Monday, August 20, 2012

Waste is a terrible thing to mind, part 2

Ever since posting two weeks back about how our household trash compares to that of other homes in our neighborhood, in the U.S., and around the world, I've been paying much closer attention to everything that goes into our wastebaskets. I notice not just what I throw out, but what comes into the house that might need to be thrown out. Last week, for example, when we went to the grocery store to stock up on some sale items, I found myself sizing up all the packages that went into our cart with a critical eye: "The Blue Bunny ice cream comes in a recyclable plastic carton, so that's good. But the brand of pasta that's on sale comes in a bag, not a box, so you can't recycle or reuse it; it's just trash. And what about these orange juice cartons? We can reuse them for seedling trays, but how many more of those do we really need? Could we compost them, or are they plastic-coated?" (The best answer I could find was this article at Earth911.com, which says that the cartons are about 80 percent paper and 20 percent plastic. You can recycle them in some areas, but not where we live.)

This led me to the conclusion that there actually are still things we could do to reduce our household waste; it's just that we'd have to spend more money to do so. We've already done all the things that are obvious win-wins from an ecofrugal standpoint: eschewing bottled water, carrying reusable shopping bags, using cloth hankies instead of paper tissues (although those can actually be composted), and so on. Now we've reached the point where we have to choose between eco and frugal, where cutting our waste further means skipping the sale items in favor of slightly pricier ones that come in more eco-friendly packaging. So the real question at this point is, how much more should we be willing to pay to reduce waste? Is it worth paying 20 cents more for a pound of pasta to eliminate an ounce of plastic packaging waste? That would work out to $3.20 per pound of waste eliminated; is that a good deal? How can you decide?

Here's a peek at some of the items currently in our trash cans, and my estimate of what it would cost to remove each item from future trash loads:
  • Several plastic windows torn out of junk-mail envelopes. I've already signed up for the Direct Mail Association's mail preference service, but that doesn't affect solicitations from charitable and political groups. The only way I can think of to eliminate these would be to call the charities individually and ask to be removed from their mailing lists. Cost: probably nothing in dollars (since most organizations have toll-free numbers), but potentially hours of phone time, and no guarantee that it would actually work. Weight saved: far less than one ounce per week.
  • The plastic envelope in which our new futon cover was delivered. This is a tough one. Keeping the old futon cover wasn't really an option (after eight years, it was neither presentable nor structurally sound), and short of sewing it myself (which is definitely beyond my limited skills), I'm not sure how we could have bought a new one that didn't come with packaging. I guess it's possible that if we'd gone down to the local futon shop, we could have bought one and told them, "no bag, thanks, we'll take it as it is." But their covers start at $166 for a double mattress, and the one we just bought cost $40 at Overstock.com. So that makes a cost difference of $126 to save a little over an ounce.
  • A few plastic liners from cereal boxes. I've never found any brand of breakfast cereal that didn't come in either a bag or a lined box, so I guess to eliminate these, we'd have to stop eating breakfast cereal altogether and start baking more homemade granola. Cost: factoring in the ingredients and fuel, about 25 cents per week—plus the time it takes to bake, and the annoyance factor of heating up the house in the summertime. And Brian would probably get tired of granola pretty quickly.
  • A seltzer bottle cap. The bottles themselves are recyclable, but the caps don't have a number on them. Eliminating these would be as simple as switching to cans, which can be recycled in their entirety (and also crushed to save space in the bin, which might be a plus). Seltzer costs about 62 cents per quart in bottles, 66 cents per quart in cans, so that's only an extra few cents a week—but the amount of waste saved is pretty trivial.
  • An empty deodorant container. There are "alternative" deodorants that don't come in these plastic containers—natural salts and such like—but as far as I can tell, they don't work at all, so that would just be a big waste of money. So I guess the best alternative would be Tom's of Maine, which comes in a recyclable plastic tube. This costs about $5 for a 2.2-ounce stick, as opposed to $1 for a 3-ounce Speed Stick or Arm & Hammer bought on sale—so over the course of two months, we'd be spending about $6.80 extra to eliminate a single tube that weighs about 1.5 ounces. (And of course, we don't really know how effective the Tom's deodorant would be. The social costs wearing a deodorant that doesn't work are hard to calculate.)
  • One of the most puzzling items, several strands of dental floss. Most dental floss is made from nylon, so it can't go in the compost. It seems like there ought to be some out there that's biodegradable, but when I searched for "biodegradable floss," all I could find was floss that comes in biodegradable containers, such as Smart Floss and Eco-Dent. Eventually I managed to find a brand called Radius, which is made of silk (!) and costs $4.50 for 50 yards, as opposed to the $1.50 we pay for 100 yards. So that's a difference of $7.50 for something that weighs less than an ounce for the entire package (including the plastic case, which is recyclable) and takes us more than three months to go through. Out of curiosity, I also checked to see whether there is a reusable alternative to floss. I found one called the Bryton Pick, which is made of flexible stainless steel with a plastic handle—but since it can only be reused for "up to 30 days," I suspect this would produce a lot more waste, as measured by weight, than the floss. I also found a blog entry describing a product called Stim-U-Dent Thin Plaque Removers, which appear to be glorified toothpicks. The thin ones (which I suspect I would need, since my teeth are pretty tightly spaced) cost $3.79 for 160, an 80-day supply for the two of us, as opposed to $1.20 for an equivalent amount of floss. That's a cost difference of $2.59, or about a dollar a month. It's better than the silk floss, but still, is it worth it to save such a trivial amount of weight?
  • Most evil of all, a Styrofoam tray—the kind that meat comes on, only this one held veggies from the bargain rack at the grocery store. Even in our town, where just about any plastic item with a recycling symbol can go in the bins, you can't recycle Styrofoam. The veggies it held were marked down to $1.23, so if that was half price, it would cost $1.23 extra to eliminate this very lightweight but relatively bulky item.
Looking over this partial list, I realize that the problem is that each individual item is so small that eliminating any one of them could provide only a tiny reduction in weight. It could add up over time with items that get used regularly, like the deodorant, but even that doesn't get used up very fast. So in most cases, it seems hard to justify spending extra money to eliminate such as small amount of weight.

The only change that seems like it might be worthwhile is buying seltzer in cans—because although I'm saving only the weight of the cap, not the whole bottle, the cans aren't much more expensive and are actually somewhat more practical. They're smaller, so they don't go flat as fast, and I can keep just a couple of them cold in the fridge and the rest in their case on top of it, which helps reduce fridge overcrowding. But the thing is, if I switched to cans, I'd be doing it mainly for those benefits—not for the immeasurably small amount of waste it would eliminate. So none of this actually gets me any closer to figuring out what's a reasonable cost per pound for waste reduction. Anyone got an idea for a reasonable rubric?
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