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I few weeks ago, I saw two films at the Hot Docs festival that, for whatever, reason hit home.

One was the excellent Manufactured Landscapes, which looks at the industrial revolution happening in China, as well as “recycling” efforts in China and Bangladesh. The other was Garbage: The Revolution Starts at Home, in which a middle-class Toronto family saves their garbage for three months to really see how much waste they generate.

What really resonated with me was how much stuff we consume and subsequently turf. We live in a consumer-driven society where lower prices make products easily and quickly disposable; products that used to be things you bought every five years. Case in point, what ever happened to the Maytag repair man?

The consumer electronics industry is perhaps the worst offender. When you’re buying $29 DVD players or even $400 computers, throwing them out after a year or two has become fairly common. If something goes wrong with them, there’s no sense repairing them when the replacement cost is not that much higher.

It’s a terrific environment for people who want and/or like new things but terrible for the environment. Sooner rather than later, consumers need to start realizing that there is a cost associated with buying cheap products with a short shelf life. Think about what all the consumer electronics you’ve purchased over the past five years would look like if you threw them into a pile on your front lawn.

Of course, most people never think about it after the garbage truck has taken away the broken DVD player, or your chemical-laced computer is being manually disassembled in rural China.

What we need is a return to quality based on the idea that products should last longer. We need products that can be upgraded rather than tossed aside when something new with more features captures our fancy. Computers, for example, should be a snap to upgrade. If you need more RAM, open your computer case and quickly insert more RAM. If you want to add more features to your one-year-old iPod just buy a download from Apple as opposed to buying a new one.

Of course, consumers are obsessed with buying new products, and manufacturers are driven by selling more stuff. This paradigm isn’t going to change any time soon but people have to start thinking about the total cost of living in a disposable, here-today-gone-tomorrow world.

Note: Another inspiration for this post is a 12-year-old Procter Silex coffee maker that has no frills other than the ability to brew coffee. In an ideal world, I would trade it for a new $40 coffee maker with an auto-timer but it works and makes pretty good coffee so why get rid of it.

Update: Great Green Gadgets has an interesting post looking at the search for the “perfect green computer”. It cites an Irish company called iameco, which is making environmentally-friendly computers and components. iameco’s logo is above left. As well, check this cool video: The Story of Stuff.

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