Sustainability & Eco Minimalism

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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31 Responses - Add Your Input!

Posted April 6, 2011 at 5:55 am | Permalink

Hi Robert

Nice post! I think about this stuff too, in fact I was trying to work out today whether it is better to buy milk in plastic recyclable bottles or cardboard boxes. I decided on the latter because although the waxy boxes aren’t recycled here I still think they would break down relatively quickly and plastic recycling still takes a lot of energy, or so I believe?

One thing you forgot in your example is losing the metal bottles. We bought really good ones when we moved to Australia and in three months have managed to lose both. I use a mixture of plastic bottles, which I re-use a few times before recycling and water fountains which the council has conveniently placed alongside my walking route.

Thanks for the bulk book info :-)


    Posted April 6, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Deb, that’s what I call the “pen principle”. :)

    I’ve long thought that it would be best to have one or two pens that were of superior quality, and then buy refills for them – that way I’m not constantly throwing away the cheap ones that don’t work.

    The problem with that methodology (with pens, anyway) is that pens disappear with alarming regularity. It’s almost to the point where I think they sprout legs and walk off!

    But I haven’t had that problem with my Klean Kanteen. I take it with me many places, and (crossing my fingers) haven’t managed to lose it yet.

    I think that it’s a combination of the fact that it’s a larger item (pens are easier to forget about), and the increased usage frequency. For me anyway, it’s harder to forget about something that I’m constantly drinking from.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting – your input is appreciated!

      Posted April 11, 2011 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

      I discovered a pen principle too, but just the other way around.. since I use only one pen (a rite in the rain one), I am keeping track of it very well – better than before where the no name pens kept mysteriously disappearing (and re-appearing!) on my desk..
      Happy clam recently posted..Hello- atomic energy answer seekers!

        Posted April 11, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

        That’s an interesting twist – the idea that having only one of something (and it being a really good one) actually helps you keep track of it.

        I love it! Thanks for commenting!

Posted April 6, 2011 at 10:47 am | Permalink

Oy vey, the flack I’ve gotten for my post about styrofoam. If you can find great information on styrofoam versus paper (or reusable) cups, I would be too ready to see it. One thing to note is a lot of people say you absorb bad chemicals by drinking from styrofoam, so even if it’s more eco-friendly, it might be less healthy.
EcoJoe recently posted..Organic Spices from Teeny Tiny Spice Company

    Posted April 6, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Hi Joe! Wow, that’s another dimension I hadn’t considered – health benefits of both. Yet another thing to consider, huh?

    For what it’s worth, I definitely appreciated your post about styrofoam. I don’t know the exact facts of the matter, but I do know that finding the facts requires a free exchange of ideas. You’ve certainly contributed to that!

    When I linked to your article I didn’t figure you’d stop by – thanks for visiting (and commenting!) Hope to see you around here again soon!

Posted April 6, 2011 at 11:05 am | Permalink

Robert, this post is fantastic. I stew about these kind decisions all the time. The Sam’s Club argument for foam cups weighing less and taking up less space is interesting. Although when it comes down to it, heavier paper cups will eventually biodegrade, where as the foam won’t. Of course, like you said, the carbon footprint of manufacturing and transporting each of these materials needs to be considered as well.

Back when I owned an ice cream shop one of my suppliers told me about a little experiment she did with a foam and paper cup in her backyard. She buried both of them and checked on each of them every month for six months. She said after six months the paper cup was pretty much gone, but the foam cup was exactly the same as when she first buried it. It was just litter. That always stuck with me.

I would love to see studies completed by unbiased third parties as to which of these kind of choices are the most sustainable.

And that’s how I feel about that. ;)
Jenny @ exconsumer recently posted..When Physical and Digital Worlds Collide

    Posted April 6, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Jenny, if you haven’t yet go check out EcoJoe’s post – according to him, the government states that a paper cup in a landfill will still be a paper cup 20 years from now – precisely because landfills are designed to inhibit decomposition.

    It all gets amazingly complex, doesn’t it?

    Now I’m hungry for some ice cream. :D Thanks for stopping by Jenny!

Posted April 6, 2011 at 11:45 am | Permalink

Oh this is the kind of stuff that keeps me up at night sometimes. :(
I just had this argument with a co-worker a few weeks ago over paper recycling. He claims that most paper is made from tree farms that are grown especially for paper, and that paper recyling is actually toxic to the environment. When i looked it up, it was true. Bleaching the paper is toxic and so is breaking it down to recycle it. So what to do??

