Quick! What are the five objects closest to you right now? Where do they come from? Not which store or brand. Where do they really come from? Where were they made? Who made them? Where did their raw materials come from? And where will they go once you're done using them?
If you don't know the answers to these questions, you're not alone! Most of us have very little idea of where and how all our stuff is made and what happens to it when we throw it away or recycle it. But one woman went on a 10-year quest to find out!
In her eye-opening book The Story of Stuff, author and activist Annie Leonard takes on us a harrowing journey through the life cycle of all the Stuff we buy and use and throw away. She describes the whole process - extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal - in great detail. And do you know what? It's scary!
As consumers, it's really hard to know where all the products we buy come from. Who made them? Which natural resources were used? What kind of pollution was caused? How far did our stuff travel to get to us? Where does it go once we throw it away? If you're interested in any of these questions, you will love this book! And if you're not interested in these questions, it's time to get interested! We're running out of the natural resources we use to make products and out of places to toss stuff once it breaks or becomes obsolete. As the subtitle of the book says, "Our obsession with stuff is trashing the planet, our communities, and our health".
But this book is not all doom and gloom! Leonard packs each chapter and two appendices with resources (including the websites at the end of this post!) for becoming more informed consumers and for participating in your local community in ways that will help build interdependence and make us all able to get by with less Stuff.
But this is no "go green", touchy-feely argument to go live in a cave and stop showering! This is an informative, well-researched and thoroughly-cited information treasure trove of the facts about our lifestyle of rampant consumption. These facts are not always easy to face, but ignoring them won't change them! We need to know where our stuff comes from and where it goes! (Spoiler: there is no "away", and all the Stuff we make, well, basically, we're stuck with it!)
Leonard also has a fantastic video version of the Story of Stuff that you can watch on Youtube. In 20 minutes you can get a great overview of the problem we're facing: our Stuff habits are linear and our planet has finite resources! Then, you can get more details from the book, where you'll learn that "recycling" is really often "downcycling", and that there is no safe way to get rid of toxic trash like cell phone batteries and PVC plastic.
I recommend this book to all high school and college students! It is an especially important read for anyone considering a career in engineering, design, business, watersheds, or environmental science.
If you want to make some changes right now to the way you interact with stuff, check out these resources listed in the book.
Goodguide.com helps you see the impact of various common products. Which ingredients are safer? Which product was made under humane conditions? With clear ratings, this site lets you look up everything from your shampoo to your cell phone to see which types and brands are the least harmful for your health, the planet, and the people who make them!
You know how cool it is when your friend gets something new and gives you her old one? Freecycle.org expands your "friends" to a whole community of people who are getting rid of stuff and want to give it to you for free! From moving boxes to pet carriers and BBQs to snowshoes, Freecycle is a great way to get items you need, and to get rid of Stuff you're no longer using. Once you join a group in your area, you can browse Offers and Wanted posts, as well as create your own.