Wednesday, 13 May 2009

What does it mean to be disposable..?

Last night, I was considering what it means to be disposable. We're all familiar with the concept of disposable razors, disposable pens and disposable nappies - but what would it mean to have a disposable mobile phone, or a disposable computer?

Disposable means, in the purest sense, something which can be thrown away - but of course, anything can be thrown away so that's not a good definition.

How about if we look at those things which are designed to be thrown away rather than repaired. Well that applies to almost everything we have in our homes - we don't tend to repair a rug if it gets worn, yet we wouldn't describe a rug as disposable.

You can buy razors which you sharpen or replace the blades in. You can buy pens to which you add more ink when they are empty. And you can buy nappies you put in the washing machine rather than throw away. So maybe the distinction lies in the fact that rather than spend extra money on the item in question (by replacing a part of it, or by washing it) you simply throw it away and buy another one.

In order for this to work, disposable things have to be cheap - and maybe we should define disposability in terms of the cost of the item rather than by its intended lifespan. If an item is so cheap that when it's exhausted/used it is cheaper to buy a new one than to repair it, then we could describe the item as disposable.

But even that doesn't quite work. For instance, in IKEA you can buy six wine glasses more cheaply than you can buy six plastic disposable wine glasses. But you wouldn't think of throwing away the glass ones when you'd finished with them after a party - even though the economics would suggesting that you could.

Even describing something as disposable if you use it once and throw it away has problems. Would you describe teabags as disposable?

So I'm still confused by this, and I'm afraid I'm not going to propose an answer this time around.

I was planning to write out my thoughts on disposable mobile phones - but as yet, I don't know what that would mean - so it's going to have to wait...

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