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Monday, 15 November 2010

In Praise of a Throwaway Society

How long should a pillow last?

In my family, pillows were things acquired as part of setting up home and, once acquired, were kept for a life time. I don't think they were ever washed. My mother did, however, double wrap them with two pillowcases - something I still do - and pillowcases were washed, maybe once a fortnight.

My (feather) pillows go down the tip after a year or so. I see no point in washing them and they are cheap to replace.

I can't remember the last time I had a pair of shoes repaired. I wear them out and throw them away. I rarely polish them, despite having been brought up to do so. I can recall watching an uncle polishing his leather shoes for work, always with great care, and I am sure those sparkling shoes had seen many years' service. But they cost him ten minutes a day when he could have read his Daily Herald.

No one darns my socks, mends my shirts or sharpens my knives. There is no need. I replace these things. But I remember another uncle who had his own personal wooden-handled knife to eat with, not more than a couple of inches left of it after decades of being sharpened.

There are still people about with a Workhouse philosophy: one set of decent clothes, kept for best and kept for a very long time; other clothes bought cheap and worn and washed until faded and threadbare.

Life can be better than that and throwing things away is part of what makes it better.

The line between reasonable and profligate replacement, of clothes and household goods, has shifted dramatically in a century, at different rates for different goods - a social historian could probably chart it and that would be interesting reading. Think of hairbrushes for women and razors for men.

But should we even see a line between the reasonable and the profligate? If you have the money, surely it is yours to spend as you please? If you want to throw out the sofa after twelve months instead of twelve years, who is to say you shouldn't?

It is "the environment" which may make us pause, but I am not always sure why. Oil is an exhaustible resource but - for example - cotton isn't. You can just keep on growing it. Ah, but what about Waste and its disposal? A throwaway society is a society which creates waste on a vastly greater scale.

Of course, that's true, so the waste has to go somewhere and, of course, we may have to pay for it to go there - though sometimes other people will be happy to pay us to recycle it. That's as true now as in Charles Dickens' time.

The trouble at present is that we are surrounded by ideologically-motivated recycling, the costs and benefits of which are unclear. When I loook at the big, diesel-guzzling lorries which crawl round my city and are slowly and painfully filled with "recyclables" I rather suspect they are part of a Soviet system which does not care about costs or benefits. Some of the time, the "recycling" is simply bogus - the stuff goes to landfill; they just won't admit it. The rest of the time, when all the costs are factored, is it rational to collect all those half-washed empty cans of dog food? Would it not make better environmental sense to ban the dogs?

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