Are We a ‘Throw-Away Society’?

Published September 1, 1983. Have you recently noticed what people are throwing away? A few days ago, our church was asked to provide some workers for Deseret Industries in Provo. I volunteered and was assigned to work there for a few hours. I ended up on the receiving dock sorting through the massive number of things that had been thrown away.

Two distinct things were obvious. First was the absolute junk that some thoughtless people had left on the deck.  Thrift stores such as Desert Industries became a movement place to get rid of things that should have been taken directly to the garbage in the first place. Wet moldy clothes, bottles, spoiled fruit, and even bags of recent grass were among some of the items generously “donated.”

In conversation with some of the full-time employees at Deseret Industries, I learned that on some days as much as 30-40 percent of the items left on the dock have to be loaded on a truck and taken directly to the city dump.

But the opposite is also true. Items of extremely high quality and value are also being thrown away. Many things were discarded that were almost new, including shoes, clothing, toys, tools, and numerous household items. Some appeared to have been used little, if at all.

While sorting through this latter category I remembered a book I read in graduate school a few years ago. It was “Future Shock” by Alvin Toffler. After working my shift at Deseret Industries, I returned home and re-read a chapter in Toffler’s book titled “Things: The Throw-Away Society.” He stated that the attitudes we acquire toward “things” would also eventually affect our attitudes towards relationships with people in the years to come.

Toffler wrote a convincing chapter documenting that we have just emerged from an age of perseverance with regards to residence, things, and relationships. People generally grew up in the same geographical area where they were born. There were relatively few material things, so what was owned was valued, protected, and passed from one generation to the next.

In the past, the attitude of permanence toward residence and things, according to Toffler, also influenced relationships. Divorce was infrequent, and child abandonment and disregard of the elderly largely unknown. People and things were valued and simply “stayed put.”

But what of the future? After more than a decade of hindsight, I now believe Toffler may have been correct. He wrote that as we become more affluent and acquire more things, these possessions would become less and less significant to us. When, or even before, their usefulness was realized, most things would be discarded for the new.

What did Toffler conclude from these trends? As we become less concerned about the permanence of places and things, we also would become less concerned about the permanence of relationships with people. When people seem to no longer be useful or needed, they too, would be discarded and replaced with something new. And the new people, like “things,” may also have a built-in disposition for obsolescence.

It may be that our annual divorce rate is directly correlated with the number of things or items we acquire and then discard each year. And as I drove by Deseret Industries yesterday afternoon on the way home from the university, I noticed that the receiving dock was once again piled high.

Have we become, in Toffler’s words, “the throw-away society”?

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