Needs Are Problems Looking for Solutions, not Products

The marketing industry has trained us well to buy products that will supposedly solve all of life’s problems. But with a little creativity and resourcefulness, you may find more sustainable and less expensive solutions to your predicaments than shoddy consumer goods designed to break quickly and languish in landfill for an eternity.

Nothing is sometimes an excellent choice

A major appliance has broken? Maybe it’s an opportunity. For example:

Your microwave dies

You really crave popcorn. You open a box of microwave popcorn, pull out a bag, tear off the plastic, throw that in the trash, place the bag in the microwave, press a few buttons and… nothing. You try again but cannot revive your appliance.

On first impulse, you may find yourself searching for a replacement on Amazon. Of course, you’ll want it delivered the next day to your front door. How about this Alexa-enabled model? It

simplifies cooking by letting you microwave using your voice and an Echo device. Just say, ‘Alexa, reheat one cup of coffee,’ and Alexa will start reheating with the appropriate power and time settings.”

But don’t you have to open the door of the microwave to put the cup in there? Couldn’t you just press the button on the panel next to the door handle? Really? This is a thing?

If your microwave breaks, you have no moral obligation buy a new one. You could instead:

  1. Repair the microwave.
  2. Look for a secondhand microwave.
  3. Stop using a microwave.

But what about that popcorn?! Use the stovetop. Enjoy both your new status as the neighborhood rebel and your incredibly delicious, inexpensive popcorn without the chemical-laden, single-use throwaway packaging.

Your dryer dies

Every time I post pictures on Instagram of my laundry hanging outside to dry, the images enrage and horrify several Europeans and Australians, who rarely own dryers. They regularly ask in the comments, “Why are you posting this? Isn’t this normal where you live?” No, it is not. The vast majority of people living here in sunny Northern California use an electric dryer. Even on hot days.

Eschewing the dryer and hanging your clothes to dry:

  1. Saves money.
  2. Makes clothes last longer.
  3. Liberates you from owning one more large appliance in need of space and infrastructure to accommodate it and money to maintain it.

In the winter, you can hang the clothes up around your home in the basement, in the garage, on a rack in the laundry room or wherever. If your clothes take too long to dry hanging up, buy enough extra clothes so you don’t have to go naked. Unless you’re into that.

Your car dies

When my car dies, I don’t plan on replacing it. Because I own a Toyota and drive little, it won’t die for a while. But when it does die, I’m done. No new-to-me used car. No electric car. No new-to-me used electric car.

Unlike someone who lives in a rural town, I can pretty easily go car-free. I dwell in a densely populated area with decent bike infrastructure and so I ride my bike all over. I buy most of my food by bike, I ride to the library, to my partner’s house and to meet my boss to work together (however right now, I’m mostly working on my cookbook at home).

After that inevitable day—the end of my car—I’ll continue to ride my zero-emissions bike. If I want a car for a trip, I can rent a car. If I need to get somewhere quickly, such as urgent care, I can always order a Lyft. (In other cities, cabs still exist but not here in Silicon Valley.)

Think of the money I’ll save on car payments, insurance, gas and repairs for a horrible investment that has ruined our cities.

[A]fter a certain point, more cars make the city a less congenial place for strollers, bicyclists and people who take public transit to their destinations. The cars push out frolicking kids, quiet afternoons reading on a bench and sidewalk cafes. So we give up our public space, our neighbor-to-neighbor conversations and ultimately our personal mobility for the next car, and the next one.

“Cars Are Ruining Our Cities.” New York Times

Patience pays off

Often, if you think you need something and wait, you can find what you want inexpensively or secondhand (or you might just forget about it and save some money). When I go to thrift shops, I hit the aisles with the pots and pans first, in search of cast iron. I love the stuff. It cleans so easily. Its nonstick properties result from proper seasoning (i.e., cooking in it with fat) rather than from nasty Teflon chemicals. And it’s practically indestructible.

But I have found cast iron only once. Then a few weeks ago, my partner Chandra snapped up two cast iron pans for me at an estate for a mere $2 a piece! Patience finally paid off. The larger pan is a Griswold, a brand people collect and sell on eBay or build displays for in their spare rooms and take videos of to post on YouTube.

In the old days, before I set out on the zero-waste path, I wouldn’t have wanted these, with their rusty bottoms and stained interiors. (Actually, I wouldn’t have bought secondhand anything in the old days.) But I revived these easily by scrubbing the rust off with a potato and coarse salt, followed by three seasonings in the oven. (Go here for more on cast iron care).

Change our mindset

Many Americans would consider going without a microwave—let alone a car—as radical. For those not wanting to draw suspicion from their neighbors for such subversive behavior, small changes might be easier to tackle.

