An inconvenient truth

I looked up synonyms of the word ‘convenient’.

Turns out, there are plenty.

  • Some refer to the idea of purpose: useful, user-friendly, time-saving, efficient.
  • Some talk about the design: befitting, tailor-made, well-suited, comfortable.
  • Some indicate availability: nearby, portable, on tap, at one’s fingertips.

Convenience is all about good design to make everyday things take less time and/or effort.

Convenience is about making life easier.

And why not?

  • Convenience means that I can switch on my electric oven and cook food that I’ve been keeping in my fridge and wash the dishes in my dishwasher without having to miss the next episode of my favourite TV show (although, I’m running a little late I can watch it at my convenience from the TiVo box recording)
  • Convenience means I can turn a tap in my bathroom and within seconds start enjoying a warm shower. It means I can pump shower gel into my hand just by pressing the top of the bottle while listening to my favourite music streamed through my iPad.
  • Convenience means that I can head into my nearest town centre, find somewhere to park my car, find a range of clothes in a range of shops, buy them and a 5p bag to carry them in without any physical money, and if I get thirsty I don’t have to worry about not bringing my water bottle because I can purchase a hot drink to take away with me. And when I forget that we have no limes and I was planning on cooking a Thai Green curry it means that I can hop in the car, drive 2 minutes to the nearest convenience store and buy those fruity spheres of goodness that have been conveniently shipped from another country for my gastronomic pleasure.

Of course, convenience is great. What does every single contestant on “I’m a Celebrity – Get me out of here” find out pretty sharpish? – Life without convenience is much harder.

But is convenience really all that great?

Convenience damages my health. It makes me more likely to choose easy-to-cook processed foods than take my time over good nutrition. It causes me to jump in the car rather than walk or get on my bike. Do you remember the future humans depicted in Wall-E?

Convenience damages my relationships. It means I text or Facebook my friends more than I have a face to face conversation.

Convenience damages my mind. It makes me impatient when I have to stand in the longer queue. It causes me be less organised, because I can always buy the thing I’ve forgotten. It makes me lazy, because I’m so used to being able to find out whatever I like by Googling it on my iPhone than taking a trip to the library.

And worst of all, convenience damages my planet.

We took a trip to the beach today. High tide had just happened and the beach was gradually coming back into view. We camped down, I saw a handsome piece of driftwood and decided to go and find some more.

I found 3 other bits of driftwood, but thousands of bits of what was mostly plastic: an old comb, a shoe heel, plastic film, the rubber buttons from a calculator, a bit of car tyre, half a McDonalds plastic tea stirrer, spoons, forks, plastic off toys, fabric, a shoe, as well as hundreds of small bits of plastic.

I noticed a sign on the walkway which encouraged people to do their #2minutebeachclean and then tweet about it, so I took one of the free bags (plastic, of course) and borrowed one of the litter pickers and then got Xavier involved for a couple of minutes picking up bits of washed up plastic. I spent a lot more than 2 minutes doing it. I didn’t see anyone else picking up any litter the whole time I was there.

I’m sure some people would say the ins and outs of why there is so much plastic in the ocean and how best to deal with it are actually very complicated matters, but for me it’s very simple: we crave convenience but reject our responsibilities to each other and to our planet. Product designers respond by increasingly creating wonderful products that make our lives so much easier, but because so few of us are bothered about taking responsibility for our planet, those product designers make those convenient products from materials that are convenient to them: cheap, easy to source, easy to use – plastic.

I thought a British beach was bad. But it turns out other countries have it much worse. And other countries contribute to the problem much more. China, for example, purportedly accounts for the 2.4 MILLION metric tons of plastic of the 8.8 million that are dumped into the oceans each year (that’s 27%)

Convenience makes our lives easier, but let’s not buy into the lies that it solves everything or that it absolves us of our responsibility to each other and our planet.

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