I am known by family and friends for my love of cooking. So it didn’t come as a huge surprise that I received as a Christmas gift this year a new kitchen gadget. This one was a handheld blender—sort of a “blender on a stick”—with which you can puree your soup by simply immersing the business end of the device into the soup pot. No more need to transfer the soup back and forth to a countertop blender!
My initial thought was hey, this is pretty cool … and I guess I’m going to have to start making a lot more soup! Or to imagine other uses for the device. According to the manual you can also—somehow—use it to make smoothies.
The more I thought about my “blender-on-a-stick,” though, the more it seemed like a solution in search of a problem. Why? Well, to begin with, our 20-year old Osterizer blender has always worked just fine for pureeing soups, and it does many other things well too. Yes, you do have to transfer the soup to the blender, and then back to the pot. But I never realized I was being inconvenienced until presented with this new gadget.
And thinking more deeply, it seemed to me that in “solving” a problem I didn’t know I had, my “blender-on-a-stick” actually created several new ones:
• It has a built-in battery that requires it to live on a charger, which in turn wants to live on the counter. But with a mixer and toaster oven, we don’t need any more “counter clutter.”
• Assuming it’s kept plugged in, the charger will be a constant power drain. Maybe it’s not a lot of juice, but as “always on” devices like these proliferate they are starting to add up to a significant amount of power consumption in the U.S.
• The battery isn’t replaceable. Instead, the manual instructs me to mail the device to some far-off “service center” to replace it. Will it last two years? Five? My experience with other rechargeable built-in batteries tells me I probably shouldn’t count on more than two or three.
• What’ll I do if my blender has a bigger problem, like a burned out motor or a mechanical problem? Again, experience has taught me that getting appliances like this fixed tends to be as or more costly than replacing them. Many such products are really designed to wear out or become obsolete quickly—so you’ll buy another one sooner.
• Where will it go when it dies? I’ve been thinking a lot about this question since reading a sobering article about “e-waste” in January’s National Geographic. Assuming I don’t just send the gadget to the landfill but try to act responsibly and find an e-waste recycler, it still has a pretty good chance of winding up in China or Africa. There, people living in extreme poverty are exposed to deadly toxins trying to extract a few pounds of valuable stuff (copper, silver, etc.) from American e-waste. Reading this, I realized that maybe the best time to think about where our electronic devices will go when we are done with them is before we acquire them.
Reflecting on where my blender will go when it dies also made me wonder where it was born. “Made in China,” it said on the box. No surprise—it seems practically everything electronic is made there nowadays! My memory drifted back to the summer of 2005, when my family and I went on a two-week tour of China that included the industrial heartland cities of Wuhan and Chong Quing. The pollution was just horrible—made me feel sick, both physically and at heart. The air was like L.A. on a really bad day and nasty looking junk floated down the rivers. To top off the experience, I picked up a stomach bug that took me three weeks to get over (it turns out even the bottled water is often impure). So I am sadly not very surprised whenever I read another report about environmental conditions in China or people there getting cancer in their 30s and 40s. Experiencing first hand the huge cities and factories where products like my blender come from has left an indelible impression whenever I see those three words, “Made in China.”
And as I reflected on the seemingly simple questions “Where did this come from? and where will it go?” I realized that we live on an increasingly small planet where there really is no “away.”
So I took my “blender-on-a-stick” back to Williams Sonoma. The store clerk cheerfully gave me full retail credit for it—a hundred bucks. After browsing a while, I decided to buy a rather humble and low-tech, but very good quality, stainless steel skillet. Here are some of the positive aspects of my “new” Christmas gift:
• My new skillet was—amazingly—made in the U.S. It seems to me a good idea to buy U.S.-made goods whenever possible—both because I’ve been to China and seen a little bit of how things are made there and because I believe it’s important that we retain the ability to make real things in our country. After all, the oil we’re using to transport things all over the globe will eventually run out, and maybe sooner than we think.
• My stainless steel skillet is durable. In fact it’s probably about as close to a “forever” kitchen utensil as you can get. Our “nonstick” skillet is on its last legs now and it’s our third one in ten years—another foresaken promise of technology? Meanwhile, the stainless steel Revere Ware saucepans we got as a wedding gift 20 years ago are just as good today—less some tarnish—as they were when we started using them.
• My “new” Christmas gift is a really useful everyday product that will remind me regularly of the family member who “gave” it to me.
• Finally, I feel I’m making a small gift of my own—to my children’s children, whose generation will surely thank ours for not leaving them more problems to deal with than we already have.
It occurs to me maybe my assessment of the blender is overly harsh. Maybe I should just accept what is given to me and try to be grateful for its positive attributes. Maybe it was a sign I need to start making a lot more soup!
But I can’t hide from what I know. And what I know is that there’s seemingly no limit to the creativity of companies out to make a buck. I know this because I work for one of them! I also know that our economic system produces amazing innovations and occasionally, some useful new products. And I know that with a little more awareness and education, and informed consumer choice, the companies that invent and market these “solutions” will be more careful not to create new problems.