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Outline the Ways in Which Rubbish Can Be Said to Have Value in a Consumer Society Essay

Shopping is an important part of the modern consumer lifestyle. It is enjoyed as a social activity and is about identity and expression as much as the usefulness of the purchase. People define themselves not only by their jobs, but also by their possessions and the things they own.

Rubbish is only considered rubbish because people disvalue it. People want it to be invisible; once the rubbish goes out for collection, it can be forgotten. However, consumer society does value rubbish as value is personal and is never fixed. It can change over time and become re-valued again whether economically or aesthetically or both.

This essay will look at the ways in which rubbish is valued in a consumer society by outlining consumption and the increase in rubbish, Bauman’s theory of the seduced and the repressed; Environmental & Economic value and Thompson’s Rubbish Theory.

Rubbish per household has increased over the years. Between 1957- 2006, household rubbish had risen by 28%. (Brown, 2009, p.107) This could be attributed to a rise in affluence and the availability of credit, which enables more people to participate in consumer society. Disposable income increases the likelihood of people spending on luxury goods rather than just the essentials. Other possible factors are the increase in mass consumption during that period; shops offer lower prices and more choice. People also eat more; use more services; and buy more clothes and white goods.

9% of total expenditure was spent on services in 1957, compared to 25% in 2006 (which includes personal goods; household and leisure services) (Brown, 2009, p.110) and data collected by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) (Hetherington, 2009, p.23) shows that the average household spends more on recreation and culture (luxuries) than non-alcohol and food (essentials).

Although the data cannot take every circumstance into account, it does suggest that as people became more affluent over the years, the amount of money spent on luxuries increased and with affluence and choice people tend to dispose of items more readily then they would have 50 years ago.

Consumers can feel pressured to keep up with the latest trends. The constant changes in fashion and technology encourage people to upgrade their goods before the lifespan of the existing item has expired. It gives them a sense of worth in society, as it helps them to fit into a certain lifestyle.

The data supports Bauman’s theory (Hetherington, 2009, p.26) that being a part of consumer society helps people to establish identity and self expression. It also reflects a lifestyle that others might aspire to. He calls these people the seduced, as they have the means and the desire to consume effectively and are therefore valued in society. In contrast, the repressed, who may not be able to consume as effectively due to a lack of income, age or disability for example; can feel excluded from the consumer society. However, these categories are interchangeable and people can move between the two categories.

The result of consumption is waste, and increased consumption equals an increase in rubbish. It could be argued that the seduced, being the more active consumers, are more likely to create the most rubbish, due to their greater consumer habits. Regardless of this, eventually all of the items, food and appliances that we consume end up as rubbish and it needs to be dealt with.

Despite rubbish generally being viewed as negative, some people view it positively. There are people whose business is rubbish and therefore, it is of value to them economically, such as, restoration and re-sale or a large company profiting from its disposal. Rubbish collecting can also be a resourceful hobby. A discarded item from a skip or the dump can be salvaged or restored and made into an item of value again, whether it’s use value, aesthetic value or both.

Environmentalists also value rubbish by pursuing a ‘greener’ lifestyle. Recently, the Government has put more emphasis on environmental issues and it has made people more aware of the impact they are having on the planet. Although reducing consumption would be the obvious answer; in the meantime, reuse & recycling schemes and fortnightly rubbish collections have encouraged people to consider the value of rubbish and the environment.

The UK is still a poor performer when compared with other European countries and although there is still a long way to go, recycling has increased. Information provided by Defra, 2007 (Brown, 2009, p.117) shows that the percentage of total rubbish recycled has steadily increased. In 1983/4 the rate of rubbish recycled was 1% compared to 31% in 2006/7. Although the total amount of rubbish also increased during earlier years, as of 2003/4, the amount of rubbish began to decrease as the rate of recycling increased.

Due to the increase in environmental awareness, rubbish has become valued by people who want to contribute to a greener, more environmentally friendly lifestyle. Being environmentally friendly has also become about identity and image, and it has become a positive social attribute.

However, it is not just environmental issues that give rubbish value. The downturn in the economy has prompted people to re-use and re-sell their unwanted items instead of throwing them away. Mobile phones can be recycled for money and various unwanted items can be sold on with the aid of local newspapers and internet auction sites. While one person is disposing of their rubbish for profit, someone else is gaining something that they value.

In Thompson’s ‘Rubbish Theory’ (Brown, 2009, p.122) he explains how some items considered as rubbish can evolve and gain value again. He suggests that some items can move from the transient category (items produced for use) via rubbish (items that become of little or zero value) into the durable category (where value increases over time) and be valued again. When an object moves from transient to durable its value first drops before it begins to rise again.

Thompson’s example of this would be Stevengraphs (Brown, 2009, p.124). Thomas Stevens made a profitable business by selling his silkworks in the 1800’s, but by the mid twentieth century, they had become almost valueless. Over time the items became collector’s pieces and their value began to rise. This example shows that value is not fixed; an item can lose or gain value over time.

Thompson suggests that one of the reasons for this rise and fall is because of supply and demand (Brown, 2009, p.126). From a collectors perspective, buying a Stevengraph when the supply was plentiful compared to the demand, meant that it could be purchased relatively cheaply. As the supply diminished over the years, the remaining pieces became rare and therefore more valuable to the collectors. When the demand outweighs the supply, it results in an increase in price and value.

To conclude, it can be said that rubbish has value in a consumer society. Although generally viewed negatively, it does have value to a number of different people. Rubbish is valuable to people who work in the waste industry and gain profit or wages from it. Environmentalists’ value rubbish as it helps them to contribute to an environmentally friendly lifestyle by reusing and recycling. And people suffering in the economic downturn have found a new way to value rubbish, by selling it on and buying items second hand in order to save money, which consequently, saves on waste. Finally, Thompson suggests that rubbish can be re-valued as items move from the transient category via rubbish, into the durable category where its value rises again.


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