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Sustainably-ish: The Law of Diminishing Returns and Individual Climate Action

As an eco-friendly lifestyle advocate, my counterparts and I expend a lot of physical and emotional energy promoting climate action. Several years ago, I began to wonder if our efforts might not always be targeted toward the most efficient avenues of change, so I did some basic math to take another look.

Read on for some thoughts on how the intersection of the law of diminishing returns fits and individual climate action fit into a low-waste living movement. Have you considered the intersection of the law of diminishing returns and climate action when deciding how to focus your resources and actions to protect our people and our Earth?

Do you know how the first bite of a decadent chocolate cake is so delicious, but each subsequent bite thereafter tastes a little less exceptional? The next two bites are good but not quite so mind-blowing, and you may even find that eventually, the cake starts to taste too rich or gives you a stomach ache. You can thank the law of diminishing returns for that chocolate cake decadence decline.

I’m about to get all economic-y on you, so are you ready? I’m a big nerd, so let’s talk some economics 101 on sustainable living. It’s a path to permission to be anything but perfect. Hang with me; I promise it’s worth it.

The Law of Diminishing Returns and Individual Climate Action

The law of diminishing returns suggests that as you increase the input of a particular resource or factor of production (i.e. such as energy or money practicing sustainable living habits) while keeping other inputs constant, the incremental output or benefit derived from each additional unit of input will eventually diminish.

This principle shows up in various ways in life and isn’t a shy visitor to the party of sustainable living land, especially in the context of individual climate action. In many instances, doing something sustainably(ish) is not that hard but doing it perfectly every single time is next to impossible. There are so many accessible and achievable opportunities to practice sustainable living imperfectly, so long as we don’t give up on progress because we can’t achieve perfection.

Additionally, our first small steps often have a bigger impact than each step thereafter (not always, of course, but in many meaningful scenarios). Pairing the law of diminishing returns and climate action, the benefits of our sustainable living habits decline as we put more resources into doing each of those habits more perfectly.

However, when we recognize that the pursuit of perfection requires more effort with each incremental unit of progress and accrues smaller benefits for each additional level of effort, we accept ‘sustainably-ish’ as good enough and focus our additional resources on other climate-positive habits.

Let’s Meet Where Everyone Can Participate

This not only makes more efficient use of the money and time we dedicate to eco-conscious living but also creates an environment of acceptance for more imperfect environmentalists (and we need as many of these in our figurative tent as possible). It allows us to meet people where they are and celebrate the things they can do for the planet instead of shaming them for their lack of perfectionism.

Back in the heyday of zero-waste living and mason jars for trash cans, eliminating all individual waste was the goal. We’ve come a long way in understanding how counterproductive the pursuit of zero-waste perfection is, especially when it carries a side of shame and guilt.

The Math of Reusing a Zip-top Bag

But let’s move behind the emotional weight of perfection as the end-game and dive into the math behind one reason why this evolution away from perfectionism makes so much sense. That overly rich chocolate cake law of diminishing returns gives us a clue. Let’s head to the kitchen sink for an example. Come wash some single-use plastic bags with me.

A pure zero-waste approach to sustainable living might include investment in something like Stasher bags to replace a variety of single-use plastic. Or at the very least, one might try to reuse plastic bags forever and ever so they don’t end up in a landfill. But Stasher bags are expensive, and plastic zip-top bags eventually break down. And maybe some people don’t want to wash a plastic bag 87 times before trashing it.

Instead of suggesting everyone transition to expensive reusable alternatives, let’s consider the impact of reusing single-use plastics. What if, for example, we washed and reused certain single-use items like plastic bags just a couple of times before throwing them out? How might this help our plastics problem? Would it even make a dent?

Considering some but not perfect reuse of single-use plastics as a win makes it easier to execute on a broad scale and makes expectations more inclusive of those in varying socioeconomic circumstances. If nothing else, it’s a starting point and better than the status quo.

Just One or Two Reuses Make a Meaningful Difference

Suppose we washed and reused each plastic zip-top bag one time before trashing it. Each bag is used twice before disposal, and we cut our consumption and disposal of these products in half. That’s a pretty meaningful reduction for a limited effort.

