Like millions of other Americans, I spent part of the day after Christmas braving traffic and crowds to do a little shopping. My trip had nothing to do with returning a gift, instead, I thought I would spend part of my day doing a few projects around the house and found myself in need of some drywall repair materials (kids…). Thinking the hardware store would be safe from crowds, I headed out…and was promptly met with a packed parking lot and long lines in the store. Apparently, hardware stores are popular places to purchase (and return) gifts!
As I stood in line, I noticed the lines for exchanges and returns were almost as long as the normal checkout lanes. I remember thinking it odd that, despite the vast number of product reviews and videos on the Internet, we still return so many things to stores because they weren’t exactly what we needed or wanted. I’ve never really thought of returns as waste though…it all ends up back on the shelves or in bargain bins, right?
That’s what I thought anyway…until I saw an article this morning on CNN Money entitled, There’s a good chance your holiday returns will end up in a landfill
While the article mostly focuses on the cost this waste creates for retailers and ways some are starting to address it, the second sentence is what really struck me –
“5 billion pounds of returned items end up in the trash heap, according to Optoro, a tech company that helps major retailers manage their returns.”
5 billion pounds! That’s a lot of plastic, fabric and electronics ending up in landfills, not to mention the energy costs needed to produce, transport and dispose of things that never even got used. If aliens are watching us, they probably view our behavior as insane…and they might be right!
Thinking about 5 billion pounds of holiday gifts heading to the dump reminded me of another bit of news from the previous week – The revelation that Apple has been secretly slowing older iPhones for years in a tradeoff to conserve battery life. While intended or not, the obvious effect was that customers ran out to buy the latest model as they noticed their “older” phones beginning to slow down. Knowing the reason for the slow down might have helped customers make a more informed decision before tossing their phones, but in the end, keeping the strategy secret was great for Apple…but not so great for our planet. When we do decide to upgrade, we like to think that those old phones are properly recycled, refurbished or repurposed…but often, they just end up in landfills (right alongside that 5 billion pounds of returned gifts).
A great article was written last week by Jason Perlow for ZDNet, exploring the environmental impact of the iPhone news and making a plea to manufacturers –
“We really need to go back to devices that are screwed together so that the battery can be swapped by anyone with a micro tool set — not just a phone repair tech — or some type of old-school hatch that slides off to reveal a standardized removable 3000 mAh battery.
I realize of course this is likely going to create uglier phones. But let’s look at the bigger picture — an ugly, unlivable planet is much, much worse.”
An “ugly, unlivable planet” is where our behavior is leading us, and while we certainly need to work to change the behavior of companies, we also need to change our own behavior. The same mentality that results in 5 billion pounds of returned gift trash, is the one that has us tossing our cracked, slow or broken devices in favor of a newer, faster, and slimmer version, without much care for where the old device ends up. We can do better…I know I can certainly do better!
Changing behavior isn’t easy…it takes baby steps. I’m not normally one for New Year’s Resolutions but this year, I will try to choose one wasteful behavior of my own to change. I can probably do that! And I can probably write a few letters to companies, asking them to make products more durable and easy to repair, to spend more time writing accurate product descriptions so that product return rates are lowered, and to partner with local charities and non-profits to donate items that would otherwise end up in a landfill.
A small change in the way we do things might not seem like much, unless it’s multiplied by hundreds of companies and millions of people…Maybe next year, we can shave a few billion pounds off that 5 billion number!