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book stuffWhere did we get all this STUFF?

Have you ever asked a young child where milk comes from? Did that child answer, “The store”? We chuckle at this misunderstanding. However, we might hold some similar misunderstandings ourselves.

For instance, where do T-shirts and shoes come from? What about computers? Or, the fast food meal of burger, fries, and a cola? Tempted to answer as that young child did?

Find the real answers in John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning’s book, Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things (Northwest Environment Watch, 1997).

Ryan and Durning set out to look at a typical day in the life of a consumer from the standpoint of resource consumption. Each day, the average American adult consumes about 120 pounds of resources—most of it indirectly. This includes all of the resources—from fuel to wood to farm products—that go into making the things that we use and eat every day.

In traveling through the consumer’s day, Ryan and Durning trace the history and whereabouts of the components needed to make these common products: coffee, newspaper, Tshirts, shoes, bikes and cars, computers, a hamburger, fries, and a cola.

For instance, the T-shirt pulled on in the morning, made from half polyester and half cotton, weighs about 4 ounces. Here’s where it might have come from:

The polyester portion of the T-shirt probably began its life as a few tablespoons of petroleum. The drilling operation used diesel fuel, heavy metals, and water to flush away rocks and debris and get to the oil. The crude oil was then transported by ship to a refinery, made primarily from steel, where it was processed into various products. Some of this processed oil went by truck or rail to a chemical factory where, through a long process involving several more chemicals, it was turned into long plastic fibers.

The 2 ounces of cotton in the T-shirt came from 14 square feet of cropland somewhere in the southern U.S. Tractors, irrigation systems, and various pesticides were used as the cotton was grown. A cotton gin separated the fibers from the seeds. The fibers were sent to another southern state to a textile mill where they were blended with the polyester fibers.

A knitting machine at a different textile mill created the fabric, which was then shipped to a foreign country where it was cut and sewn on a sewing machine to make the shirt. The shirt came back to the U.S. on a ship.

The example of the T-shirt points out that most of our products are better traveled than we are—and illustrates that fuel, transportation, machinery, human labor, and a host of other inputs go into every item that we handle throughout the day.

Look around you. Give some thought to how many resources were used just to build the walls standing in the room where you’re seated reading this.

Intrigued? Check out a copy of Stuff. Not only will you have a new respect for the complexity of the items you use every day, but you’ll also have a desire to purchase new products with care and consideration, to make them last as long as possible, and to reuse and recycle all you can before you dispose of anything.