Send your question to Umbra!
Q. Dear Umbra,
It seems like I get one of those musical cards for my birthday every year. I hate the things, because I usually have to tear out the electronic guts, and put them into an electronics recycling box, which I will eventually take to Free Geek here in Portland. However, I’d rather not do that. Without sounding ungrateful, what’s the best way to kindly remind family and friends not to buy me those cards?
A. Dearest Chris,
Here at Grist we are working on ways to Shift the Gift. Should that include Shifting the Card? Let us ponder.
It’s quite something, the image of you disemboweling the cards your loved ones have so carefully chosen for you. Imagine how Aunt Ruth chuckled when she first found the polka-dotted giraffe dancing to “Call Me Maybe.” How she replayed it just a few more times before sticking it in the envelope. How she never imagined that the emotion she’d inspire in you would be wrath.
Or maybe she did imagine that. Maybe, Chris, you have such a reputation as a holier-than-thou grumpypants who can’t even enjoy a simple birthday card that your family takes bets on who can really get your goat. The musical greeting card: so small, but so powerful.
The greeting card industry is an interesting beast. Annual sales in the U.S. generate $7.5 billion, with birthday cards accounting for roughly a quarter of that and Christmas cards another quarter, according to the Greeting Card Association. Americans send more than 1.5 billion Christmas cards a year. But overall sales have been declining due to the popularity of e-cards and other options. Still, Hallmark and its ilk are putting on a cheery face: “Electronic communication is better for sharing information, but greeting cards are better for sharing emotion.” Cue soft hues and flowers.
It’s remarkably difficult to track down market data on this new generation of cards, which sing, light up, shake, and more. The Greeting Card Association had no stats available, and a representative from Hallmark — whose array of high-tech offerings is nothing short of mind-boggling — would divulge only that they are “extremely popular.”
But are they extremely popular with the planet? When we purchase a card like this, we hold in our hands a little piece of e-waste — the electronic detritus that is rapidly piling up in our landfills, leaching chemicals into our water, and making people sick around the globe. Granted, our e-waste problem is immensely larger than a tiny chip from a greeting card, but even tiny chips add up.
So let us all be mindful. Don’t rush out to buy the newest gadget just because you can. Don’t toss batteries or electronic devices in the trash. When faced with e-waste, try to recycle it — check with your local authority or with Earth911. If there are no reputable recycling options, see if you can reuse the item. (In this case, that last suggestion seems a mite less practical — unless you’ve been yearning to use “Call Me Maybe” for your doorbell, music box, or dubious office prank.)
But Chris, your question is one of etiquette. Is there a universe in which you can say to your nearest and dearest, “My birthday is approaching, and I know you’re going to want to wish me well. Please don’t do it with one of those fershlugginer musical cards”? I say there is no such universe. Aunt Ruth will always think it’s funny that a giraffe dances to a popular song, and you will always smile politely and then recycle the card and its innards.
When Aunt Ruth’s birthday rolls around, you can model a different way by sending an e-card — which is the greener choice, though it has its own impact — or, I don’t know, sewing a card from fallen leaves. Or send a singing telegram. What is the eco-impact of that, do you suppose?
Since we’re laying our cards on the table, I have a confession to make: I get a little thrill when the mailbox contains an actual envelope among the bills and flyers. From an actual human being. Therefore I still send paper cards (recycled, of course!), and no amount of clever e-cards will make me stop.