If you fall into this category, here is my challenge: The next time a kitchen gadget breaks or your jeans tear or you run out of the goop you like to put in your hair, before pulling out your smartphone to find another product to buy online, come up with a different solution, using the resources you already own.

On the weekend, a friend of mine told me that once when he was a student, he stayed with friends for a night in a hotel in Las Vegas on his way home from a camping trip. After promptly losing his last $20 in the casino, he returned to the room hungry. He still had some food left from camping, including tortillas and cheese, so he (carefully) made a quesadilla in the hotel room with the iron and ironing board, using the iron’s steam setting to soften his tortillas. I aspire to that type of MacGyver-esque thinking.

12 Replies to “Needs Are Problems Looking for Solutions, not Products”

  1. Yes, and the brilliant thing about this too is that you’re using what you already have UNTIL it dies, not just replacing something something because you’re sick of it / it’s out of fashion / looking worn. Like you we’ve been questioning our need/wants for products, especially electrical, as their useful life ends. We chose to replace both our dishwasher and our car when they died, but both decisions were not automatic and certainly not taken lightly.
    I am one of the aforementioned Australians who always line-dries washing, and there’s nothing like sliding into a bed made with fresh sheets that have been dried in the fresh air and sunshine!
    Cheers
    Sally at One Family, One Planet blog

  2. Those cast iron Lodge pans are treasures!

  3. I wish I could go without a car, but here in rural Arkansas the nearest town is 8 miles away, and the nearest town with a grocery store is 22 miles away! My old Ford pickup is 16 years old, paid for, and hauls me, groceries, hay, feed, and horse trailer wherever I need. I hope to drive it for another 16 years (by which time I’ll be too old to drive anymore anyway).
    In today’s Buy New Buy Now society, I had forgotten a lot of what you have revived. Thanks for reminding me how to get by again w/o plastic & STUFF!

  4. I have a lot of cast iron pans and am so glad to get these tips–thank you. One is a big pot and I have used it to make things like chili, and after a certain point there is unknown material on the sides that I thought was something like iron flakes since it didn’t seem to be food. It might be worth a big scrub with metal something and then the potato and salt, or maybe even the potato and salt first…

  5. I have tried the tortillas with unconventional methods before and it’s always ‘You ruined my flat iron!’ ‘There’s burnt cheese on my clothes!’ ‘WHY WOULD YOU MAKE A GRILLED CHEESE WITH A PROPANE TORCH.’ and that’s a short summary of why I don’t live with my mom anymore.

    but hey a flat iron is a great panini press if you’re not a COWARD.

  6. I stopped using my dryer three years ago and I live in Minnesota where it is frozen outside half the year. Takes some extra planning, but I’ve made it work. My neighbor loves when I hang laundry out in summer because, he tells me, that means it’s going to be a dry, sunny day. We tried to figure out going car-free a few years ago when our car died but my husband has multiple sclerosis and public transit to his workplace (a 20 minute drive from our house) is nearly nonexistent. Our dishwasher died last year and we decided to not replace it. We use less water washing dishes and we use the gray water to flush the toilet.

    1. Hi! I think it’s great you’ve stopped using your dryer actually 🙂 I used to market dryers, and no matter how energy-efficient they are, some consume 5X more electricity than a washing machine (and electricity is one of the biggest contributes to climate change!) I always felt bad selling something I never even used haha.

      1. Hi Shin,

        Thank you. I didn’t realize dryers consume that much energy :O Plus they suck the life out of your clothes and so you have to buy more clothes. This is good to know coming from someone who used to work in the industry.

        ~ Anne Marie

  7. We have a dryer but seldom use it, we hang out in the summer and use the basement in winter. They dryer is around 20 years old so it will probably last forever.
    My husband actually repaired our microwave when it died, it cost us all of $7….that gave it a couple more years before we had to replace it. We use our microwave every day. We make meals every 2-3 days and then eat leftovers so we do a lot of reheating.

    The car we also need because of lack of public transportation.We have low mileage because we stay home a lot…cooking and baking, gardening,reading and for me sewing and knitting, life is busy when you do it yourself

  8. I think the voice activated microwave is possibly an example of universal design. Some quadriplegics and other disabled people can open a microwave door but don’t have the use of their fingers to actually push the buttons. I know the buttons on my microwave are really challenging. I could certainly do without a microwave to defrost dinner or heat my tea water, and I hope I will never need a voice activated one. However, it’s actually commendable that corporations are embracing universal design.

  9. It’s amazing what you can find at thrift stores. In the past couple of years, I’ve nearly stopped buying new clothes. Most of what I find is second hand or through consignment. Besides, it’s really hard to go back to full prices after you’ve gotten used to paying $4 for tops.

Leave a Reply