by Kit O' Connell and Mae Saslaw

The Cost of Disposable Products

Fencers fighting with disposable objects

We know that convenience is a feature for which we’re often willing to pay a bit extra. If we can save a little time, we’ll ignore the drawbacks of taking certain shortcuts — we’ll microwave an instant meal even if it’s not as delicious or nutritious as something cooked from scratch, or use a drop-off laundry service instead of waiting around for the wash to finish. We’re not here to tell you to stop, of course, and it’s up to you to decide what’s worth it and when. As usual, we’d just like to make sure you have all the facts about a specific kind of convenience: disposable goods.

Environmental impact is one obvious argument against the overuse of disposable or single-use goods, especially those that are not recyclable. It’s hard to quantify just how much waste these products create because no one is sorting through garbage and tallying Swiffer pads, but we can imagine based on what’s in our trashcans and what’s in our landfills. The EPA’s 2010 figures (PDF) on municipal solid waste considers paper and clothing “nondurable goods” (“containers and packaging” are separate); such goods account for 21.3% of garbage from their sample of 250 million tons. Plastic nondurable goods alone account for 6.4 million tons.

That’s a lot of trash, and many of our favorite disposable products are not recyclable. You’re probably not surprised to learn that this particular form of convenience isn’t good for the environment, but how good is it for your wallet?

“Clean Up Made Easy!”

This makes a good tagline for countless disposable cleaning aids: Paper towels and wipes with the soap built in, Latex gloves, etc. How do they stack up in price versus their re-usable counterparts? A Swiffer Wet Jet costs about $20 from Amazon or other online warehouses with refills at about $5 for 12 refills; a Bissell mop with a washable microfiber cloth costs $20, and bring your own cleaning solution. The re-usable option is definitely cheaper, but it’ll take you a few extra minutes to rinse the cloth, and you’ll have to wash it thoroughly for a clean slate.

When we think of easy cleaning, we don’t just think about the cleaning tools themselves. Disposable dishes have been a fixture since the Dixie cup was born in 1907, and they were convenient enough for Apollo astronauts. A week’s worth or more of disposable place settings is often cheaper than a permanent dining set — depending on the dining set, of course — and if you have a tendency to break your dishes, it gets expensive to replace them. The cost of running your dishwasher isn’t entirely negligible, either, so this comparison is a bit less cut-and-dry. If we look at a mass-scale example, it gets a bit easier to evaluate: The School Nutrition Foundation conducted a study (PDF) in 2009 that details the cost, labor, and environmental differences between reusable and disposable trays. In the two southern school districts studied, it cost less to wash the reusable trays than to remove the disposables. Add the cost of the disposable trays, and the total cost is about $8,000 more to serve 100,000 meals.

Make Some Memories

Outside of the kitchen, there are more disposable products to be found. Non-refillable pens are about as ubiquitous as paper towels, and so much more common than their old-school counterparts that we barely think of them as alternatives to a more durable option. Unlike some of the products mentioned above, you don’t throw out your plastic ballpoint after one use, either. How many pens have you actually consumed, and how many have you simply lost?

Your standard Bic costs about ten cents per pen, if you’re not buying in bulk. They’ve got enough ink to cover at least two kilometers, which is hard to translate to pages written or time owned, but it sure sounds like a lot. A 50mL bottle of ink starts around $8, and there’s usually about 0.25mL of ink in a standard ballpoint (you can measure one and do the math). If we’re just talking about the cost of ink, then, you’d need about 200 Bic pens, or $20 worth, to come up with 50mL of ink. A fountain pen will cost anywhere from $10 to several hundred, and you can calculate how long it will take to pay for itself. Factor in the cost of cleaning or replacing the shirts you’ll ruin with ink stains, and consider the value (positive or negative, depending on who you are) of being the person with a fountain pen in a world of disposable writing instruments.

Last on the list is the disposable camera. In 1949, the very first disposable camera sold for $1.29 through Mechanix Illustrated. The Photo-Pac had to be mailed in for development, but processing was included in the cost of the device. Today, a single-use camera costs between $10 and $15 at a drugstore, or around $5 if you have the foresight to buy online. They’re still good for twenty-four exposures; when 35mm film was still the norm for consumers, a few disposables were great substitutes for entry-level cameras that required rolls of film, especially for people who didn’t take many pictures. Current digital photography tech makes disposable cameras all but obsolete — memory cards may be consumable parts in the long run, but you can capture countless images without spending another dime. You don’t even have to buy a camera if you happen to like the one that comes with your phone. When you think about how much money it used to cost to buy and process film, it’s astonishing that the thousands of photos on your computer may have effectively cost you nothing to produce.

What You Can’t Put a Price On

Few people today would consider long-term operational costs when considering the purchase of a fine fountain pen or a single-use camera. We buy these things for other reasons, perhaps novelty most of all. Decisions about buying a janitor-grade yarn mop or a stick and a box of pre-moistened paper towels aren’t based entirely on material cost either; your time is valuable, and unless you really love washing your mop, you might think it’s worth the expense to toss the dirty part in the trash and move on with your life.