Michael over at Green Minimalist recently asked an excellent question about why we resist sustainability. It’s a very valid question, and something I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about lately.
I think the best way to give my opinion on the matter is to conduct a simple experiment.
Let’s Do A Thought Experiment
I own a Klean Kanteen. It’s 64 ounces (yes, half a gallon – that’s not a typo), and I use it for most everything I drink. From where I sit, this thing is the ultimate water bottle – durable, sanitary, and reusable for the foreseeable future.
We’re going to replace everybody’s favorite bottled water with a 32-ounce Klean Kanteen. That’ll be big enough to hold a substantial amount, but small enough to be reasonably portable.
We’re going to pretend that everybody in this experiment requires water that’s been filtered in some way – either by a bottled water supplier or by a home filtration system.
We’re going to assume that everybody consumes 64 ounces of bottled water per day. Every 32 ounces of water somebody drinks out of the Klean Kanteen replaces two 16-ounce bottles of water.
The great thing about thought experiments is how fast you can do them. I just snapped my fingers, and presto – all of the above is done! Let’s look at the results.
What we’re no longer consuming:
- 4 plastic water bottles per day
What we’ve started consuming:
- 1 metal bottle (in practice, lasts 20+ years or more)
- Dish soap & water to wash the bottle
- Some form of water filter (change very 50 gallons)
An Initial Observation
If you threw away 4 water bottles every day, you’d hit 200 bottles worth of garbage before that water filter had to be tossed. Net plastic consumption is much lower with the filter.
It would seem that this issue is pretty clear cut; the amount of plastic you save should outweigh all the additional consumption costs.
But Wait A Minute!
Look at that second list again. With the metal bottle, you’re consuming dish soap and water to wash it. This is usually a substantial amount of water, as you need to get all the soap out.
Water is in short supply in some places, and many people would argue that we should use much less than we do.
So are we better off?
Some people might argue yes, because we’re not consuming as much plastic. But wait a second – the plastic water bottles are recyclable, and the filter isn’t! Does that change the answer?
What if you count transportation? Large, gas-guzzling trucks are necessary to haul the plastic recycling to a recycling facility. Does that change the answer?
What if the metal has to be extracted from the ground in the form of ore, and disrupts the local ecosystem? Does that change the answer?
What if you count the energy to re-process the plastic bottles into new ones? Does that change the answer?
What if producing the metal bottles is done in a facility that generates lots of industrial smog? Does that change the answer?
What about getting the items to the store? Shipping bottled water takes different gas-guzzling trucks than the ones hauling off the recycling. Does that change the answer?
What if the plastic bottles are produced locally, but the Klean Kanteens need to be transported on a boat from China? Does that change the answer?
This Isn’t Doom & Gloom
I’m not trying to be negative here. What I am trying to do is illustrate that an issue as simple as bottled water is still incredibly complex!
Anybody trying to stay reasonably informed on this topic is deluged with such a contradictory mess of fact and opinion that it can be hard to tell which way is up afterward – let alone make a reasonable decision about bottled water.
In case you think I’m blowing this out of proportion, did you know that Sam’s Club still uses styrofoam cups because they claim they’re more eco-friendly? And some other research indicates that they might be right?
Who would’ve thought?
I Think We Can All Agree On This
Consuming less stuff overall is better for the environment. This includes the entire purchasing, consumption, and disposal cycles. This isn’t debatable in any serious way.
Not buying every little trinket and then relegating it to a landfill after a year or two is a net win, by definition – and the mindset that enables this is at the core of minimalist thinking.
Where Do We Go From Here?
For anything much more complex than that, I think we need better information.
We need research that acknowledges the complexities of these decisions, and provides useful, actionable information that’s grounded in fact.
The question is, where do you get that information? Does it even exist?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
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