For context for future readers, in mid May 2021 there were new cases of Covid found in Melbourne. This was after many months of no community transmission. Given that some of the new cases were a new strain towards the end of May a snap "7 day" "circuit breaker" lockdown was introduced and was scheduled to end no sooner than June 3rd. Then turned into 14 days at minimum at the time of writing this article.
Also recently there's been a hard rubbish waste collection day. I probably wouldn't have wrote about the hard rubbish collection but due to the lockdown I haven't really had anything else to do but ponder life and have time to write.
I think about technology and its context in society a lot. I remember when I was younger computer monitors tended to be these bulky cathode ray tubes, my family purchased an Amiga 500 computer which had a staggering 4096 colors using something called HAM mode I still remember the weird color artifacts from it but at the time damn this was good, I seem to remember some parrots that looked rather vivid on the screen. Keep in mind this was a time where computer monitors were typically black and white or black and green. This was back in the era where smart people were hired to make the absolute best use of the limited resources available to them, and the Amiga people were incredibly talented engineers and made the absolute most of what little raw computing power they had1. Years ago we started to see CRT monitors on the curb but now those are rare, plasma flatscreens and LED flatscreens with screen sizes and resolutions unimaginable to me as a kid have in the interim been invented and are now are getting thrown out on the curb. My phone that I'm taking photos of the trash with for this post has a higher screen resolution than the computers of my youth, and little more than a few years old it's already becoming obsolete due to the tsunami of software bloat that is drowning devices over the world. Specifically the rate of TV disposals seems to have increased somewhat, I see people throwing out big widescreen "smart" TVs that would hardly be 5 years old. Devices that might be perfectly functional but bricked due to a software/firmware update or don't work because they can't call home to a server due to the server not existing tend to end up curbside. I fail to see what's "smart" about such waste but yet I'm sure some "smart" minds are working hard on convincing the world that right to repair is a bad thing.
All this reminds me of an amazing quote from a Canadian friend of mine:
"Decades ago furniture was really solid and it would last the duration of your marriage. Now we have flimsy ikea furniture that lasts the duration of a marriage."
What people throw out is an interesting reflection on trends in the world. I noticed a lot more books and things like office paperwork related supplies being thrown out. This was brought to my attention by seeing a set of binders for Chartered Accountants out on the curb. I remember back when I did work experience at a law office they got me doing the filing of updates for law. Because the law changes over time every so often the updates to the law would be mailed out to the law firms then someone would go through the old binders and replace the old pages with the new pages. The subscription to the service was expensive and the time taken to manage this was also noticeable. Little did I know at the time that I'd eventually work on systems to completely replace paper workflows like this with fully electronic ones. But now that enough people have done work we are starting to see these paper systems as anachronisms and increasingly I'm seeing these paper systems what would previously have been thousands of dollars just out on the curb and going to landfill. This reduction in waste doesn't bother me but the reduction of that job is a far more complex topic, check out my other writing on technological unemployment if this interests you.
At the last hard waste collection day a year ago I remember picking up a perfectly good mattress that someone was throwing out so I could use it while training some bouldering. Due to the nature of the pandemic gyms were closed and I didn't expect them to reopen so I kept up some fitness climbing at home and other outdoors places and the mattress was used for some protection on falls. I had one especially hideous fall where if it weren't for the mattress I might be dead now, but I digress. I was reminded of all this because I was looking around for hardwood that people were throwing out because that would be good for some wood carving projects like making climbing holds. I guess people just didn't get the memo that structural timber prices had gone up. Or perhaps more disturbingly if they did they simply just didn't care.
It's clear some people have got the memo though because I'm starting to see extensive security cameras pop up at building sites all over the place, regardless of how small. Partially that's because the costs of surveillance have dropped so much but it's also because inflation in commodities prices has made stealing building supplies a much more attractive target for criminals. When you get really bad stagflation or inflation you don't just wake up one day and bread costs more than your nominal yearly wage from 2 years ago in the interim you get all sorts of small things like this happen. One thing that does happen is that people start to see the costs of daily items go up. More infrequent purchases also get more expensive but those can slip past people.
I saw some perfectly good thick plywood sheets thrown out, I picked these up because I'll make some climbing volumes out of them, it will both be useful and a small action to prevent perfectly usable materials going to waste. And coincidentally just like last year I picked up something related to climbing as I saw some climbing holds in the hard waste. I was really surprised by this and I picked them up because I'm building out a training area so I can stay in shape. As I was putting them into a bag one of the climbers who lived there arrived home, we got chatting about climbing and what would happen with the gyms given the recent Covid scares in Melbourne looming and looking like they have the potential to cause an extended closure of the climbing gyms again (especially considering transmission of the virus happened at a number of gyms).
While I was walking back to my house from the groceries store I saw a fridge standing up like a monolith atop a base of trash. Something caught my eye about it, there was a sticker on the fridge from an environmental group saying "stand up for what you believe in". I wonder what the makers of this sticker would have thought about it being the centerpiece of a vast vista of trash?
