The Extraordinary Longevity of Ordinary Objects
Happy Earth Day
A couple of months ago, I moved for the first time in five years. What surprised me the most, other than high rent prices in the Bay Area and the extent to which the landscape had changed comparatived to my childhood memories, was the amount of stuff I had accumulated. I kept a lot of crap, no longer discarding my unnecessary belongings by moving to a new apartment every year, or moving back to my parents' for the summer in between school years. Stuff that I honestly forgot I had. Old lipsticks and eye shadows that had dried out, bed sheets from my dorm life, batteries of all types, so numerous I couldn't tell the difference between the charged one or the dead ones. Old IKEA boxes we had latched onto "for moving" and how we were loathe to get rid of such things, because "We might need it later." It felt expensive and wasteful throwing things away when you can't afford to replace them and might need them "later."
Dust collected in the corners of our towers of belongings, trapping us in a cathedral of forgotten goods. There would be one path in and out, so my wife and I would have to scoot out of one place if another wanted to walk by. Rarely would guests come over, simply because there wasn’t much space for a comfortable visit. When your bed becomes the center of meaning in your apartment, the place where your meals are consumed, words are written, as well as the majority of your time at home, it was not unlike living in a dorm room, with the feeling that I was in this purgatory of an undergraduate lifestyle.
All this stuff didn't make me happy. It bothered me. I felt like I was kept hostage by all my stuff and couldn't move freely throughout my living space. I would trip and inevitably cause a tower of carefully placed mail, magazines, and promotional keychains cascading to the floor, another mess to tiptoe around and later, pick up. My elbows would brush against another precarious stack invariably five minutes later. No, we weren't hoarders. Just living in a rent-controlled basement studio apartment in San Francisco. The golden handcuffs, where you couldn't move without paying exorbitantly more in monthly rent and having the requisite six roommates to make that said monthly rent. When we found our one bedroom, one bathroom in Berkeley, it felt like an opening for a new beginning. We could finally get our cat, couch, and a coat rack, a mantra my wife and I said to each other while lying in our full size bed. It may not sound like much, but it's the little things that make a difference when you have little space.
I learned where I got it from once my father helped us move. He brought my old space heater that kept me warm when I was child in the early 90s. I couldn't believe my eyes that this rickety radiator adjacent appliance had outlasted our years in my childhood home, kept among the debris of old soccer trophies, swim team ribbons, and sheets of piano music. When I went back to my parents apartment to gather my books that had been patiently waiting for me to have enough room for them five years later, I sorted through the artifacts of their own dreams too expensive to discard; sheets wrapped in plastic envelopes, sustainably sourced bamboo wooden spoons still in their mesh packaging, a Nutribullet in mint condition, and other various "as seen on TV" kitchen gadgets. So many new things just waiting to be used when the older version "wore out."
Clearly this is not limited to my wife and I. As soon as we moved to Berkeley, we noticed new phenomena that people just…left stuff in front of other houses; old cribs, couches, a nonfunctional microwave. Buildings had signs emblazoned with "No Dumping" which finally made sense as we walked along hand in hand amongst the flotsam and jetsam of our street. Why would people just leave things for someone else to deal with, rather than throw them out themselves? I didn’t understand how people could offload their responsibility of stuff on others. However, getting rid of stuff is expensive. Junk removal costs money, city infrastructure for recycling costs tax dollars in short supply. It's easier to throw it away in landfill for those who are not fortunate enough to live in a wealthy city with new and developing recycling programs like San Francisco (for example, you can now recycle coffee cups in SF, plastic lid, sleeve and all).
But first, we needed to get rid of a lot of shit that wouldn't fit in the new apartment. We had old clothes, shoes, appliances, electronics, and tons of promotional items to get rid of (don't ever accept a free tote bag, y'all!). And we wanted to do it sustainably, instead of throwing away everything into landfill. For one, there wasn't enough room as we were moving because our landlord died. Her children were dealing with a lifetime's worth of belongings by cramming everything into the garbage bin week by week. 81 years of living cannot be discarded in any meaningful way with this method. Ultimately, they hired junk removers but when we left; her children still weren't finished. They had just excavated the garage, jaws dropping at the sight of old Elizabeth Arden face cream from 1985, vintage furs moulding in the San Francisco fog, and so many rusted cans of paint. The story of stuff is nothing new. We only take ourselves to the grave, leaving behind our lives in belongings for our descendents to manage.
You've found these formerly owned possessions before in your local thrift store, on the sidewalk, and in your home. We define ourselves by material, what we wear, and how they are signifiers of our identities,, rather than by our actions and what we say. I recall reading "If you're holding onto something out of guilt, get rid of it." There was so much guilt in all the possessions I held onto. The potential of what I could be, who I would be held in the promise of smaller sized clothing, clothes I made for myself that ended up being unwearable, and the things my mother purchased for me, forming me into her ideal image of a daughter. I tried to purge myself of these as I moved to Berkeley, to shed an old skin, so I could grow a new one, tender under the sun.
