Smart consumers consider multiple factors when deciding whether to buy a particular product. Is it affordable? Is the quality good? How long will it last? Can I return it if I don’t like it? Are there any special discounts available? It therefore seems peculiar that one aspect of purchasing products is completely absent from our decision-making process: How will I dispose of this when it’s no longer of any use to me?
I often think of this strange and seemingly irrational behavior when I purchase a product with elaborate, over-the-top packaging. A particularly glaring example is each time I get a new five-pound jug of protein powder. Once it’s all used up, I have to remove the rotating lid on the recycle bin just to fit it inside. It’s also made out of reinforced plastic that can support the weight of a grown man, which seems a little unnecessary, and makes it impossible to crush. For a fleeting moment, the efficiency-minded part of me chimes in.
“Well we better stuff this beachball-sized protein barrel with all the trash we can find to get our money’s worth for every square inch it consumes of our garbage quota,” says Efficient Me.
And then I realize, oh wait, I’m practically not even paying for this incredibly stupid, inefficient consumer behavior, so why bother? But, then I still do bother because I enjoy efficiency for efficiency’s sake, even if there is absolutely zero monetary benefit in it for me.
Paid to waste
I remember as a kid going into the garage (which was not unlike a boiler room in the midst of an Arizona summer) to crush aluminum cans so that they could be turned in for cash. I couldn’t help but think how bizarre this behavior was. We were effectively being rewarded for consuming sugary drinks and tossing our one-time-use aluminum containers into a bin, so long as they were smashed. What other dumb behavior could I get paid for, I thought.
It’s pretty clear we have an over-consumption problem. “Hoarding” has practically become a medical disease and it seems like every year there are more reports of hoarders being found dead underneath a sea of their own junk. I myself felt like I was parting with my first-born when the time came to throw away the box my Macbook Air came in. Yes, it was that pretty.
Most of us have even been conditioned to think it’s normal behavior to purchase, in disposable bottle form, the exact same water that runs through our faucets. If you haven’t seen Jim Gaffigan hilariously poke fun at us for this behavior, do yourself a favor and take a look.
“Down with business!”
And it’s usually at this point that people start blaming the companies creating these products. “These big corporations just don’t care about anything but themselves. They’re destroying the environment.” And so on and so forth. Entire political movements have been created around reducing the waste caused by a single product. Good luck going to your local grocery store these days without a reusable bag, odds are you’ll get the stink eye from half your fellow shoppers.
But let’s trace this problem to its original source for just a moment. In literally every other aspect of the purchasing decision, every smart company that likes to make money tries to satisfy your desires. Low prices. High quality. Long-lasting. Money-back guarantee. Conspicuously absent from that customer-winning formula is: Low cost of disposal. Why? Because we the consumers mostly don’t give a hoot how much it costs to dispose of all our stuff because we aren’t really paying for it. At least we don’t think so.
The government garbage truck blues
I am, of course, talking about every city or county-based waste removal service. Each month, we pay a heavily subsidized flat fee to have our waste removed from our sight, never to have to think about it again. It doesn’t matter how much or how little waste we produce. It’s an all-you-can eat buffet of inefficiency with your garbage, and the price is pretty close to a real buffet.
Human beings are wired to take advantage of every possible benefit afforded to us, even when doing so would be irrational. That’s why you end up with three biscuits, a heaping of mashed potatoes, and half an ice cream Sunday you can’t finish at the end of every meal at Sweet Tomatoes.
Stop subsidizing stupidity
So what’s the solution? It’s pretty simple, really. Start asking people to pay the actual cost of disposing their waste. When people get a bill in the mail each month with the number of square feet of trash they compiled and the actual price to have a guy in a robotic truck drive by to pick it up once a week, they’ll think twice about buying products with elaborate and wasteful packaging.
In effect, government waste departments are actually just enormous subsidies that go to corporations every year. We are actually incentivizing companies to be as wasteful as possible because the cost isn’t passed on to them or their consumers (again, so they think–taxes, etc.).
It’s a tragic irony that the very government-sponsored recycling and waste removal departments many of us hail as being environmentally-friendly and sustainable are perhaps some of the biggest culprits in our current addiction to mass waste accumulation. It’s time to stop the insanity.