Everything in life, so far as I've been able to tell is a tradeoff: as a wiser man than I once said, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." So what do you give up when you opt for consumer products with an environmentally-friendly twist? If you're lucky, a few cents on the dollar. If you're not so lucky, you might be Megan McArdle:

[I]ndustry also knew how to make low-flow toilets, which is why every toilet in my recently renovated rental house clogs at least once a week. They knew how to make more energy efficient dryers, which is why even on high, I have to run every load through the dryer in said house twice. And they knew how to make inexpensive compact fluorescent bulbs, which is why my head hurts from the glare emitting from my bedroom lamp. They also knew how to make asthma inhalers without CFCs, which is why I am hoarding old albuterol inhalers that, unlike the new ones, a) significantly improve my breathing and b) do not make me gag. Etc.

In fact, when I look back at almost every "environmentally friendly" alternative product I've seen being widely touted as a cost-free way to lower our footprint, held back only by the indecent vermin at "industry" who don't care about the environment, I notice a common theme: the replacement good has really really sucked compared to the old, inefficient version. In some cases, the problem could be overcome by buying a top-of-the-line model that costs, at the very least, several times what the basic models do. In other cases, as with my asthma inhalers, we were just stuck.

My own experience has been something of a mixed bag. For example, in the fall of 2005 I began buying some recycled-paper products, and reported thusly:

After a couple of months, I've appointed Seventh Generation to be the official Surlywood supplier of paper towels and bathroom tissue. They are not, however, getting the contract for trash bags: in two successive boxes, the little plastic welds, which are supposed to keep the drawstrings in place, didn't.

The price was high, but not all that high. Still, they didn't sell well, and eventually the store quit carrying them.

I haven't changed out any toilets lately, and God and Kohler willing, I won't have to. I have noticed one thing, though: if you set an old high-flow throne out on the curb Tuesday night to wait for the Bulky Waste pickup, it will be gone long before the truck shows up Wednesday morning. I've seen two vanish within minutes, in fact.

Then there are the infamous Compact Fluorescent bulbs. They haven't caused me much in the way of visual grief yet, but I have had one actually break on me, which necessitated a trip to the appropriate processing facility, where I foisted off, among other things, a bottle of DOT 3 brake fluid that was older than any of my grandchildren.

On the upside, the water heater I bought in 2007 is way more efficient than the 1985 model it replaced, and not noticeably slower at dishing up the warm, though its 30-gallon capacity is actually only 28 gallons; I assume, since the tank is almost exactly the same size, that the difference is created by internal insulation. (There's no external insulation, since the tank gets a cozy little interior closet all to itself, except for one of these little guys.) Admittedly, this thing will have to save a whole lot of gas to pay for itself, but the installation was motivated less by potential savings than by potential ruin to my floors.

And I have to assume that dryers must have gotten worse recently, since my 2003 model (a low-end Kenmore electric) has only once failed to dry on the first run, and that was due to, um, operator error.

The Vent

#624
  6 April
2009

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