This week I learned about a new shopping/organizing trend, being spread via TikTok. Folks are taking videos of their "purse towers" and sharing them as inspiration for others. What's a purse tower? It's a set of shelves or drawers filled with cubbies and other containers that folks use to organize anything they might put into a purse. Folks on TikTok who are sharing these videos seem to have many purses (often also organized/displayed on tall shelves), and they switch out their purses according to whatever outfit they will wear on any given day. So they set up "purse towers" to hold and organize everything they might need to stock their purses when preparing to go out for the day. I mean, I guess it makes sense to have everything in one place. What's interesting and a bit disturbing to me, though, is the utter volume of the stuff — there's just SO MUCH OF IT. Sure, it's all organized in cute drawers and cubbies, and the "things" themselves are cute (Hello Kitty- and cute animal-themed everything), clean, and aesthetically pleasing. But it's still striking to me just how much STUFF there is.
In one video I watched, "Brooke the Shopaholic" shows off her purse tower, which contains a drawer full of "hand sanitizer holders" — I think I counted 23. There's also a drawer that holds at least 30 hand sanitizers, a drawer holding at least 25 phone cases and 5 pop sockets, another drawer holding approximately 20 air pod cases, and another holding at least 30 "small" keychains. She follows up with another video, which highlights a drawer containing 20 "big" wallets, and another one that shows a drawer with at least 30 "large keychains" and at least 20 "keychain wallets." There are also videos that show folks switching out their purses, and videos of the purse collections themselves, which I guess are the things that necessitate the purse towers of goodies that go inside purses. And perhaps the most interesting videos to me are the ones where folks are restocking their purse towers, as some are made as ASMR videos. Here's a great example—it's almost mesmerizing to watch and hear "Maddie East" refilling the little cubbies and drawers of her purse tower with individually wrapped candies, to-go wet wipes, tiny packs of tissues, and more.
As an academic who studies consumerism and consumption, I understand what's happening here, theoretically. Consumption theorists talk about how in modern consumer culture, individuals are no longer defined by their familial or occupational roles, but rather folks are free to create their own self-identities and do so increasingly through consumption. The things you buy and display help show other people who you are, and help you find your "group" of like-minded people who you resonate with. You can express who you are through the things you buy and wear and show the world, and you can bond with others through the act of shopping or through sharing your favorite things with others. Shopping and organizing, and expressing yourself through the things you buy can also be fun. In these times, buying and organizing things can also help you feel like you have control over at least one small part of life, when things around you seem so out of control and oftentimes helpless.
There's another part of me that just doesn't understand the excess at all, though. When I think about the gargantuan amounts of waste Americans generate, these consumption-based trends, while important to the folks engaged in them, seem troubling. The EPA provides an overview of just how much waste the US generates: "The total generation of municipal solid waste (MSW) in 2018 was 292.4 million tons (U.S. short tons, unless specified) or 4.9 pounds per person per day."
And these figures are already a few years old. Research shows that the situation has just gotten worse with the pandemic over the last few years. Reuters' news reporter Joe Brock argues that the pandemic has "sparked a rush for plastic" — in form of face masks, face shields, takeout food containers, plastic shopping bags, plastic packaging for online shopping deliveries, and more. And during the pandemic, the weak price of oil has made it even more expensive to create recyclable plastics, so new plastics are much cheaper to buy — sometimes half the price — than recycled plastics. The pandemic hit just as countries around the world — including China, the European Union, and the United States — were seeking or planning to ban one-use plastics. However, the pandemic upended those plans and has brought about an increase rather than a decrease in the creation of plastic trash, most of which is not recyclable and ends up landfills.