Convenience costs: personal, financial, and environmental
Convenience is not my number one priority. You probably don’t consider it to be one of your priorities either, but if you look at your actions, convenience might play a greater role in your decision making than you think.
Ever heard of convenience food? Have you seen the price of makeup at a grocery store? You pay a steep price when you purchase food ready-made, and that grocery store mascara is expensive because it saves you a trip to a store that's actually meant to sell makeup.
Breaking up with convenience made reducing my waste significantly easier. Convenience really isn’t my number one priority, and in fact, it doesn’t even make the list. Why, then, do we let convenience run our lives? We stop at the gas station nearest to our house to save time, or buy individual cups of yogurt instead of scooping out of a larger container. Convenience gives us the impression that we are somehow saving enough time with a convenient product that we’ll have more time to do something that is more important to us. At the surface, this logic works, but what are those more important things? Are we actually getting in that jog because we saved two minutes? Will you use your extra time to read a book or call a family member? Convenience, in this case, may look like convenience foods or disposable products like plastic cups or silverware, but does not extend to products that some people may depend on at or below the poverty line or to live independently (like someone with limited motor skills using a K-cup instead of measuring out coffee grounds).
It's easy to think that convenience is allowing us to focus more on what is important, but I think it's worth evaluating if your life actually is centered around those things anyway. I venture to say the way many of us act and what many of us claim we value don't always line up. Why are we on the phone at dinner if family is the most important thing in our lives? Why do we sit on the couch for three hours after work and eat microwave dinners if our health is a priority? When I left convenience behind, I turned to my values and started putting my priorities first.
I’m here to make the argument that many benefits of convenience aren't true for many of us. If family is your top priority, eating pre-made food or getting fast food may take less time than cooking, but what about the experience of cooking together? What about sharing a meal at the table instead of eating in the car? Convenience takes us much as it gives. It pollutes more than it is worth. It might be more convenient to buy all of your groceries (package free or plastic covered) at one grocery store, but one store won’t have the best prices for all the goods you buy. If saving money is a priority for you, then convenience comes at the cost of saving money. If school is a priority for you (I was in graduate school during my transition to zero waste) or you have responsibilities piled high, it might be convenient to buy a bottle of coke or a candy bar from a vending machine rather than bring food with you. So often our choices of convenience don’t serve our long-term goals; a soda might quench your thirst, but the caffeine may leave you jittery and unable to focus in class.
For me reducing my waste, trying to prevent further plastic pollution and promote responsible consumption, is a priority in and of itself. I need no further motivation to purchase second-hand (even if it means more time spent looking for an item) because it is vitally important to me. It is more important to me to live by my values than it is to grab a salted caramel mocha every time I pass a Starbucks. If I don’t have my reusable cup, I pass on the coffee. The coffee isn’t a priority.
I want everyone to reduce their waste and consume more ethically. I want everyone to see a single sweet potato wrapped in plastic and wonder how far up their own butt was the person’s head who thought that was a good idea. The truth is that zero waste is not always going to be the most convenient option. It might take five more minutes to drive to the bulk store. It might mean an extra few minutes before bed to soak your black beans instead of using the canned product. In my own life-even as a full time graduate student, nanny, and tutor -I asked myself this: so what? What am I doing otherwise that is so important? Netflix? Not so important. Sometimes we do have important things to do as well, but it's important to look realistically at the time we save, if there's enough time to do anything with, and if we actually use it for something that matters. What is more important than living your values? What is more important than keeping your priorities at the center of your life?
Convenience is in no place more prevalent than in the food we eat. This article found it costs about 65% more to buy washed and chopped lettuce than unprepared heads of lettuce.
A 2011 infographic from The New York Times highlights the cost of convenience for both our health and our wallets. It shows the cost of dinner for a family of four with a fast food meal of two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries and two medium, and two small sodas at $27.89. It found a home-cooked meal of chicken, salad, potatoes, and milk for $13.78 and a homemade meal of pinto beans and rice for only $9.26 (a little over 1/3 the cost of the fast food meal).
Looking at Kroger online, we see it costs $3.39 for the 9 oz Lean Cuisine (microwave dinner) of alfredo with white beans, but for 16 oz of pasta at $1.49, a 15 oz can of white beans at $1.19, and 8 oz of Parmesan cheese for $2.49 to make a comparable meal, it comes together for a total of $5.17. Lean Cuisine comes to about .37 cents an ounce and the comparable ingredients together come to .13 cents an ounce (almost 1/3 the cost) and will serve far more people.
As you can see, convenience costs, especially at the grocery store. All three figures suggest it may cost only 1/3 the cost of some convenience foods to eat at home, even preparing comparable meals.
Convenience always come at the cost of something. While some of us passionately believe that reducing our waste is important and love the roads it leads us down, some people don’t care about that. Some people may be trying to eschew processed foods or chemicals in products and find themselves drawn to zero waste for this. This may be harsh, but if you do not have a good reason, you probably won’t be successful in changing the way you think or act. If the personal costs or financial costs of convenience mean nothing to you, consider the enormous amounts of non-recyclable plastic waste created by this, and don't forget that 91% of plastic (even recyclable plastic) is never recycled.
Convenience products are enormously wasteful and have a lasting effect on our environment. Did you know a disposable diapers will take 350 years to break down? Three hundred and fifty years, and all the bits of plastic from the inside, outside, and fastening of that diaper will exist indefinitely since plastic only every breaks down into smaller pieces rather than decomposing. Likewise, the non-recyclable plastic films over microwave dinners are always going to exist in some way. The plastic packaging from your candy bar, your to-go box from the restaurant, that plastic fork from the picnic (since nobody wanted to wash dishes), and on, and on, and on, will exist forever.
The (awful) dieting adage “a minute on your lips, forever on your hips” needs to be adapted for single-use plastic. “A minute in your hand, forever with the land”- I’ll work on it.
We already turn away from convenience frequently--picking someone up from the airport even if it's out of the way and means we have to leave the house again after putting on comfy pants. We wait until we're home to eat a healthy dinner over stopping to get convenient fast food.
Looking at the big picture, zero waste is not attainable. It's not supposed to be. Simply by living, we create waste, but if you're reading this, I'm 99.9% sure it is within your power to reduce the waste that you create and put your values ahead of convenience. Lapses in living by our priorities may not affect our overall lives. If your top priority is school, one late assignment will probably not cause you to flunk out. If you use absolutely no disposable plastic, and your Amazon order came wrapped in plastic despite your special instructions, it’s not the end of the world. These are drops in the ocean. If you can honestly live by your values and with your priorities at the center of your life, then the occasional rushed fast food dinner in the car doesn’t take away from all the meals with your family at the dinner table, and paying an extra 40 cents for a loaf of bread won’t drain your retirement fund. You don’t have to be perfect, but not choosing things only for their convenience can help you bring your priorities to the center of your life.
What about you? Do your values align with zero waste? Is zero waste a priority for you?