Column: Today’s stuff is tomorrow’s junk

Stuff and junk, two words that make many of us shudder, started their etymological journey as straightforward names for simple things. Stuff entered English in the early 1300s, when soldiers heading into battle must have felt grateful for the thick padding of quilted material – called stuff – worn under their chain mail. The word junk is first documented around the middle of the 1300s – a medieval seaman asking for junk meant he wanted bits of old rope to seal something. By the 1900s, stuff and especially junk had become loaded with negative associations (as in junk food, junk mail).

Decades before we slid into the new millenium, a few people were already expressing concern about topics now making the daily headlines – sustainability, consumerism, materialism, pollution, plastic waste, recycling, etcetera – topics that invariably include references to stuff and junk. Yet, in spite of widespread awareness, the manufacturing industry won’t halt the vicious cycle of producing more stuff destined to become more junk. Why? Because for them, it’s all about making money.

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Shopping used to mean running an errand to purchase what was needed. Consumerism turned shopping into a pastime. For some, shopping became an obsession and addiction, for others it was so-called therapy. Online shopping opened the floodgates, making it easier and faster, and Amazon has made it worse, particularly with its “subscription boxes.” The result is the acquisition of stuff that quickly turns into unwanted junk, a problem that’s spawned numerous articles with tips about how to buy less. The articles point out that restraining our shopping impulses will not only save us money but also reduce our stress. Much more important – though rarely mentioned – is that buying less stuff also reduces environmental pollution, since unwanted junk has to be gotten rid of. Its usual fate is to be donated to the local thrift store where, if it’s unsellable (often the case), it’s scrapped.

There’s also another kind of consumerism rampant now, with consequences that are potentially even more damaging for our environment – the drive to acquire the latest electronic devices. Technology develops rapidly and the industry capitalizes on people’s appetite for the newest generation of a product. This is where planned obsolescence comes into play. The manufacturers make sure that the components deteriorate, the hardware ages, and operating systems become incompatible, in as short a time as is feasible. Smartphones in particular are designed with planned obsolescence in mind.

Although the concept of something becoming outdated is not new, it’s not invariably negative. Quality cars and clothing, for instance, gain prestige when they attain vintage status. Electronic devices, however, don’t. Antique cars and clothing continue to play a role in our lives, but electronic devices simply stop functioning and get tossed out.

Manufacturers and retailers work to sell. They don’t give two hoots about the consequences. Are you reminded (as I am) of those lines in one of Tom Lehrer’s songs? “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department, says Wernher von Braun.”

Sabine Eiche is a writer and art historian

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