I’m not nearly old enough to give readers a “when I was your age” speech, but it is difficult not to note the contrast between the way things were when I was a child and how they are today when it comes to the proliferation of stuff.
When I was a boy, there were fewer shopping options up here in Whitehorse and prices (when you account for inflation) were significantly higher. When people no longer needed something, they could usually find someone on Trader Time or through the classifieds in the newspaper to take it off their hands. And people took the time to repair things that were broken rather than simply discarding them.
But today, with big box stores like Walmart and Canadian Tire and numerous online shopping websites we have such an overabundance of things that we’ve reached a point where we often can’t even get rid of them anymore. Sure there are some high demand items that are quickly snatched up on the Whitehorse Facebook Buy and Sell, but there are more and more item that you can’t even give away.
The recent announcement by the City of Whitehorse that the temporary closure of the free store at the dump has become permanent is probably symptomatic of that trend.
The sad truth is that no one needs your used stuff anymore — at least not here. In justifying the closure, the city noted that as much as 90 per cent of the items at the free store just ended up in the landfill anyway. And these were items that the previous owner determined — usually in good faith — could still be useful to someone else.
And don’t even get me started on kids clothing. Infant clothing items are so common these days that our children probably could have worn a different outfit every day up until their first birthdays just based on the number of items we were able to get our hands on for free.
Of course this is a problem that extends far beyond our small city.
These days when natural disasters strike, relief workers actually have to plead with well-meaning people not to turn it into an opportunity to empty out their closets. In fact dealing with unneeded items has become a significant expense for organizations that take in emergency donations which have to dispose of them if they can’t find anywhere else to send them.
After the Fort McMurray fire, the sheer volume of unused clothing, dishware, and other items became a significant problem for aid organizations after the fire was out and people started returning home. Even the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami — a widespread disaster affecting a more impoverished part of the world — led to a significant oversupply of clothing donations.
For years, donating old items to goodwill has been a part of our culture — a way of killing two birds with one stone. Not only could we fulfill a need by giving something to someone less fortunate, but we could avoid the guilt of feeling wasteful in our consumer habits by diverting useful items from the landfill. I think most of us feel a little bit of guilt when it comes to throwing something away that we no longer want or need but has not outlasted its useful life.
I suspect these opportunities to donate our used items will become fewer and fewer because stuff has become cheaper and more prolific. It isn’t just that people don’t need donations anymore, it is that there are so many people trying to get rid of their old things. We will increasingly be faced with the reality that even useful used items will have to go to the landfill if we want to get them out of our basements and garages.
For better or worse we have become a society of consumers and the flooded market for used items has adjusted accordingly. When we see something we want we buy it and rarely give a thought to what we will do with it once we no longer have a need anymore. We give as gifts all sorts of occasions in knick knacks and odds and ends that fill plastic bins and garbage bags in the storage areas of our homes, many of which are bursting at their seams.
And with the recent closure of our guilt-free outlets for getting rid of those things, we are limited to accumulating and storing them in perpetuity. Either that or throwing them in the garbage.
Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.