Throwing It All Away

Admiring the work of old masters offers a fascinating perspective, whether through paintings, woodwork, or numerous other crafts. Yet, we are left to ponder how societies evolve over time, in a seemingly constant battle between respecting artisanal skills and striving for "better" ways of the future. In urban planning, the growing void of more serious craftsmanship has been filled with rather straightforward solutions, and we have made it our business to "bulldoze" the old, often at the cost of desired and arguably needed preservation. In 2013 alone, the city of New York lost 823 years of history: old building sites were demolished or repurposed to satisfy the hunger for new luxury condominiums and higher-yielding investments, defining the fine line between practicality, tradition, and a new, more efficient, status quo.

It is easy to agree that my opening paragraph is kind of a downer, and that someone somehow needs to address this spree of destruction. When accepting responsibility, however, we have to admit that our very own lives are likely not too far removed from this "demolishing act," as we have mastered the art of becoming the ultimate "throwaway" society.

In 1955, LIFE magazine claimed victory over what was previously considered wastefulness, celebrating the act of using something once and throwing it away as the new pathway into modern living. Sure enough, since the 1960s, everyday items that we use and throw away, also known as municipal solid waste (MSW), have increased from 88 million to more than 250 million tons per year -- or, in more relatable terms, from 2.68 to 4.35 pounds per person each day. Critics will point to an increasing global trend in recycling and repurposing, but the numbers are meager, with only about 30 percent of MSW in the U.S. being recycled. Emerging economies, on the other hand, are even further removed from this noble concept, and generally first require a basic collection infrastructure to prepare for the expected doubling of waste in their rapidly growing economies in the coming decade.

Moving past the obvious, requirements of our modern living society are far more complex. Technological advances, combined with planned obsolescence to shorten product life cycles, keep adding to the waste pile. Our cellphones, handhelds, and cameras that were cool yesterday are becoming a thing of the past. And then there is the sentimental part: The act of boxing our cassette tapes for the attic, selling those classic vinyl records, or, in the extreme case, just making an addition to the garbage may trigger powerful memories. Often, "moving forward" is not just about functionality, but is the result of social pressure, nudging us to adapt and play our part in a modern world. Our fascination with the perceived "perfect" even goes as far as throwing out millions of tons of fruit and vegetables every year, just because the items are "not pretty enough." Food for thought -- literally.

Sure enough, I am aware that I am the finance guy, and that this post should take on some "investable angle." The message, in this respect, is complex but without a doubt anchored in financial planning guidelines each of us needs to follow (please also see my post, A Foolproof Financial Outlook). One of the reasons we have grown to commonly accept our society's inherent obligation to constantly exchange/upgrade our possessions and diminish the seemingly imperfect has to do with the low cost of money. When considering the "need" to cross over from old to new, an appropriate question to ask ourselves is whether or not our purchase decision would still be the same if we had to use money in the bank (our savings), rather than create another elusive borrowed line item. Accessible consumer credit continues to drive whimsical purchase decisions -- many related to "gadgets" not necessarily needed. Perhaps the next "must-have" will enhance recognition of our often warped perception of value and wastefulness; until then, we will have to rely on good "old-fashioned" self-awareness.