Textiles, the new frontier for recycling in San Francisco, became easier than ever to rid ourselves of, no longer beholden to the gatekeepers at Crossroads or Buffalo exchange to give us paltry dollars in exchange for our outdated threads. We could just put our clean fabric and unwanted clothes in a clear plastic bag, and it could go in the blue recycling bin. Before 2018, we had to go to retail clothing stores that had a bin for recycled textiles, but the bins would always be full to bursting. After all, fast fashion is a booming and toxic industry, with most synthetic petroleum based fibers taking decades to decompose. The average American throws away 68 pounds of textiles per year. Inundated with messages about our dwindling resources, San Francisco citizens wanted to do their part. But the infrastructure couldn't meet the demand.
With 45 in the White House, the EPA loosening restrictions for air pollution, and Jakarta sinking due the rising waters of climate change, as citizens of the human species we can no longer grant an all access pass to the stuff that comes into our lives. Ideally, everyone's carbon footprint would be zero, there would be no single use plastics, and we would bring our own reusable coffee cups to every café. But that is not the reality. Consumer capitalism encourages us to participate effectively by marketing everything to us. Flyers that withstand the rain have a special plastic coating are now unrecyclable. The advent of online shopping and Amazon have increased the amount of cardboard our local recycling facilities intake every day. As I write this on top of Grizzly Peak overlooking the entire Bay Area, there are rusted bottle caps, cigarette butts, bits of broken glass littering the ground next to my feet. Human brought these with them. And they left them behind.
What do you do with your shoelaces, once you are done with them? The plastic ends of the shoelaces doesn't allow for it to be textile recycled, you can't recycle the plastic coating bits in your home recycling bin. So you throw them away. Teabags with staples cannot be composted, or recycled, so into the trash it goes. What about all those plastic eyeliner pencils you don't have to sharpen but just twist up? So convenient! Yet into the trash bin it goes, because we haven't figure out a way to recycle those either. It goes back to the manufacturer, the research and design process, with items being invented to collect your dollars, short-term profits, and your customer loyalty over the next organization marketing a lifestyle, a way of looking, or even just eating. The brands that are trying, such as Lush Cosmetics, are incredibly popular thanks to their green-washing marketing. Environmentalism is also feminist issue, as the majority of women produce, grow, and feed the world as well as fulfill the roles as nurturers of their families. We will all be subject to rising tides, volatile weather that will harm crop production, affect where humans can live, and what we can eat. But ultimately, stakeholder profits are on the line and sustainability is simply, too expensive and seen as repressing innovation. Just ask Trump.
Every single item of human origin needs to have a method of disposal for it to be considered "sustainable." Despite this fact, during product research and design, the main factor is often marketability, user-friendliness, and built-in obsolescence for when the company wants you to upgrade; not whether the packaging will decompose in a short amount of time or a made from durable materials. Other countries, such as India, are already considering this in their industrial processes. Yet America is heading in the opposite direction and has pulled out of the Paris Agreement regarding climate change. What can we do?
You can start in your very own community. Find the person in your apartment complex who keeps throwing away their plastic bottles in the trash can…or the compost. Strike up a conversation, teach them about recycling or be the person who volunteers at your recycling center. It will change the way you view our mass consumption habits. Clean up your neighborhood by picking up litter with your friends. I promise you, it’s there if you take a second look. Humans did this to the Earth, but we can fix it. Repair items, instead of throwing away and replacing them. Stop impulse-purchasing stuff that will go out of fashion in a season. Do you really need that polyester unicorn headband that you're only using for one outfit? It's not the amount of objects and possessions you surround yourself with that matter, but whether it improves your quality of life. My wife and I were trapped by our belongings in our old home. In some ways, we still are in our new one. Stacks of DVDs, sewing supplies, and other abandoned hobbies when we had time for them have followed us into the new apartment. Yet we still haven't unpacked them because, well, there's no place for them to go.
There is something awe-inspiring that despite our best intentions, our human bodies don't remain on this earth nearly as long as the plastic items that we used. Awe-inspiring and awful in its longevity
Dena Rod is an Iranian American writer, editor, and poet. They're a graduate of San Francisco State University, where they received a Master’s Degree in English Literature. You can find more of their work in CCSF’s Forum Literary Magazine, Endangered Species, Enduring Values: An Anthology of San Francisco Area Writers and Artists of Color, and the upcoming anthology Iran Musings: Stories and Memories from the Iranian Diaspora (Release Date: 2019).