Sunday, August 12, 2007

Notes From My Knapsack 8-19-07
Jeff Gill

Durable Goods and the Disposable Consumer

Here at Sycamore Lodge, the Lovely Wife and I take pride in the number of appliances and housewares we have from our wedding presents, some decades ago.

We’ve bought a new toaster, the blender and food processor have died, and there’s been a dozen coffee makers, but we still have all the pots, most of the glass cookware, slow cooker, and colander, plus my great-aunt Chloa’s wok and hot plate.

We use the dining room table and sideboard my parents started married life with, and a bed, dresser, and kitchen table from LW’s childhood home.

With enough older household gear around, we have reference points for a very simple observation. Stuff is getting cheaper, but it is also getting cheaper, as in, well, cheap.

Wood products are interesting in that the older American made goods that were made for the basic family market are manufactured from wood that is very high quality, with fine grain, few knotholes, and a great finish.

Those kinds of workmanship touches are now only found on the very high end stuff, while a set of new chairs can be gotten much more cheaply in real, let alone adjusted dollars. When you flip them over, you’ll see that they come from fascinatingly exotic corners of southeast Asia.

When you live with them a few months, you realize that little wedges drop out as the tropical woods dry and contract, flaws filled with putty show their outlines, and the material itself just can’t take a bump or scrape without significant damage.
These chairs won’t end up in the Little Guy’s home when he’s our age, trust me.

And plastic isn’t what it used to be, either. Thinner, more brittle, slightly off seam in contact points. Add to that the natural degradation of most plastic . . .

As I’ve mentioned here before, the curators at the Air & Space Museum of the Smithsonian and over in Dayton at the USAF Museum know that the cloth, wood, and leather artifacts of the early days of flight are remarkably durable with a bit of shining and tending, while the suits and masks and stuff of the early Space Age are crumbling to plastic dust even in environmentally sealed cases.

There’s some yard equipment I bought four years ago that seemed durable and carried a respected brand name. It felt solid and lasting, and had a good rating from a consumer group. The low price helped, I’ll admit, but it didn’t define the deal.
Yet I’m not holding the broken bits of a crumbling artifact that might as well have come from an Egyptian tomb. Chunks of the casing are flaking off, and key parts broke in use which led to the breaking of other parts, all of which are no more made today, four years later, than replacement parts for Henry Ford’s grandfather’s buggy whip. Cogs and clips and reels which are necessary for the unit’s operation are snapped, and their equivalent pieces on today’s models, externally identical, and internally a whole new ecosystem of parts.

Which means I have a bunch of useless junk, including un-useable rechargeable batteries which are perfectly good, but can’t be snapped into the models sold now, which can be fixed with today’s parts. The parts are a dime’s worth of plastic, while the batteries are most of the weight and (I’d think) most of the cost.

My one bright spot, if you know the dilemma I face: next Saturday is Hazardous Waste Disposal Day at OSU Newark. On Aug. 25 from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm, you can bring by your old batteries, rechargeable or used up commercial, mercury thermometers, household chemicals, and just about anything but paint (put some kitty litter in it and stir, then set it out for your regular trash). Antifreeze, fire extinguishers, metal primers, oven cleaners, furniture stripper, brake fluid, all that kind of nasty stuff you know you can’t put down the storm drain anymore (you do know you can’t do that, right?).

If you have questions, Luellen would love to hear from you: call 349-6308 . . . and Licking County Recycling and Litter Control would love to hear from you.

Meanwhile, do we shop around and buy something that costs an arm and a leg, but is made somewhere within this hemisphere, and will last a few decades – or get the cheapest, knowing now that it won’t even make it five years?

These are going to be important choices for all of us in the coming years. Think about it, and dispose of what you have to safely.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him about your household durable good at

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