Column: What’s necessary could be enough

What image is conjured up in your mind when you hear the word behemoth? Even before I learned its etymology – it comes from the Hebrew “b’hemoth,” beast – I imagined it as a personification of the pandemic, a monstrous, dark, hulking shape looming over us, threatening our physical and mental well-being. In general, however, the term behemoth is used to describe huge, monopolising organizations – Amazon, for example. As a matter of fact, Amazon and the pandemic have become intertwined in my mind.

Here’s why. Online shopping was on the increase even before Covid arrived because the temptations for consumers were endless. Once the pandemic restricted or changed our normal routines, more and more people resorted to making nearly all their purchases online. Sure, it’s easier to click on a link than to walk through a store, search, examine the merchandise, perhaps try on clothes or shoes, and finally stand in line to pay. And returning a purchase meant standing in line again. But if you’re like me, all of these considerations will have made you search and choose in a more focused way. You were aware of what awaited you if you’d made a foolish or wrong choice.

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Not so with online shopping. Just send the stuff back. Easy. And it’s free. Who even thinks or cares about the fate of the stuff that’s returned? Those who do probably assume the returned item is put back on the warehouse shelf to be resold. In October, CBC published the results of a marketplace investigation about what happens to Amazon returns. It was a shock and an eye-opener. The percentage of returns is high – 30 to 40 per cent of all online purchases. Compare this to the less than ten per cent of purchases made at conventional stores. The investigative journalists discovered that an overwhelming number of Amazon’s returns get liquidated, shredded or sent to the landfill. These are usually perfectly good items. Why not give them to thrift stores or food banks or similar charitable organizations, to be sold or even given away rather than destroyed?

The point, though, is that manufacturers are producing far more than the world needs or can contain. It seems to be very easy to convince us that in order to function we require lots of stuff, continually. Manufacturers hope that when the stuff breaks or the novelty wears off, we’ll toss it out and buy new stuff. Sales and profit are their priority.

Data published in 2016 regarding the US tells a scary story about waste destined for landfills. One person produces 1,606 pounds of trash annually. Stacked up, that’s as tall as the Leaning Tower of Pisa (192 feet). The entire US produces 254 million tons of waste annually, which converts to 60.9 billion cubic feet, enough to stretch to the moon and back 25 times.

The pandemic has changed the way we live. We’re confronting new challenges almost daily. Hopefully we’re also learning to recognize the difference between necessary and excessive or superfluous.

Sabine Eiche is a local writer and art historian with a PhD from Princeton University. She is passionately involved in preserving the environment and protecting nature. Her columns deal with a broad range of topics and often include the history (etymology) of words in order to shed extra light on the subject.           

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