Similarly, people are going to Kindle’s to replace books and all the paper that is used to make books. But what do you do when the Kindle is old and you want/need to replace it? Most people don’t recycle them (although Amazon has a program for that) and it gets thrown into the trash where it leaks dangerous toxins into the ground. OR it gets recycled by an electronics “recycling company” that really just ships all the stuff to Africa where it gets burned and thus releases even more dangerous toxins into the air and water.

Have you seen the Story of Stuff yet? It’s quite powerful. Not that it solves these problems, but makes you think about all the elements that go into producing products. http://www.storyofstuff.com/ She’s got a Story of Bottled Water and Story of Electronics too.
marianney | A Life Set Free recently posted..Are You Prepared to Make a Difference

Posted April 6, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

I’ve seen the info on paper before. In fact, Domtar Paper has an entire website about the paper issue over at http://www.paperbecause.com/

I’ve seen the Story Of Stuff too, and yes – there’s definitely some good information in there.

And your comment just gave me another post idea. :D Thanks Marianne!

Posted April 7, 2011 at 12:12 am | Permalink

Great, thought provoking post. It is so frustrating that there aren’t more standardized manufacturing and product content standards so that the public could be better informed and we could make simple, wise decisions. It looks like we definitely need better info and education.
Gena recently posted..Spring Has SprungTackling Closets

    Posted April 7, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    I don’t think it’s as much a matter of standardizing manufacturing and content as much as it is just having information on the table. If the production information was just laid out in a useful manner, we’d be able to look at it and make an intelligent decision.

    And of course the flip side – people would actually have to read and act upon the information they got.

    Thanks for commenting Gena!

Posted April 7, 2011 at 8:09 am | Permalink

I’m glad you’re thinking about these things. So many people simply follow the advice of whoever was on the Today Show this morning or whatever their favorite blogger said last year without thinking about it.

As long as you’re thinking and attempting to use fewer resources, you’re doing okay. If you manage a lifestyle where very little goes to a landfill, you’re doing better than if you have a life that sends lots to a landfill. That’s all you can know for sure.

Gip/So Much More… recently posted..The Flow of Good- Have You Disconnected From One Too Many Systems

Posted April 7, 2011 at 9:48 am | Permalink

“Where do we go from here?” That question has been on my mind a lot lately. I feel frustrated by all the conflicting info & lack of direction.

I think it’s awesome that so many people are thinking about this, but that question still remains.

Where DO we go from here?
Kellie Kowalski recently posted..The Choice is Yours

Posted April 8, 2011 at 3:33 am | Permalink

[...] – Untitled Minimalism: Sustainability & Eco Minimalism – Robert delves into some great questions surrounding the sustainability of the products and [...]

Posted April 8, 2011 at 7:08 am | Permalink

You don’t need to consume all that extra soap and water if you don’t wash your water bottle that often :) I use the same water glass for months without properly cleaning it… but that’s out of laziness.

You might be able to find ways to clean it with less water – maybe burn away any bacteria that might be in it, or something.

I know in places that don’t have much water they have some neat ideas – apparently there are pots that have a thing on top that collects the steam while you’re boiling/steaming something, so you can use it again.

    Posted April 9, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    I personally wash my Klean Kanteen about every 4 or 5 days – but I know that if some people had one, they’d be washing it every day at least (if not multiple times). :)

    Thanks for stopping by & commenting Layla!

Posted April 8, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

I have a filter pitcher on my desk. I fill it up each morning and try to drink it all during the day. Not only am I not using the water bottles, but it is also a visual indicator of how much water I should be drinking. I love the Klean Kanteen, I’ll have to get one.
Marc Morgan recently posted..Childhood Memories Part 1

    Posted April 11, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    Marc, the one I got has a nice hard plastic loop on top that you can hook your fingers through. Very convenient for portability!

    Thanks for commenting!

Posted April 9, 2011 at 2:12 am | Permalink

Hi Robert, came to your blog via Exconsumer.

