Recall this! We’re surrounded by junk

October 14, 2009

Guelph Mercury, 14/10/09landfill

Try explaining to your 85-year-old grandmother why she had two CD players die in one weekend, but her 35-year-old radio keeps humming along.

Or how she can make an entire Thanksgiving meal with the same cookware and appliances she’s been using since the 1950s—all of it remarkably still working, mostly made by companies that long ago disappeared—but she can’t buy a new coffee maker that will last a year. Or why relatives can still call her on the same rotary phone she had installed 40 years ago, but I can’t get a cellphone to outlast four seasons.

This is our modern world, Granny. Full of cheap, plentiful goods that seem designed with the lifespan of a fruit fly. Getting five years out of anything new today is cause for a celebration.

And the response from the people who sold you the thing is often a shrug. Why deal with the hassle of getting it repaired, when you can just buy a new one? You’ll spend just as much. So out with the old, in with the new—and see you again in six months.

At some point, we became a nation of cheap imports and daily product recalls. A visit to the federal government’s recall website ( shows just how ho-hum product failure is for us. In the past month, we’ve been told to stop using: garlic presses that cut people, scuba gear that leaks, hammocks that collapse, mini glue guns that overheat, barbecue lighters that catch on fire, coffee makers that melt and bath soaps that contain harmful bacteria. On and on the list goes.

In America, recalls are so overwhelmingly common that their government’s website ( is searchable by country of origin. And not all of this crumbling stuff is made in crowded factories in Asia. Look for products recalled from Canada, and you’ll find dozens of items, including propane fireplaces that shatter glass and electronic paper towel dispensers that catch on fire. All of it made right here in the Great White North.

One of the best makers of bad stuff, at least when you count recalls, is still China. We’re their second-largest trading partner, bringing in some $35-billion in Chinese-made goods to Canada every year. So no surprise, either, that both of grandmother’s burned-out CD players were made there. You can’t become the world’s largest exporter by making things that never need to be replaced.

But recalls are only the worst of the worst. There’s no measure of the piles of poorly made stuff that simply break, wear out early or just stop working. It all quietly ends up in our landfills by the tonne, so we can go out and buy more cheap and plentiful junk.

One wonders, though—if more things were made to last like they once seemed to be, maybe we wouldn’t need as many landfills. But that’s nonsense, they say. Canadians have a right to the cheapest goods available. Right?

Back to grandmother. Her television looks like a piece of wooden furniture from Mad Men, weighs about 200 pounds, and has a black knob you need to pull out and twist to see a picture. But it works just fine, she says. And then out she pulls an oven thermometer made by an Ohio company shortly after the Second World War. It also looks like it belongs in museum, but it still works, too.

Everyone has something like it—a well-made appliance or tool or gadget that refuses to die. Made of real materials, such as wood or glass or metal. We know these rare things will probably outlast us.

And then it occurs to you: why can’t more stuff be like this? I wish I knew, Granny.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based freelance writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at, and past columns can be read at

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