The thing that always strikes me about the night before the hard rubbish collection day is the window it gives into how obscenely much waste is generated in many places in the "modern" world. Sure there's things that people throw out that entirely make sense, items that are particularly well used and have just fallen apart or things that are broken beyond repair. If that's all I saw on the curb I think I'd have come home happy, but alas this is not what I saw.
As I get older I seem to end up reflecting more on the state of the world each time the yearly hard rubbish collection occurs. When I was younger maybe I wasn't paying as much attention but it seemed perfectly good items weren't thrown out as often. Maybe this is because I grew up in a pre-gentrified area but also I think people just didn't buy extraneous crap as much back then either.
Even when I was a kid I would reflect upon the sheer waste of modern society, so much was thrown out even back then that was perfectly reusable, things which would have clear value to someone. The bit that pains me about this is that so much ends up in landfill that just simply doesn't have to. Of course the question has always been how to match make the people who see an item as trash with those who see it as treasure. Sure there's like niche cases where someone motivated, who's looking, will find something that interests them like I did with the climbing items. However more broadly there's definitely a lot of items that are of value to people but there's just not quite enough incentives in place to make it worth people's time to get the items to people who would actually use it. Perhaps one way to tackle this is to make it easier to matchmake people who are getting rid of things with those who are using it. I mean given the insane amount of effort places into making matchmaking algorithms for online multiplayer games and various different dating apps I'm sure the problem is a solvable one - if only anyone actually cared enough about it. And it's this matter of care that worries me, if throwing things out is so convenient then it makes it far easier for people to throw things out without thinking about what they are doing.
Out of sight out of mind
I remember when I was a kid I was watching some documentary about slum living in some impoverished part of the world. I remember thinking at the time "oh wow they just create so much trash" when I saw images of people basically climbing on a huge pile of trash that wasn't that far from where they were living. What I didn't realize as a kid was just how much less waste these people were generating compared to say contemporary Australia. In 2019 Australians generated 67 million tons of waste, equivalent to around 2.7 tons per person. Australia has a very efficient waste collection system where the waste is taken away from people's homes every week. I won't say the system is good because it's frankly not, what happens after the waste and "recyclables" are collected can be far from good. For a long time Australia was literally exporting its trash and recyclables to other countries and when other countries stopped accepting our literal trash this caused a crisis locally. But in any case even if the eventual disposal isn't good the the residential trash collection is efficient and this is why we don't have piles of trash at the ends of streets like those seen in some impoverished places.
It strikes me that this consumer culture where we have such travesties as planned obsolescence that can only really work this smoothly with a society that has very highly organized waste collection. If it weren't for the regular garbage pickups and things like the hard rubbish collection days many people would simply be drowning in consumer product junk. Even if they liked what they were buying people would quickly be confronted by the sheer volume of broken stuff they had. They'd be confronted by the costs in time, energy and money of having to dump their broken consumer goods. Space is far more tangible than money.
Imagine a world in which you could never throw out a light bulb. Historical events like the Phoebus cartel which was a major industry cartel that agreed to reduce the lifespan of light bulbs would become that much more annoying if everyone's houses were getting filled up with the shit that they designed to break faster. It's much easier I suspect to see the spatial impact of planned obsolescence than to take careful measurements of time and money since both those are much more abstract concepts than "my garage is full of broken consumer goods and I'd like my garage space back".
In any case the blind culture of buying non-durable goods really only works when its downsides are out of sight and out of mind. There was a story that I encountered a few years back that had a surprisingly deep impact on me, for many years plastic toy Garfield phones were washing up on beaches in france. Some 30 years after the first encounters the mystery is now solved, there's this cave somewhere in France where a whole container load of these kids toy "phones" got lodged after falling off a cargo ship. I think I became more aware at this point of the massively industrial scale of waste we have now set up, and unfortunately the situation has only got worse in the last few decades. The thing that unsettled me the most about that particular instance of waste is just that the item itself isn't essential at all but yet the waste caused by it does substantial damage to far more essential things. Marine waste is now starting to have seriously negative impacts on a number of essential industries. Despite this we create non durable non essential items literally by the container load then invest large amounts of money into advertising and marketing to manipulate people into buying this sort of crap. I think much like the hard rubbish night the issue with much of the ocean waste is that it is out of sight and out of mind for people. Events like toys washing up on a beach or hard waste out on curbs give us a chance to actually see the issues far more vividly and directly.
Now a few days after the hard rubbish collection the waste is again mostly out of sight, but how long until it is once again out of mind?
Unfortunately Amiga computers despite being so far ahead technologically just didn't survive due to a number of reasons. A bit like what we see with the hard rubbish collection day sometimes the worse technology wins out, unfortunately this is in part due to a system of incentives that doesn't really favor the better technology in many cases. I have some articles in the works about how these society-wide incentives have shifted over time to not favor better engineering in many cases. ↩