Going green has a reputation for being expensive. But the price we pay for our choices does not reflect the full cost. For example, whatever we buy probably comes with packaging. Then we have to pay to discard it. And we have to pay for the energy it takes to go to the store and get it. Or, as the case may be, the cost of shipping what we buy online. These are hidden costs.
We also all pay the environmental costs of the pollution caused by this whole process. That packaging amount to junk we have paid for and accepted into our homes. Then we have to get rid of it. So we pay for someone to haul it off. Whether it goes to a landfill or recycling center, we still pay. But green living is first of all simple living. And simple living can avoid some hidden costs.
Let’s look at just a few common issues:
The hidden cost of bottled water
One of the most common recommendations for going green, not buying bottled water, will save you a lot of money. Even before looking at hidden costs.
The most popular size bottle of water is half a liter, or 16.9 ounces. If you buy a case of bottled water, the cost per bottle might come out to about 70¢ if it’s not a premium brand. That works out to about 4¢ per ounce. Of course, if you buy a single bottle somewhere, it costs a lot more. And if you buy it at an airport or sports arena concession stand, the price becomes exorbitant.
At 4¢ per ounce, that 70¢ bottle of water costs more than $5.00 per gallon. More than milk, more than gasoline. You pay your municipal water system something more like $3.80 per thousand gallons!
Why does bottled water cost so much? For one thing, there’s the cost of the bottle and all the packaging the bottle comes in. For another, there’s the cost of transporting the water from the bottling plant to where you buy it. And don’t forget the wages of all the people who handle it.
The bottle has environmental costs from making the plastic to making the bottle to getting rid of it when you’ve emptied it. Only a small fraction of bottles gets recycled. Many are so thin and flimsy they don’t bring a very good price when they do.
Otherwise, they last about forever in landfills or, alas, oceans. Plastic in oceans make it less healthy for fish and perhaps lowers fish population. I don’t want to spend a lot of time hunting for statistics, but it stands to reason that lower fish populations can lead to increased costs for fish to eat.
Simple living relies on reusable bottles filled with water from the tap.
The hidden cost of using paper
Technology promised the “paperless office” decades ago, but computers arguably led to even more paper use. More recently, however, we can send and receive invoices and recurring bills electronically. Fewer and fewer people pay with checks anymore. Large capacity hard drives and cloud computing make it possible to save emails, blog posts, and so on without printing it.
In this way, modern technology actually makes going green easier than before. Now, the internet has its own pollution issues and hidden costs, but let’s just consider paper for now.
It’s easy to organize folders on a computer. It’s easy to put multiple labels on archived emails. And if you can’t remember where you put something, the computer’s search function will help you find it. If it’s hard to find something in a paper file, good luck. Time is money.
When you clean out your computer files, you delete an array of electrons from a hard drive. It doesn’t leave any waste for you to discard.
Sometimes, of course, we do need to use paper. But Americans use more of it than anyone else in the world. With some planning and mindfulness, we can use less paper. You don’t have to pay for paper you don’t use.
We can also prefer recycled paper. I know. I know. It costs more than regular paper. But if we think about it, we see a different hidden cost. People don’t buy as much recycled paper as regular paper. So it stays on the shelf longer. Stores have to make as much money from their shelf space as they can. Therefore, anything that sits there longer than a comparable item will be more expensive.
The best way to bring down the cost of recycled paper, therefore, is for lots of people to buy more of it than regular paper!
The hidden cost of not planning your driving
People living through World War Two frequently saw signs asking, “Is this trip really necessary?” Hardly anyone alive can remember wartime rationing, but it’s still a question worth asking.
Today, some people think nothing of driving to a store and back. And if the find they forgot something, they think nothing of getting in the car and driving back. At least one of those trips is a complete waste of gas. And let’s not forget the other, less obvious costs of driving a car: wear and tear on tires and other components.
Here’s where we can learn from large corporations such as Walmart or UPS. As part of their sustainability efforts, they reformed their routes to minimize the distance each truck travels.
Their planning eliminates or minimizes back-tracking and even left turns. Anyone interested in going green can do that.
So if you’re in the habit of getting in your car, going to one place, returning home, and repeating the practice throughout the day, take a good look.
Can you combine multiple errands? If so, keep your routed as compact as possible. That is, don’t go east of home for your first errand, west of it for the second, and back east for the third.
Some simple things add up. For example, it is now cheaper to turn off your engine and restart it than to idle for more than 30 seconds. Even little habits like fastening your seatbelt before starting the car save a little gas. And those little bits can add up over the course of a year. With a little planning, you can think of lots of ways to save gas.
The hidden cost of free
“Free” has long been the most powerful word in marketing. I hate to admit how many email lists I got on because of the lure of maybe winning a free iPad. But the hidden cost of a free item can be much more than a little spam.
Think of “buy one, get one free.” It’s a good deal only if it is something you planned on buying anyway and you will be able to use both of them. What if you’re in the produce department and pick up two sacks of potatoes, say, when you only intended to get one? It’s neither a good deal nor green living if the most of the second bag rots before you finished with the first one.
Some fast-food sandwiches have more salt and fat than anyone should eat in a whole day. Some of them aren’t very filling, either. So if they’re buy one, get one free, and you eat both of them, is that a good deal? If it’s not good for you to eat one, what kinds of medical bills lurk down the road if you make it a habit of eating two at once?
What if you buy two of something (non-perishable this time) you didn’t intend to get in the first place just because you could get a free one at the same time? In that case, you didn’t save half the cost of the item. You spent money you didn’t intend to. A spouse or parent or someone else who lives with you might object, so there’s a potential social cost.
And a coupon for a free breakfast at a restaurant? It at least costs the mileage of the trip to get it.
Simple living entails not complicating your life with a bunch of stuff you don’t need. And there are no hidden costs for what you choose not to do or buy.
This article first appeared in Sustainability Scout.