What is the true cost of wasteful buying habits?
Before we are able to read, Ontarians are well-trained to associate new material possessions with success. Do you think our attitudes toward buying more things would change if the costs of making these things, transporting them to us and dealing with the waste they create were more obvious?
That is part of the ideas associated with the circular economy model the province is embracing in its new Waste-Free Ontario Act. Through this act, the province aims to increase extended producer responsibility (EPR), reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with waste, and change consumer attitudes from a buy-use-dispose pattern to one that treats waste as a resource and aligns our wants more closely with our needs (especially our need for new things).
The circular economy model is one of many topics being discussed at next month’s Zero Waste Conference, held at Lakehead University (zerowasteontarioconference.ca). This model for managing our materials, manufacturing and waste takes into account more than the amount of waste being brought to the curb, and encourages consumers to think about the costs that might be hidden in the price tag we see on new items at the store.
The cost of something is often a poor proxy for the material, energy and other environmental costs associated with that something. The price tag may not take into account exploitation of people (in developing nations, for example), the environment and material resources (such as raw materials of diminishing supply or that are obtained through irresponsible practices), and often doesn’t include the cost to deal with that product when it is disposed of (a point that is not necessarily the end of its useful life). EPR aims to transfer some of these hidden costs to the price we see so everyone doesn’t need to contribute to the cost of managing problematic waste. A consumer product that takes up a lot of landfill space or that includes materials that require special disposal procedures might be inexpensive to purchase, but we all pay for it when we pay our taxes.
Consider something small and commonplace: a drinking straw. In the United States, more than one disposable plastic drinking straw is used every day for every person in the country. Generally, these hundreds of millions of straws a year are not recycled, and contribute to the problem of overburdened landfills. Currently, the cost to dispose of these is not added to the price tag. One can purchase stainless steel, washable drinking straws with a narrow cleaning brush for around $3 each. At a cost of less than one cent apiece, the more conventional plastic option is very appealing.
How many times do I need to use a stainless steel straw to make it worthwhile? In terms of money, the break-even point is easy to figure out: If a disposable straw costs one cent and the stainless steel one costs 300 cents, you need to use it 300 times before you’ve come out ahead. A little more homework will tell you the embodied energy and carbon emissions associated with stainless steel and plastic are comparable, so even though one stainless straw is much heavier (15 grams) than one plastic one (.5 grams), you come out ahead with steel if you use it more than 30 times before throwing it out. The discrepancy between the break-even points in terms of energy and carbon and that associated with cost makes clear the scale of what’s hidden in the price. Maybe the profit margin on stainless steel straws is much higher than that of plastic ones, but is it 10 times higher?
A basic principle of the circular economy idea is minimizing the size of the “loop” an item takes on its trip from the consumer back into usefulness. An example of a large loop would be a product that is recycled to provide a source of material supply for manufacturers. An example of a small loop that preserves more of the embodied energy would be an electrical appliance that is repaired and resold at a discount rather than being recycled. (Sending to landfill is not part of the circular economy model.) A repair café like that being suggested by Annalise Stenekes would support this model of preserving the useful life of things instead of disposing of them and buying something new. (Check out repaircafetoronto.ca for resources or email email@example.com for more information.)
Stainless steel straws are a better option when money, energy and carbon are considered, but are they the best option? Why can’t we re-use plastic straws? Instead of buying shiny steel straws, why not just buy the narrow brush? Considering that as an option is consistent with the circular economy model, but getting people to think about cleaning and reusing instead of buying more is not an easy task, even when there are economic arguments supporting the idea.
While some elements of being “green” are certainly trendy, there is still a stigma associated with buying used clothes and cars, fixing things instead of buying new ones, and having less stuff. Can you imagine a world in which your success was not measured by the size of your house, the newness of your car or extent of your wardrobe, but instead we called the wealthiest people those who gave the most to charity? Such a wholesale change in our attitudes around self-worth are necessary if the circular economy model will succeed.
Drs. Thamara Laredo and Chris Murray are science faculty at Lakehead University in Orillia and they have wide and varied research interests. Science in the Making is a monthly column meant to answer scientific questions from the public. Questions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.