Looking at the piles of refuse in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, one of the biggest contributors to waste are rusted patio grills, rusty and broken lawn furniture, and plastic furniture. On top of that, and where HOAs permit, there are plastic fences, blown far and wide.
Seemingly repairable appliances, too, are set out at the curb. While there is much that is actually hurricane damaged in these piles of wet drywall and screen and junk, many homeowners are taking advantage of the free federal pickup of hurricane debris to cast off their junk.
And junk it is.
Occasionally, there is something repairable or salvageable. Wicker, for instance, likes to get wet occasionally, and can be painted. It tends to get picked up and scavenged. So does anything aluminum, as it has recycling value.
There is one common denominator to much of the waste, however. Much of it comes from Home Depot and Lowe’s, the big box hardware stores.
In a recent trip to a Port Charlotte Home Depot, the scene was dreary. Christmas displays were already out, and there was no replacement yard furniture, which would seem logical. And selections of tools were nil. This is not about supply chain issues. Aisles are now dominated by super manufacturers. So, for instance, Ryobi has two large sections of battery yard tools, a sign that carbon issues are driving Home Depot management. Few other competitors.
It is all thin, and uninspired.
Quality Not So Long Ago
It was not always this way. Only a few decades ago, grills and hibachis were iron or aluminum, pool furniture was rustproofed iron or steel, and benches were wood. I can recall an Alladin grill, made of aluminum, that lasted a decade. You could just paint it black, like an old stove. The only reason I got rid of it was because I could not find the grill parts that fit.
It is hard to put the blame on Home Depot and Lowe’s. Consumers respond to the $129 grill that looks like a $1,000 grill, even if it lasts only a few years. And reasonably, its much cheaper to buy a new one than fix the old one, with igniters, valves and knives costing $30. By the time you fix it, the hood is rusted.
The problem is that not only do the grills not last, but so many of their appliances, tools and other items are disposable, like a Bic razor. You just have to buy them over and over again.
And the reality is that it is still possible to make an inexpensive grill that does not rust. Is that too much to ask?
What to do? Ultimately because of the market position of big box stores, they are the ones that are setting the market. In their heyday in the early 20th century, Sears and Montgomery Ward and the rest of the department stores were arbiters of taste and quality. A Sears house existed in the ecosystem of cheap local shotgun shacks. What Sears did was bring a high quality house to the average person for a reasonable price. That way, both the consumer and the retailer won. Sears sold the house, the consumer built it, and then they shopped at Sears for all the items that would fill it.
Home Depot, meanwhile, sells about a half dozen cheap garage sheds, of the ugliest design and cheapest construction. They even sell a plastic shed. Didn’t these big box buyers and supply chain experts read Little Red Riding Hood? So Americans can have a plastic shed, surrounded by a plastic fence, and it all can be thrown out?
What to do?
- Unbreakable Tools: Even Fiskars, known for its MoMA worthy orange-handled stainless steel scissors, sells junk pruning shears. Men want good tools. It’s prestige. And a good brand brings joy to working around the house or shop. There are alternative American made shovels, like Ames, that endure. People will pay a premium for this. At top are Razor-Back (part of Ames) shovels, sturdy and American made. More of this, please.
- Think Bamboo: There are many woods and plants that can be used for bending and making furniture, including bamboo. Also good woods include birch, hornbeam, maple, alder, oak, ash, and poplar. Why not use these more, as this has been done for millenia.
- Simpler Appliances: Appliance manufacturers need policing. Standard sizing please. And let’s at least offer an analog version of every appliance, including refrigerators, stoves, and washers and dryers. Think Aga, which is simple, expensive and enduring.
- Implements must work over time: Even expensive hoses do not hold up, and kink. Where are the product testers at these stores? What are the buyers doing? Why aren’t they ensuring durability. While there is nothing wrong with selling a cheap hose for the side yard, it is up to the stores to choose and support durable and fixable implements that last.
- Standard parts: Yard equipment, appliances and such must have compatible parts. This is the idea of Lego. It all fits together. The idea that there is incompatiblity in batteries for yard implements and other tools is problematic. Of course, all the Ryobi parts fit together (backwards compatibility notwithstanding), but i have a garage full of other incompatible tools.
- Durable furniture: Lawn and patio furniture must be hardwood, iron or aluminum. Metal yard furniture should only be offered with paint jobs that can endure at least a decade outdoors. This is not hard to do. If consumers want cheap stuff, they can get aluminum beach chairs, which are light, recyclable and easy to pull out at parties. Makers like Tropitone and Woodard have been making high quality yard furniture for decades. Wicker is great, too. There are ways that quality could be brought to Home Depot, Lowe’s, Walmart and Target. There is a case for the occasional plastic furniture made of long lasting resins (aka Kettler) but this is the exception that proves the rule.
- Benefits to the community: One important aspect of metal lawn furniture, or things that can be fixed. When the paint goes, after a decade, you can take it to a local body shop and have it sandblasted and recoated. In fact, selling things that can be fixed adds to the local economy, yet positions these stores at the center.