Growing up in the 90s, my family’s car was a 1980 Volkswagen Rabbit. New models were released, but my parents were frugal school teachers, and took pride in keeping that clunker on the road. They drove it until the floor dropped out in one spot and we had to be careful where we put our feet.
I thought of that car as I read a piece in Vice Magazine about the Apple AirPods. Starting at over $150 a pair, the earbuds have become a status symbol—and an icon of disposable technology. Without wires, the tiny devices are easy to lose. The unreplaceable batteries have a lifespan of less than two years. Sure, users can recycle them, but only if they drop them off at an Apple Store in-person. Not everyone lives near a mall. The ‘have today, toss tomorrow’ consumer mantra we now live by is a stark contrast to the thriftiness embodied by our old Rabbit.
Waste has been associated with wealth throughout human history, since the Romans installed ornamental fountains to show they were rich enough to waste water. That extravagance skipped a few generations with our parents and grandparents, who squeezed the last possible usage out of their home appliances, cars and clothes.
We need to recover the old Rabbit mindset, because disposability is not a trend we can afford.
Canadians produce more garbage per capita than any other country on Earth—31 million metric tons annually (the equivalent of 70,000 fully-loaded 747 jets). We only recycle about 30 per cent of that, and our national recycling system is struggling. Microplastics are being discovered in more worrying places, like in our food.
Despite that, disposable status symbols are everywhere. We’ll replace functioning cell phones just because this new one has a unicorn emoji! If an auto company were to produce the perfect car, next year they’d still release a new model and encourage you to upgrade. There’s even designer toilet paper. Flaunt your wealth by cleaning your backside with 22-carat gold. One flush and it’s gone, but at least you impressed your dinner guests, right?
It’s time to make old stuff cool again, like we did with the rise of vintage and repurposed fashion. While every season brings new trends, many stylish people opt for retro duds from Goodwill and Value Village. Take it further. Let’s make it a status symbol to keep your car on the road for as long as possible (and when it finally dies, donate it to a cause like the Kidney Foundation).
Get your kids thinking eco-cool, too. Instead of a cheap cartoon-branded backpack that’ll fall apart in months, send them back to school with a sturdy but stylish satchel made from recycled materials like old windsurfing sails. Visiting a fast food restaurant? Let the other diners stare as you wave away the disposable plastic utensils and pull out your reusable stainless steel drinking straws and portable cutlery set.
Our society needs to make this mindset shift on a systemic level, too. For example, cities will often demolish heritage buildings for new developments instead of refurbishing old structures.
In generations past, thriftiness was as a virtue. Let’s toss out disposable affluence and bring back conservation chic.
Craig Kielburger is co-founder of the WE Movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.