April 24, 2023

Alienation, Consumption, and Waste

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Students of social theory are familiar with Marx’s theory of alienation, which posits that workers feel disconnected from the products of their labor within industrial capitalism. As consumers, one might argue we are also disconnected from the process of production: both the creation of items we consume and discarding of these items.

Many of us are aware that products we consume regularly, like food and clothing, are produced by child labor and sometimes even forced labor, and sometimes are created in “sweatshops” with unsafe working conditions. These practices are not limited to low-income countries, but take place here in the United States as well. It’s hard to avoid products created under these conditions—especially because chocolate is one of the most problematically produced and most beloved food produces.

I feel bad just thinking about this, because I wear clothes, eat chocolate, and eat fruits and vegetables too (agricultural work is the most dangerous industry for children in the U.S.) It makes me feel so bad that I’d rather not think about it at all. See, that’s alienation!

What we buy isn’t the only thing that we are disconnected from. What we throw away is too. (And what we hesitate to throw away.)

My university’s e-waste fair to commemorate Earth Day this year helped me think about the realities of electronic waste: mostly how much of it I have been harboring at home. I knew about the old phones and laptops—I have been concerned about privacy and cyber security—but I was struck by how many cords and cables I found. Boxes of them.

I have been storing the cords over the years in case I might need them, but it was time to reckon with the fact that devices are increasingly wireless and the old ethernet cables, RCA cables, and other USB cables for devices I no longer have are not going to be useful. Things that were once essential now just take up space; the pace at which things become obsolete goes by quickly.

I’m not really sure what happens to these items once they are officially donated as e-waste, but the company the university works with has assured us that hard drives will be “wiped” and “sanitized” before being destroyed. In 2009 PBS’s Frontline World investigated where electronic waste ends up and found that at the time it mostly went to developing countries like Ghana, where toxins within devices created environmental and health hazards for workers and people living near these sites.

I like to think that separating my trash regularly by putting recyclable items in the appropriate bin is beneficial. But an episode of Last Week Tonight about plastics and a PBS Frontline investigation into plastic recycling have made me somewhat skeptical of where things really go after we think we are properly disposing of them.

Maybe it’s the optimist in me, but I am hopeful that recycling will be beneficial. I’ve likely engaged in wishcycling, or adding something to the recycling bin that won’t be recycled, but I try and follow the local rules about what belongs in the recycling bin. This year, my city has started a composting program, requiring all food waste to be placed in bins with yard clippings. The compost is supposed to be mulched and donated to farms in the region. That makes me feel good, and so does eliminating the odor of old food scraps from the trash can, taking out the trash less often and spending less money on trash bags. But I am disconnected from what happens to all of this stuff after I take out the trash cans and bring them back empty to be filled again.

My disconnection from the production and disposal processes have not made me more cynical, but also more mindful. While I can’t necessarily change these processes, I can try and learn more and support movements and organizations that seek to reduce human and environmental harms caused by consumption.

As I wrote about a few years ago, I have been striving to be more minimalist in my consumption habits and to be more proactive about waste. Some practices I embrace:

  • Avoid single use plastic bottles and bags when possible;
  • Try to avoid buying new things unless they are needed or to replace older items that are no longer useful;
  • When an item is needed, making sure we don’t already have it somewhere in a drawer or box;
  • Use an item as long as possible and resist the lure of the newest version of a product that I already have unless the item no longer works or its operating system cannot be updated;
  • Find another purpose for an “obsolete” item (my old iPad is now my husband’s new e-reader, an old iPhone 4 is now a camera, music, and podcast player for my young nephew);
  • Seek e-books or audiobook versions rather than buying or borrowing paper books (this saves money, physical space, and the carbon footprint to produce and deliver the item);
  • Buy perishable food I plan on eating within the next week by having a shopping list and plans for what to prepare;
  • Avoid food waste by planning meals around perishable food items to prevent spoilage;

I am definitely not perfect when it comes to consumption and waste; I notice the excitement I feel when I buy something new, even if it isn’t something I truly need. Like many people, I can be tempted by the new bells and whistles of new electronic devices and will spend time looking at specs of new devices compared with mine to flirt with the idea of upgrading more often than I would like to admit.

Part of Marx’s theory of alienation is that being disconnected from the product of one’s labor makes us feel less fulfilled and more distant from other workers, even potentially less connected to a sense of being human. When we are alienated from the production and disposal processes, we are less connected with our impact on the environment, and the people involved in these often-hidden processes.


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