Death to Disposable Furniture

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In many ways, the Europeans are ahead of us in the United States (like it or no). Their recycling programs far outpace the ones in the Midwest. Public transport is worlds better. Even the basic coffee is better than our basic Folger’s. They are even ahead of us in switching over to flatpack furniture. And this is a dystopian future.

During the last seven days in Germany and Austria, I’ve paid close attention to the waste that is awaiting pickup in the big cities (Munich) and small towns. The amount of disposable furniture – a lot of it from IKEA – is shocking. Piles of it that stretch for 10’ or more on the sidewalk. And stacked up to 6’ high.

To the amusement of my family, I’ve stopped to inspect these piles of destroyed pieces that were destined for the Island of Misfit Termite Barf. At first I wondered: Do these piles represent a complete remodeling of a kitchen? (Answer: No. The pieces are in a variety of finishes, styles and colors.) Do these piles represent someone gutting an entire home or apartment to move? (Answer: Perhaps. But few places throw our four coffee tables and three dressers.)

In the end, I concluded that these piles are typical. I saw them everywhere, and I’ve never seen anything like them in the United States. Not in Chicago. Not in Cincinnati, Ohio. Not in rural America.

In many ways, our culture is just beginning to get a taste for flatpack furniture. In 2016, Europe had 275 IKEA stores while the North America had 56. We haven’t quite embraced the idea of throwing your stuff away every six years or so.

But I fear we will.

This week did have one piece of poetic justice. As I was inspecting several piles of decimated furniture in Salzburg this evening, I looked up and saw a ray of hope. An antique furniture store named Dorotheum that featured big plate-glass windows filled with furniture pieces – both high and low styles – that were overlooking the piles of particleboard across the street.

Good work survives. And it still has value. Perhaps what we do as woodworkers isn’t a total waste.

— Christopher Schwarz

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