My feelings on this sort of thing is that there are all kinds of things out there that one can get worked into a frenzy about, but to what gain? Just as our culture by and large gets people to buy buy buy through constant advertising, I think that hanging out in extreme enviornmentalist crowds too much can develop just as much or more unhappiness going the other way. The very fact that we exist means we are going to consume, but if we are reasonably careful about it, one person isn’t going to destroy the planet :) I’m pretty sure that sometimes it’s good to take a deep breath, step back from things(anything) that might be having a big impact on our life to make sure we aren’t(haven’t) going(gone) to far with it. Not saying you are or have, just my thoughts after reading your post. Cheers!
Anon recently posted..Simple living advice

    Posted April 9, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    I don’t get into the above level of detail analysis for too many things – the idea of the post was to be illustrative. :)

    I definitely agree with your point – we’re going to consume. There’s really no way out of that one. The question, as alluded to by Gip above, is more one of “how much”, rather than “if”.

    Thanks for commenting!

Posted April 11, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

There is this very knowledgeable guy working in my favourite outdoor supply store, and when I asked him some years ago which bottle he uses (Sigg or Nalgene, we didn’t have Kleen Kanteen back then yet) he pulled out this super ancient run down Sigg bottle and said “this here, since the seventies, but I had to replace the lid once”. So if you take care of your stuff, the energetic cost of producing an aluminum drinking bottle will amortize very easily (I have one too).
Happy clam recently posted..Hello- atomic energy answer seekers!

    Posted April 11, 2011 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    Definitely true. I remember a tin cup that my Grandma used for measuring in the kitchen – if I had to guess, I’d have said that cup was older than I was…possibly older than my mom!

    Quality stuff + a bit of care = many years of enjoyment!

    Thanks for commenting!

Posted April 15, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

Hi Robert,

It’s completely scandalous that it’s taken me this long to respond, I’m so sorry. And thanks so much for the shout out!

Sustainability is complicated. There are no easy answers, and the more you think about the interconnections and circular nature of many of the issues, the more complicated and overwhelming it becomes.

And you’re right – getting hold of this information in an accessible and digestible way is hard. I’d like to see more of it. I’m working on a project to make it easier, but that’s a way off!

I agree with your conclusion – while it is all confusing and complicated, we can still be pretty confident that consuming less is generally going to place less strain on natural systems. We can debate the relative benefit of different choices and difference systems, but ultimately, less intensity on each one is still likely to be beneficial.

Michael Ashcroft recently posted..Why do we resist sustainability

    Posted April 15, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    Hi Michael! Yeah, I was wondering what had happened to you. :D

    I’m definitely interested in learning more about your project to make the info easier to get/understand. You’ll have to let me know more as that develops.

    Thanks for commenting Michael!

Posted April 17, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink

I was taking an unofficial digital sabbatical – a holiday with my girlfriend! Thought I’d have more of a chance to keep up with the online world than I did, but apparently not!

The Project, as it shall be known, will hopefully be online sometime this year, but it’s still pretty nascent! No doubt I’ll announce it on Green Minimalist though!

Posted May 23, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

Hi Robert,
I’m coming late to the conversation. One of the things I wonder about is the practicality of eliminating plastic bottles. I live in a hurricane prone area and do not wish to wait on someone supplying me water if the system goes down(I think of Katrina, Haiti and Japan). Storing water for emergencies and ensuring that my family, including pets, has enough and that it’s portable means plastic as far as I can determine. The weight of metal or glass would be prohibitive for transportation, especially when the weight of water is added. For the most part I avoid buying plastic water bottles for everyday consumption, (I have a sigg ,too,) but will continue to advocate for the practical and restrained use of plastic.

    Posted May 23, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    I certainly don’t mind latecomers!

    I know what you’re talking about with emergency water storage. Glass is incredibly heavy, and metal might be able to be lightweight (especially when you compare it to the weight of the water inside it!), but it would be pretty cost-prohibitive.

    If I were to want to store a large amount of water for emergency purposes, I’d buy a couple of those five-gallon water cooler bottles. The newer ones have really nice built-in handles on the sides, they hold five gallons each, and they’re relatively inexpensive (I think $6.00 is the “core charge” for one of the bottles). They’re a bit on the heavy side, but they’re definitely portable if the need arises.

    If I were to want to go a little bit fancier (and gain the ability to wash it out – a nice plus!) I’d do something like this one at Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/3gnkkt7

    I definitely agree that for portability (at least the kind where you have to physically move it yourself), plastic takes the taco – but that being said, we should find the best, most durable, most re-usable plastic option out there.


    Thanks for stopping by Susan, and thanks for commenting!

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