Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Tsunami of Stuff

Interesting piece by Jon Mooallem in the NY Times, on the self-storage industry. When these facilities first opened, they were marketed toward people who were moving or between homes or whatever, as temporary places to stash their stuff. But now most people rent their storage space on a permanent basis, to store stuff they just can't fit in their houses. There are now 51,000 storage centers in America, with 7 square feet of space for every American:

“A lot of it just comes down to the great American propensity toward accumulating stuff,” Litton explained. Between 1970 and 2008, real disposable personal income per capita doubled, and by 2008 we were spending nearly all of it — all but 2.7 percent — each year. Meanwhile, the price of much of what we were buying plunged. Even by the early ’90s, American families had, on average, twice as many possessions as they did 25 years earlier. By 2005, according to sociologist Juliet B. Schor, the average consumer purchased one new piece of clothing every five and a half days.

Schor has been hacking intrepidly through the jumble of available data quantifying the last decade’s consumption spree. Between 1998 and 2005, she found, the number of vacuum cleaners coming into the country every year more than doubled. The number of toasters, ovens and coffeemakers tripled. A 2006 study found middle-class families in Los Angeles “battling a nearly universal overaccumulation of goods.” Garages were clogged. Toys and outdoor furniture collected in the corners of backyards. “The home-goods storage crisis has reached almost epic proportions,” the authors of the study wrote. . . .

Consider our national furniture habit. . . . We’ve spent more on furniture even as prices have dropped, thereby amassing more of it. The amount entering the United States from overseas doubled between 1998 and 2005, reaching some 650 million pieces a year. Comparing Schor’s data with E.P.A. data on municipal solid waste shows that the rate at which we threw out old furniture rose about one-thirteenth as fast during roughly the same period. In other words, most of that new stuff — and any older furniture it displaced — is presumably still knocking around somewhere. In fact, some seven million American households now have at least one piece of furniture in their storage units. Furniture is the most commonly stored thing in America.

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