Sustainably is one of those words that we read every day in the paper. It is the newest career. You hear that caffeinated pair at the café table next to you telling the world how to live sustainably. I probably say it ten times a day. It is in bold on every billboard in front of a construction site or the first page of a viewbook for college. If you are a car company your commercials show how efficient and clean your factories are, and how your car’s exhaust sprouts flowers (actual Volkswagen commercial). It is so easy to be green. All you have to do is live in company A’s condos, buy B’s cars and get your groceries from C.
Every once in a while I snap out of this thinking. It happened to me tonight as I was taking apart my speakers to figure out if the annoying buzzing noise could be fixed by soldering a loose connection or if it would be a slightly more involved repair requiring a new woofer. What we are taught from every angle is to get a new one, and make sure it is has a sticker on it saying “energy star compliant”, “fair trade”, “organic” or whatever it is that speakers are supposed to be. Shops that repair electronics don’t seem to exist. Everything is meant to be thrown away when it breaks, or even worse, when a new model comes out. You can talk all you want about recycling your manufacturing waste, but it is going to be better for the environment if that product that you are making is meant to last and build to be repaired when something does go wrong. I am lucky enough that I have the desire to troubleshoot and fix problems. It brings me a lot of joy. I know that I will not go out tomorrow and buy a new pair of speakers. In the worst-case scenario I will have to buy a new set of woofers to install in the cabinets. It is more likely that I will just find another set of complete speakers in perfect shape that someone threw out because they got a new pair. We live in a throwaway culture and are given the choice of throwing away “paper or plastic?” Why aren’t things set up so that they can be used and used again?
Even the way we build seems to be temporary; from stick frame houses to concrete malls. I get this sinking feeling every time I drive by the gigantic mountain of crushed concrete and rebar that was a thirty year old building in Worcester’s City Square. It will soon be the next newest idea to make Worcester’s downtown more active. It will probably have a similar lifespan to the last one. The embodied energy in concrete is staggering. It is an incredibly permanent substance that is used too frequently and a temporary material. “Recycling” the crushed concrete as fill for the site doesn’t sound so green on the second look.
I am asking you to try to break away from the greenwashing that we all fall victim to and really think about our decisions. There are more options. Maybe the answer is what was in place before all the choices. Is the compostable utensil is probably better than the plastic one, but is it better than a plain old fork that can be washed and used again? I guess I am trying to say is create for the future: Make it to last, make it repairable, make it so that people want it to last.