Everyday Sociology Blog: Alienation, Consumption and Waste

Everyday Sociology Blog: Alienation, Consumption and Waste
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Karen Sternheimer

Students of social theory are familiar with Marx’s theory of alienation, which states that under industrial capitalism workers feel alienated from the products of their labor. As consumers, it can be argued that we are also disconnected from the production process: both the creation of the things we consume and the disposal of these things.

Most of us know that the products we regularly consume, such as food and clothing, are produced by child and sometimes even forced labor, and are sometimes created in “sweatshops” with unsafe working conditions. This practice is not limited to low-income countries, but here in the United States. Products created under these conditions are hard to avoid – especially since chocolate is one of the most problematic and beloved foods.

I feel sick just thinking about it because I wear clothes and eat chocolate and I also eat fruits and vegetables (agricultural work is the most dangerous for children in the US) I feel so bad I’d rather not think about it. it is at all. See, it’s alienation!

What we buy isn’t the only thing we distance ourselves from. What we throw away, too. (And what we’re hesitant to throw away.)

This year, my university’s e-waste fair for Earth Day got me thinking about the realities of e-waste: mainly how much of it I have at home. I was aware of the old phones and laptops – I was concerned about privacy and cyber security – but I was surprised by how many wires and cables I found. Their boxes.

For years I kept cables in case I needed them, but it’s time to consider the fact that devices are increasingly going wireless, and the old ethernet cables, RCA cables, and other USB cables for devices I don’t have anymore. will not be useful. Things that were once necessary are now just taking up space; the rate at which things get old quickly passes.

I’m not sure what happens to these items once they’re officially donated as e-waste, but the company the university works with has assured me that the hard drives will be “wiped” and “disinfected” before they’re destroyed. in 2009 PBS Frontline world researched where e-waste ends up and found that at the time it was mostly going to developing countries like Ghana, where the toxins in the devices posed environmental and health risks to workers and people living nearby.

I like to think it’s a good idea to separate your trash on a regular basis by putting your recyclables in the appropriate bin. But the episode Last week Tonight about plastic and a PBS Frontline researching plastic recycling has made me a bit skeptical about where things go after we think we dispose of them properly.

Maybe it’s me being an optimist, but I hope the recycling works out. Chances are I’ve been doing wish-hauling or putting something in the trash that won’t be recycled, but I try to follow local rules about what goes in the trash. My town started a composting program this year that requires all food waste to be placed in containers with yard clippings. The compost is supposed to be mulched and donated to farms in the region. That makes me feel good, and it also removes the smell of old food scraps from the bin, takes out the trash less often, and spends less money on trash bags. But I am detached from what happens to all this stuff when I take the bins out and bring them back empty to be refilled.

Disconnecting from the processes of production and disposal has not only made me more cynical, but also more considerate. While I can’t necessarily change these processes, I can try to learn more and support movements and organizations that aim to reduce the harm that consumption causes to people and the environment.

As I wrote a few years ago, I aim to be more minimalist in my consumption habits and more active in the area of ​​waste management. Some of my practices include:

  • Avoid single-use plastic bottles and bags if possible;
  • Try not to buy new things unless you need them, or replace old, no longer useful things;
  • When you need an item, make sure we don’t already have it in a drawer or box somewhere;
  • Use the product as long as possible and resist the temptation to upgrade to the latest version of the product you already have, unless the product no longer works or its operating system cannot be updated;
  • Find another use for an “obsolete” item (my old iPad is now my husband’s new e-reader, my old iPhone 4 is now a camera, music and podcast player for my nephew);
  • Search for e-mail books or audio versions of books instead of buying or borrowing paper books (saving money, physical space and carbon footprint in production and delivery);
  • Buy perishable food that I plan to eat next week with a shopping list and plans for what to prepare;
  • Avoid food waste by planning meals around perishable foods to prevent spoilage;

I am certainly not perfect in terms of consumption and waste; I notice the excitement I get when I buy something new, even if it’s not something I really need. I, like many people, can be enticed by the new bells and whistles of new electronic devices and will spend time looking at the specifications of new devices compared to my own that more often than I’d like to admit I need to upgrade.

Part of Marx’s theory of alienation is that when we are alienated from the product of our labor, we feel less satisfied and more distant from other workers, perhaps even less connected to our sense of being human. When we are detached from the processes of production and disposal, we are less connected to our impact on the environment and the people involved in these often hidden processes.

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