I recently bought a country house. Having an empty house leads immediately to many trips to buy all of the things a house needs to become a home. In making these trips, I learned two things.
First: stuff is really cheap. You can buy a coffee maker, a toaster, and a blender for $15 a piece. $20 gets you cutlery for six. Sales at Pier One offer up good quality dishes for a buck. A stop at the dollar store yields giant bags of cleaning supplies, kitchen gadgets, a hammer and a set of screwdrivers, plastic storage containers, and curtains: $40 total. A mere $49 gets a vacuum cleaner. Home Depot has nice rugs for $99. Bath towels are $3.99 at Target (I bought a dozen).
The second thing I learned in filling my house up with all these products is that the hardest part is accessing them once you get them home. Packaging is out of control. Virtually every household good is embalmed in cardboard, plastic, Styrofoam, metal, tape, and glue.
The microwave I bought ($39) came in a giant box with 2 inch metal staples and a metal band around the perimeter to keep the box flaps down. After prying the box open, I hit Styrofoam so tight in the box that it took several minutes to extract. Once I slid out the entire contents, releasing the oven from the Styrofoam case required severing thick plastic bands. (Ordinary scissors didn’t work – I used pruning sheers.) The oven itself was then wrapped in a huge plastic bag. Getting the oven door open required pulling off tape that left a stick residue. Inside, the glass turntable was inside a box wedged diagonally in the oven. The electrical cord was wrapped up tightly in a plastic band (pruning sheers again). The plug had a plastic cover that had to be pried off. Besides the box, nothing was recyclable. And it’s not just appliances. Every plate and bowl I bought came bundled up in bubble wrap or foam. A cutlery set had every single fork, spoon and knife attached individually, top and bottom, to thick cardboard with a metal band.
And then there are the labels. Anything you pick off a store shelf has a label secured with glue so impenetrable it could hold the Space Shuttle together. When I first encountered these labels, on dishes, I tried washing them off with hot soapy water. No go. I then tried soaking the dishes overnight. That loosened the labels but left behind a sticky residue. The dishwasher didn’t get the glue off either. Eventually, I discovered a label-removal technique: I soaked a paper towel in WD40 and set it on each label for an hour.
What strange confluence of laws and economic incentives produce all of this hyperpackaging of inexpensive goods? Do appliances break unless transported in a foot of protection? Do consumers injure themselves if they get the box home and the flatware is right at the surface and unsecured? Do labels deter theft of open-stock items (“We know that this isn’t your cereal bowl you have under your sweater because it has our label on it.”)? Or ensure that things don’t get misplaced on store shelves?
It’s clearly wasteful. Of time (mine). And of resources.
My town doesn’t have trash collection so everything has to be taken to the “transfer station” on weekends. There, local residents are busy sorting things into the proper recycling bin. To dispose of items that can’t be recycled you have to pay $2 for an orange trash bag which you then fill and take to a chute right next to the attendant’s office. Many people have no orange bags of trash to dispose of; I’ve never seen anybody with more than one bag. I have been hauling five or six at a time. Huge bags of packaging that is no good to anybody anymore – and likely never was.