'The Story of Stuff': Cycle of consuming and dumping creates heavy baggage

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 27, 2010; C01

We are in a Stuff crisis.

We are either consuming it, acquiring it, complaining about it, cleaning it, moving it from store to car to house to garage to a Pod parked in the driveway. We are worried about it. Bored about it. Happy about it. Our stuff has become our baggage.

We used to be able to fit all our stuff in that Honda Civic we drove across the country. But now we have scary closets packed with stuff. Basements creeping with stuff. Attics weighed down with stuff. When our houses are full of stuff, we buy bigger houses and proceed to stuff the new houses with more stuff.

The stuff cycle is not without consequences.

Our obsession with stuff is trashing the planet, says Annie Leonard, author of the recently released book "The Story of Stuff."

Leonard spent 10 years traveling to 40 countries, visiting hundreds of factories, tracking where our stuff is made and where it is dumped, "witnessing firsthand the horrendous impacts of both over- and under-consumption around the world," she says. She visited incinerators and garbage dumps, revealing the stories behind our stuff, explaining why it costs less to buy a new television than it does to repair the broken one.

She investigated "how the promotion of 'perceived obsolescence' encourages us to toss out everything from shoes to cellphones while they're still in perfect shape."

We are in constant acquisition of new stuff. And all the while, she says, this stuff is not making us happy. "We work so hard to buy stuff that we quickly throw out," she says. "There is only so much stuff the planet can hold."

Wrestling with stuff

Here in the Busboys and Poets on 14th Street NW, at the party for Leonard's book, stuff is the party chatter, nibbled at like cheese kebabs. There are people here who have thought about their stuff and are religious about not consuming more.

"I'm a great opponent of stuff," says Mary Harding, 78, a retired nurse who lives in Petworth. She is wearing other people's stuff. "This sweater, these pants. My shoes and my underwear are my own. I buy as much from a thrift store. I feel for people who believe they are what they wear, that having designer labels makes them special."

There are people wrestling with being happy with what they have and wanting more. "I feel our culture is overly concerned about material things," says Danny Oshtry, 50, a lawyer who lives in Mount Pleasant. "People's sense of meaning and life and fulfillment and happiness comes from things other than material things. I want to simplify my life. I don't want all this junk."

Across the room is Ralph Nader. He appears taller than he did on televised presidential debates. You ask him: "What is our relationship with our stuff?"

He takes a seat in a booth.

"The sum of what we have is greater than its parts," Nader says. "We don't take into account the aggregate of all the stuff to deal with. We don't take into account the environmental and geopolitical wars for oil. We buy stuff. And pretty soon the stuff owns us."

Leonard, he says, has helped people understand the stuff crisis. "She has a new way of communicating, symbolized by the word 'stuff,' " Nader says.

Two years ago, she put out a 20-minute video also called "The Story of Stuff." It went viral, 8.5 million hits. That led to the book, a simple narrative with graphics.

Leonard is pointing to stick figures and black-and-white drawings on a storyboard.

"In the past three decades alone, one-third of the planet's natural resources base have been consumed. Gone," she says. "We are cutting and mining and hauling and trashing the place so fast that we're undermining the planet's very ability for people to live here."

Leonard seems like the girl next door as she rolls out dire statistics. "Forty percent of waterways have become undrinkable. And our problem is not just that we're using too much stuff, but we're using more than our share." She says the United States has only 5 percent of the world's population but consumes 30 percent of its resources and creates 30 percent of the world's waste."

She talks about turning the video and book into a movement. "For a long time, I was the girl who talked about garbage. I was a little lonely," she says standing in front of a packed room. "For a long time, it was hard to get people to talk about garbage. It's amazing what stick figures can do."

'Disdain for waste'

Leonard grew up in the Pacific Northwest, with a single mom who worked as a public school nurse. They spent a lot of time camping. Her life was not stuff-oriented. "We were not rich," she says in an interview. "I grew up with a disdain for waste."

She went off to college in New York City, where every day she passed garbage on the way to class. "It got me thinking as I would walk blocks up Broadway to campus and I would walk home at night and thought, 'Where does it go?' " She ended up at the dump. "You stand there and look out and in every direction, just waste . . . I thought, something is deeply, deeply wrong with an economy that facilitates that level of waste."

She graduated from Barnard College in 1986 and went to Cornell University to study city and regional planning. Then went on to work for environmental groups, including Greenpeace, where she worked on waste issues.

