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Ode to our throwaway society

July 19, 2012
By Sarah Wolpow , Blue Ridge Press

Who can fix my chair? My light, aluminum beach chair, with the wooden armrests and canvas seat.

My chair, that with a loud rip from its striped bottom, plopped me down on the sand in a rather undignified way one hot day last summer?

Through the long winter, my chair sat in the hallway, broken and disapproving. Sometimes it scolded, "Throw me out, you idiot! It's too expensive to have me fixed."

Article Photos

An aluminum beach chair with wooden armrests and canvas seat — who can fix it?
(Photo — MultiAd Builder)

Other times it would say, "Fix me, you dimwit! My sturdy frame is fine. Are you going to landfill me because you can't replace a simple piece of fabric? Do you have any idea how much energy it takes to make aluminum?"

Well, I didn't, so I checked. Manufacturing aluminum in the Northwest alone uses more electricity annually than the cities of Seattle and Portland, Oregon, combined. More land surface is destroyed mining bauxite - the primary ore from which aluminum is extracted - than the mining of virtually any other ore.

I did not want to landfill my chair. I wanted to honor it. By fixing my chair, I would honor the tree that was felled for the armrests, the wildlife whose habitat was blasted to mine the bauxite, the fish whose rivers were dammed to power the ore processors, and the child laborer who stitched on the canvas.

Maybe I should just sit on a blanket, I thought. But no, I like my chair, and I will make my stand on the side of fixing it. It defies common sense to throw it away.

It also defies common sense that it should cost less to buy a new chair than to fix the old one. The reasons are complicated, but simply put, the prices we pay for products don't reflect the true costs of making them.

The goods we buy would be far more expensive if their price tags included repairing the strip-mined land, cleaning up the degraded rivers and oceans, treating the asthmas caused by air pollution, and turning back the devastating effects of climate change.

OK, OK, I said to my chair. Let me see what I can do.

But after all that, my chair did not cooperate. It was designed to be discarded. The frame could not be disassembled. To fix it, you must cut off the remnants and hand-stitch the new fabric in place with the whole chair gangling about in your lap.

I can't fix it, I concluded. I don't know which thread to use. I don't have the right needles. So, I asked, who can fix my chair?

Not us, said the children. You haven't taught us how to sew, and we are too busy with homework and sports.

Not I, said the husband; you're much better at sewing.

Not I, said the sister, unless you want to mail it to Illinois.

Not I, said the father. I'm not a tailor.

Not I, said the seamstress. It's too much work, and it will be too expensive. (What she really meant is that it defies common sense to spend more money to fix something than it would cost to replace.)

Who can fix my chair?

I can fix it, said the mother, who grew up on a farm, who sewed before she could read, who makes her own clothes. You come wash my windows, and I will fix your chair.

I will not have to buy a new chair after all. The price of new goods is steadily rising as the costs of energy soar and the costs to the earth and to our health of making throwaway things becomes ever more apparent.

Soon, it will again be cost-effective to fix things. It will make sense to everyone. Fortunately the people who know how to do it are still around. They are your parents, your grandparents, your elderly neighbors.

Enjoy the smiles on their faces when you ask them to show you how.

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Sarah Wolpow lives in Brunswick, Maine, writes a regular environmental column for the Maine Times Record and blogs at swolpow.wordpress.com.

 
 

 

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