Oh, Mary

Garbage Time

October 23, 2019
Roger van Oosten

Walking to the office a few days ago, I saw a large truck parked in front of a large house. In the back of the truck, was a barbecue grill, sofa, chairs, table and a half dozen boxes.  

“Are they moving out?” I asked one of the men loading the truck. 

“No,” he said. “They just wanted to get rid of a few things.”

The definition of the word ‘few’ is not hard and fast, but it generally means a ‘small number of.’ There was more than a few items in that truck. Way more. 

Walking by, I noticed the name of the company on the side of the truck, posed as a provocative question. 1-800-Got Junk? Like everyone else, I guess I have to answer ‘yes’ to that one. 

I was born in the early 1960s. That’s really not that long ago. Yet in the five decades since, the American economy has gone through transformational change. In 1960, America was primarily a manufacturing country. We made things. 

Gradually over the next 20 years, America ceded manufacturing to other countries. First it was radios and televisions, then cars and white goods like refrigerators and stoves. By 1990, America had largely become a service economy. 

But America wasn’t content to be just a country where services were offered and purchased. The country became a consumer country, the economy driven by the purchase of things, many which were produced in some other country. 

While there is nothing inherently wrong with building a consumer based economy, unintended consequences cannot be ignored. Put another way, is there an upper limit to consumerism and have we over-consumed?

Consider this. In just the last eight years, construction of self-storage facilities has gone from being a billion dollar industry to a more than six billion dollar industry. And the overall industry of self-storage, the construction, maintenance and renting of storage units is currently a $38 billion dollar business. Sometimes we get numb to numbers, but $38 billion makes it a larger business than making Hollywood films. It’s more than the marketing industry, housing construction, and logistics. 

In other words, it’s a huge industry and it’s an industry that largely came to prominence in the last 15 years.  Likewise, the junk removal business is a massive business that was only a fringe business just a decade ago. 

Philosophers have spent countless hours and written millions of words upon the nature and meaning of mankind. In 2019, I posit a different theory of human existence. We are junk creators, plain and simple. We buy and discard, turning today’s shining purchase into tomorrow’s garbage. 

It’s astonishing and troubling. We’ve built an economy that glamorizes and promotes buying to such an extent that many define their whole existence by what they own. And if we are not buying, the economy suffers and employment numbers shrink. 

At the same time, the rise of self-storage and junk removal as businesses of consequence reveals a sad truth. In many cases, what we own, now owns us. We are paying to store it and paying to throw it away. In fact, we have paid so much to store and dispose that we are now seeing an explosion of consumers simply leaving what they no longer want out on the curb with a ‘free’ sign on it. Perhaps that’s even being done in some vain hope that someone, anyone would value something purchased, but no longer wanted. 

So what is the remedy? I refuse to send you, constant reader, to the clutches of Marie Kondo. Separating your possessions based on joy is a singular idea, but isn’t practical. Coat hangers don’t bring me any emotion, but I’ll keep a few handy if you don’t mind.

We’ll start with an oldie but goodie. If you haven’t used something in the last year, you’ll probably never use it again. Some say six months, but I prefer a full year, because seasons. As a carrot, stand firm on those few beloved items that do in fact bring you joy. For me, that’s a small box of old record albums, purchased with precious dollars when I was in my teens, that are now having a resurgence in popularity.

Moving forward, consider buying experiences, a dinner out, a concert, a vacation. No one on their deathbed regrets not having a better stove, but they might regret not seeing Taylor Swift in concert. And finally, do the easy thing. In nearly everyone’s home or apartment, a large percentage of items in the home are simply junk. No value or hard decisions need be made with such items. They survive only because no one has thrown them away. Do that. It’ll feel good. 

Leaving the office, the Got Junk? truck had left. The homeowner was putting a new pile of stuff, including furniture, appliances and a brand new toilet, on the curb along with a ‘free’ sign. 

“Someone will want these,” she said. She sounded hopeful. 

Meanwhile, until further notice, free is the new dump.