Trash Day

It's Monday at 5:30 AM in Holtsville.  Trash Day. I am on my way to the train station.  It's dark, but I can see the mounds of trash and junk lining the streets.  Plastic garbage bags are piled high on plastic trash cans.  The sheer amount of waste should be enough to disgust anybody.

But what really gets me is the big stuff that people put out for collection.  Durable things.  Things that are supposed to last a lifetime - big pieces of furniture, lawn mowers, toys - stuff that no one anticipated would be in the garbage when it was bought new.

Nobody buys things that last anymore.  It's that American lust for cheap junk that fuels a lack of quality in the things we own.  As I was driving to the train station, my headlights illuminated the sea of junk lining the sides of the road.  On the left, a pile of Ikea bookshelves that probably got the job done for a couple years before it leaned over and collapsed one day.  On the right, one of those six-compartment woven basket things from Target that people use to organize junk in their bathroom.  It rusted until someone decided it was too ugly and tossed it.

Last week, my neighbor across the street threw out three bikes.  It was a day before I realized that a bunch of kids didn't simply leave their bikes at the curb, but that my neighbor was throwing the bikes out.  Against the protestations of my wife, I walked over to the opposite curb to see what kind of shape they were in.  Everything worked except the sprockets and chains, which were all rusted solid.  Probably left out in the rain for several months.  It's a shame.  Back when I was a kid, the bikes would have been picked clean for parts by kids in the neighborhood.  If I had been the lucky kid to come across them lying there, I would have spent days with my dad's wrenches taking them apart and cobbling them together.  I would have been busy for days.

No kids came to take the bikes.  The garbage man took them.

What does that say?  It's not worth it to get a new sprocket and chain for a bike when the whole bike costs $169 new at your local big box store.  It's easier to throw the whole bike out and get a new one.  The kid who spends all day taking a junk bike apart for parts would probably be ridiculed by his friends - surely there are better ways to spend valuable time.

I'm just as guilty in many cases.  I tell the checkout guy at Best Buy that I'm not interested in the extended warranty.  If it breaks, I throw it out and get a new one.  Electronics are cheap.

But I do make an effort to buy things that last.  Yesterday, I spent most of the day packing up my music gear in my basement.  Most of it is top of the line - stuff I've had since I was 15 and that is still durable and coveted today.  Head out to my shed and you'll see that every piece of equipment I have is built to last, from the lawn mower to the rototiller to the pressure washer.  Everything is well-maintained and gets new oil and plugs regularly.  Everything has a Honda motor and starts on the first or second pull every time.

Maintenance helps, but it would be a bigger help if the consumer economy didn't prioritize price over value every time.  Judging from the trash piles outside my neighbor's homes, many of them would rather pay $129 for the junky plastic push mower than $199 for the stainless steel one with the Honda motor that will last me until I'm too old to push a mower.  They'll throw theirs out and buy a new one every three years.  I'll change oil and plugs and pass my mower on to my kid.  (My grandfather gave me a Snapper mower when I was in my teens.  It worked like a dog for him for over a decade and for us for several years.  It died only when my mom put regular gas in it instead of pre-mix and it seized.)

Furniture is another story.  You can't avoid cheap furniture these days.  Even expensive furniture is cheaply made.  My wife and I bought our bedroom set when we moved into our house on Spiral Road, and I've already had to repair the bed frame twice and send back one of the dressers for a replacement.  It's not like we went to Ikea.  This is supposedly decent Broyhill furniture.  When the bed frame broke, I saw it wasn't even real wood - just laminate cover God-knows-what.  Maybe the next time we need furniture we'll take a big truck down to Georgia or the Carolinas where they still make real furniture out of real wood.

We might not get a chance.  While we demand cheap stuff from everybody around us, people are demanding cheap stuff from whatever line of business we happen to be in ourselves.  Everybody pays $200 for that?  Well, I want to pay $100.  What can you do for me?

We all end up reducing the quality of what we do and what we sell.  And we forget what value looks like when we do see it.  The people making solid products and offering solid services suffer - why do something once for $200 when it can be done every year for $100 every time?  Most people line up to pay the $100 so they can do it again in six months or a year, rather than pay the $200 to do it once - the right way.

Taking the cheap way every time leads to a lot of frustration and waste.  Piles of trash on the curb.  Things that ought to be reconditioned going in the landfill instead.  Until all we're left with is a pile of junk.