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America’s Fast Furniture Epidemic Must Be Solved

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As the United States continues to grow, both in population and wealth, so do its landfills. Landfills consist primarily of items used in Americans’ day-to-day lives, including furniture due to the unsustainable manufacturing methods of large corporations. 

Fast furniture” describes cheap, fragile furniture that causes steep environmental costs in production, distribution and disposal and disproportionately harms marginalized communities. The need to implement steps towards amending the issue on a personal level and imposing consumer leverage on corporations is exceedingly evident.

The demand for fast furniture is increasing as corporations focus on producing at higher quantities at lower costs — disregarding their environmental footprints. With the e-commerce furniture market being projected to grow from $27 billion in 2021 to $40 billion in 2030, well-known environmentally negligent corporations such as Amazon and IKEA are expanding their furniture operations. 

Amazon now has two private-label furniture brands while IKEA opens an average of fifty new locations a year. Brands known for their unethical warehouse practices like Walmart, Target, Amazon and IKEA “emitted 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from 2018 to 2020.” As for landfill usage, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that Americans threw out over twelve million tons of furniture in 2018, over 80% of which ended in landfills. 

This influx of fast furniture leads to more waste, which is especially concerning because these pieces are often crafted with materials that do not biodegrade or break down at all. Examples include particle boards that have “plastic laminate coating” and “chemical resin binding the wood particles.” 

Despite laws prohibiting landfill sites from being located near populated areas, “hazardous waste sites” and “other polluting facilities” are often placed in or around low-income, predominantly non-white neighborhoods — and they’re kept there by the political force of the wealthier majority. These communities are seen as the path of “least resistance,” with fewer resources and political status to oppose unwanted facilities. 

A study conducted in New York proved a 12% increased risk of congenital malformations in children born within a mile of hazardous waste landfill sites. This statistic is highly alarming given that one in six Americans live within three miles of any given hazardous waste landfill site, with the majority of them being non-white individuals with limited living alternatives. In addition, skyrocketing housing prices away from landfills and decreasing land value near them — 12.9% and 2.5% less near large and small landfills respectively — makes moving out of these neighborhoods difficult. 

Factoring in historical oppression such as redlining, Jim Crow laws, slavery and modern day racism only lessen the slim possibility of escaping. Policies built on the racial distinction between white and non-white Americans are widely thought to have been a thing of the past, but the perpetuation of their damaging ideals reflected in modern legislations proves otherwise. 

Consumer and political leverage must be imposed on the corporations responsible for fast furniture waste. While the efficacy of ethical consumerism is contentious, companies are starting to listen to their customers’ demands, which is paramount to enacting wide-scale change. 

As of 2021, IKEA started their “buy back and resell unwanted furniture” program in an attempt to reduce their landfill contributions, joining infamous fast fashion companies like ASOS and John Lewis in a rebranding bid. If other corporations that contribute the most to fast furniture waste implement similar programs, the impact on landfills will be reduced. In addition, shoppers who engage in these programs will also receive store credit, further incentivizing this more sustainable approach. 

Consumers should do their part by purchasing less fast furniture, instead opting for second-hand shopping. Consumers who follow these behaviors will reduce conglomerates’ profits, weakening them and encouraging individuals to shop locally. Alternatively, canvassing, volunteering or simply voting for politicians who oppose excess corporate pollution can directly change policies. While the ideal action is to not buy fast furniture altogether, these are steps in the right direction.

Ultimately, the consequences of fast furniture in the United States are dire when considering its long-term effects on both the environment and marginalized communities. Its coexistence with the abundance already seen in landfills is detrimental. The implementation of sustainable policies for corporations contributing the most to this crisis, along with consumers adopting sustainable personal practices and advocating for governmental change are the best approaches towards fixing this issue.

Trista Lara is an Opinion Intern for the spring 2023 quarter. She can be reached at