23 July 2011

Disposable stuff

A few years ago, IKEA, the Swedish super-furnishings store had a marketing campaign in which it advertised that if you grew tired of your IKEA lamp or bedding, you could just get rid of it and get new stuff, because IKEA's prices were so low. I remember feeling vaguely uncomfortable with that message, with the idea that furnishings could be so disposable, and it turns out that so did many other consumers, and IKEA ended that campaign rather quickly.

It's interesting to see how the mindset has changed from one of rabid consumerism to one of careful consumption, at least in pockets of the U.S. We recycle avidly here in Seattle of course, not just paper, glass, plastic, but also our food waste and yard waste. I have learned to feel guilty if some jar is just too icky to clean out, or if I'm somewhere where composting isn't possible. This is why I'm feeling a little strange this week because my spouse and I are at the point in our packing where we are wearing what we have come to call, 'disposable clothing.' These are clothes not quite decent enough to pass onto charity, but still suitable to wear, but definitely not going with us to France. Throwing out a perfectly good, but dirty and faded t-shirt after wearing it one day this week just feels wrong! Not only that, I am just horrified by the amount of shredded paper waste that is coming out of this household. Somehow I managed to save bills from 1999 onward and now I have the monumental task of shredding or recycling those documents. This paper in its shredded form is only good enough for the compost bin according to City of Seattle and I've been filling my neighbors' compost bins as well as our own with bags of the shredded stuff. Embarrassing! On the other hand, a few weeks ago I had some things that just felt too good to give away to charity, and I offered them via a group email to my friends, who surprised me by snapping them all up (even the IKEA items!). One friend sagely observed that these items were probably laden with strong memories and that was making their disposal a bit more emotional and thus more difficult. She was right as I happen to be one of those people who remembers where I acquired something, who I was with, or what the circumstances were around a particular object, whether it be as mundane as the cheap laundry basket from Allen's grandparents' house that I snatched up when the house was being emptied to sell, or as cherished as the secondhand dishes I bought with my friends on a girls' weekend on Whidbey Island several years ago. Those objects help me remember certain social connections.

I wonder how much of our 'stuff' adds meaning to our lives, and how much just adds clutter, to our space and in our minds. I also wonder how much stuff we will accumulate during our French adventure, and whether we will be able to live more minimally than we have recently. (I like the idea of this.) There will certainly be things we will want to buy and bring home that are different from what we can get in Seattle, but will we have the boxes of papers, old clothing, candles, dishes that have been so cumbersome to deal with these past few months? (And will we be as able to recycle, compost and pass on our things as we have here? What I've seen in Aix-en-Provence hasn't convinced me that recycling is as popular there as here.) As for a new minimal lifestyle, I think that we might succeed for a while, but as we meet new people, explore new places, and entertain visitors from home, we will engage in that age-old custom of exchanging gifts and goods that add meaning to our social relationships. And that means we will likely have 'stuff' to deal with upon our return as well.

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