesota annually."
In order to dispose of all this garbage, Kyser says we will have to build a new facility to convert waste to energy every five to six years. That's taking into consideration only our growing population, and assuming that as individuals we don't throw away more in the future than we do today.
But Kyser says that's an unlikely scenario.
"Everything is more disposable these days. That's just the way we are," says Kyser. "There's just more disposable things. Per capita from 20 years ago to now, we generate more waste."
Kyser blames "planned obsolescence," the idea that companies are purposefully building things that last only a short while, because they want their customers to come back soon to buy another shirt, or cell phone, or set of bookshelves.
Tom Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, says the American marketplace has gotten away with creating poorly designed products for decades because our country is so affluent. People didn't mind throwing things away.
Consider the American car.
"We used to design terrible automobiles," says Fisher. "The idea was, people got new cars every few years; it didn't matter. Now cars are much more expensive, we want to keep our cars longer and so now we're much more concerned about the fact that when we buy it that it works well and won't fall apart."
While cars may be getting better, other consumable goods have gotten worse. Fisher says even houses are becoming more disposable, constructed with cheap materials that will never last. Much of what goes into landfills is the debris from teardowns. Fisher says all the energy that went into constructing these cheap buildings is wasted.
But some people are choosing to live lives that create minimal waste. Marti Markus is one of the co-owners of Birch, a Minneapolis store that sells clothing made from durable organic fibers. Markus says prior to opening Birch, she tried to be environmentally conscious by buying everything used.
"And I felt that we weren't contributing to the problem that way. But I saw by supporting young designers and the people who were trying to make sustainable businesses and ethical businesses we would be more proactive vs. reactive," says Markus.
Birch carries a line of clothing and accessories that make being green also fashion friendly: silky bamboo and cotton bath towels and brightly colored purses made from candy wrappers.
It's the perfect store for customers like Laura Andrews. Andrews says she's a conscientious consumer, and even she has a hard time always making an environmentally conscious choice.
"There's definitely times where I'm looking for something that's cheap that I'll use one time and throw it away," says Andrews. "The majority of the time, though, I'm willing to pay a higher price for something that supports my values and hopefully will last longer than something else that I would buy cheaply."
Environmentalists hope manufacturers will increasingly cater to the earth-conscious consumer, but U of M product design professor Daniel Jasper is skeptical. He says we've become a fast-moving society that enjoys reinventing itself with each new trend.
"Increasingly we're not staying in one place for very long," says Jasper, "and so this idea of heirlooms--things we want to hold onto for the rest of our lives--is kind of antiquated. It just means that we're going to have to move all that stuff at some point, where it would be so much easier if we could kick it to the curb and just buy new things for our new house when we move."
For the sake of Minnesota's landfills, waste engineer Don Kyser hopes we kick our shopping habits to the curb and learn to buy for the long term.
- All Things Considered, 03/26/2007, 5:54 p.m.