Did you know there are people who are called international waste traffickers? "Some hazardous waste costs up to $1,000 to $2,000 a ton to get rid of," Leonard says. "They would go overseas and dump it in Third World countries or lie about it. A U.S. company that had very toxic mercury waste sent it to South Africa, where it leaked into a river people used for bathing, drinking and cooking."

She calls for bans on toxins in any products.

Our society, she says, pushes us to acquire more and more stuff. "So we are in this ridiculous situation," she says, "where we got to work, maybe two jobs even, and we come home and we're exhausted so we plop down on our new couch and watch TV and the commercials tell us, 'You suck,' so gotta go to the mall to buy something to feel better. Then we gotta go to work more to pay for the stuff we just bought so we come home and we're more tired so we sit down and watch more TV and it tells you to go to the mall again and we're on this crazy work-watch-spend treadmill and we could just stop."

Or can we? Or should we?

Cynthia Ryan, who lives in Dupont Circle, is seated at a table. "We are consumer-driven, but in places like Kenya," where Ryan once lived, "people are very happy with very little. I know wealthy people and all they do is worry about their stuff."

Need and want

There is a fine line between need and want. We are attracted to things like birds are attracted to ribbon. Our old hunter-gatherer instinct consumes us. It's an instinct that has to be tamed if we are to do what Leonard proposes: "Green chemistry. Zero waste."

Thrift stores and yard sales are compromises.

We find ourselves in Value Village on University Boulevard, watching Marie Thomas, 88, pick through sweaters. "I come in here for fun," she says. "Today, I needed a belt. My other one is too small."

She is wearing a pale purple sweater. There are things she would never part with, she says, like a bluish-gray dress with little pink flowers she loves. "I wear it when I go to the dinner club."

This stuff has living memories attached.

"My mother gave me a bowl of a glass grapes," Thomas says. "It's the one thing my mother brought with her from Czechoslovakia." Her mother came in the early 1900s. She carried the glass fruit bowl on the train, where they gave her lunch -- a sandwich and a banana. When she arrived at her destination in Pittsburg, she asked her brothers, "What is this they gave me on the train?" They said it's a banana. "And they ate half and gave her the other half, but she did not like it."

And there you are between the worn shoes talking about a mother from Czechoslovakia and a banana.

Down the aisle is a blue guitar, a pink rabbit hanging by its ears and a pale yellow dress with a chiffon bow. Girls grow up and go off into the world, but the dresses stay the same.

Stuff may be better here than in a plastic bag in a dump.

Jessica Dwyer-Moss, 21, and Matthew Barr, 22, students at the University of Maryland, are hunting through a rack of men's suit coats. She is wearing a ivory nightgown she picked up in the pajama section. She and Barr are searching for costumes to wear in a production of "The Bride of Young Frankenstein."

What are the things they would never part with?

"I have a teddy bear and blanket I had when I was a baby," Barr says. "I remember having chicken pox and holding onto both."

Some stuff soothes us. It reminds us of the time when everything was okay, before life took its turns.

Shedding and collecting

Yard sales attract people who are looking for memories in stuff. There is M.E. Eichelberger-Paul picking through stuff at the corner of Ethan Allen Avenue and Jackson in Takoma Park. The sun is coming down like it's summer. There in the vacant lot next to a new McMansion, Raymond Bates, 65, has brought his worldly goods to sell.

"After 30 years, I got laid off," he says. "Now I have to sell this stuff. Plus, I have to find a place to live."

He spent years acquiring this stuff and wants to get rid of it by sundown.

Eichelberger-Paul, a retired teacher who drives a black Mercedes, picks up books and magazines and turns them over. This is her hobby. She likes things that remind her of her grandparents.

These are two people in different stages of life. One shedding stuff. The other, comfortable and acquiring it.

"I was drawing unemployment and they say you have to go on the Internet to renew it," Bates says. "I don't know nothing about the Internet."

Parallel conversations running, on life and its transitions and what stuff means.

Eichelberger-Paul picks up a book. "All my life I've loved to spend my time in thrift stores," she says. "I love the vintage earrings. I can tell from the earring the personality of the person . . . flamboyant, conservative, humble."

She peruses the stuff on the table. A bucket of brass doorknobs, an 8-track player, a Johnny Cash CD. There's a Life magazine, June 10, 1966. Cover price: 35 cents. Elizabeth Taylor is on the cover. In "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Stuff holds our history.

There is a briefcase full of ties Bates no longer needs.

"I can't use this stuff," he says. "And it's not breaking my heart to get rid of it."

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