If we washed and reused each bag twice, we would use each bag three times before disposing of it, thereby reducing our use of plastic bags by 2/3 or 66.6%. Effectively, we use one bag for every three uses (or every three bags we would have used in the past).

I plotted out the return on effort and decrease in plastic bag use with each additional wash. You can see we get a diminishing return on our efforts. If we wash a bag three times before disposing of it, we reduce our waste by 75%. A fourth wash reduces waste by another 5% and so on.

Take a look at this chart. The first ten washes reduce our waste by 91%. The next ten washes, which are equally as taxing as the first ten (and result in a bag that might be pretty tattered and less effective), reduce our waste by only another 4%. When have our imperfect environmental efforts become good enough?

Not all single-use products can be reused

Admittedly, certain single-use products like plastic straws, paper plates, and paper towels aren’t great candidates for reuse. Long-term reusable solutions, like real plates or cloth towels, are much more viable options.

Related Reading: Can You Compost Dirty Paper Towels?

I’m a fan and owner of reusable straws, but they can be expensive, particularly considering the alternative is typically free to consumers. I also don’t carry my stainless steel straws around with me. When it comes to being a more eco-friendly user of straws, you’re probably better off ditching straws altogether if that’s an option for you.

For a plethora of sustainable living products and habits, however, the math of a big initial return when investing in a new low-waste living habit followed by diminishing returns as you move toward perfection persists. Consider items like:

  • Plastic bags
  • Plastic utensils
  • Glass jars
  • Plastic garden pots for seeds and seedlings
  • Bread bags
  • Plastic grocery bags
  • Yogurt or sour cream containers

When we reuse them even just once or twice, we consume and dispose of so much less stuff. The list of items we can reuse is endless. And when we do this, we save money, reduce resource consumption, and reduce waste each time we reuse something. Best of all, the biggest savings often come when we reuse it the first few times, so don’t discount your partial, imperfect efforts to reduce consumption and waste.

For those willing, able, and ready to make full-fledged investments in zero-waste products, continue doing what works for you if you have the means to proceed in that manner. We need purists as leaders and advocates in the sustainability community to test the limits and push boundaries.

If, however, perfection is not in the cards for you for any reason, consider the impact of being an imperfect environmentalist. Think about the benefits of reusing certain single-use products just one or two times even if you’re not perfect. You can totally do it, and the combined efforts of many doing this would make such a difference. In the world of zero waste and collective climate action, these types of efforts definitely count!

Spending a weekend visiting family in upstate New York, including a visit to an apple orchard and a family farm, gave my city boys a chance to food at its origin.

Like Picking Fruit From a Tree

To me, living an eco-friendly lifestyle is kind of like picking all the fruit from a tree. There’s a bunch of low-hanging fruit that we can easily grab and from which we see material gains in terms of individual climate action. This low-hanging fruit is the first, second, or third wash of the zip-top bag.

Once we’ve picked all that easy-to-grab fruit, however, harvesting the rest of it gets increasingly harder. We might need to invest in a ladder to reach the fruit near the top of the tree. Maybe we need to seek out trained experts to help us know what is edible and what’s gone bad (or is not worth being picked). Eventually, we’ll spend a good bit of time searching for every last piece of fruit on the tree.

Here’s the thing: Picking the last five percent of the fruit will take extensively more time, effort, and resources to collect relative to picking the first five percent from the tree. Yet the first five percent and the last five percent provide the exact same nutritional value.

When it comes to eco-friendly living, when does the law of diminishing returns influence our actions? When do we reach the tipping point when the costs unquestionably outweigh the benefits, particularly at an individual level? When is “sustainably-ish” good enough?

When is Sustainably-ish Good Enough?

The answer will be different for everyone depending on their particular circumstances. To exemplify this, consider a simple composting example. A person living on a large plot of land with their own garden can easily create a compost pile with minimal effort, and they’ll reap great benefits in creating nutrient-rich soil amendment for their own garden.

Someone living in a suburban condo complex with no access to gardens, compost piles, or pick-up services, and no personal outdoor space to create their own compost system will find a commitment to composting significantly more difficult. Their effort will outweigh the benefits far more quickly than our friend living on a large plot of land with their own garden.

The tipping point depends so much on where we start, where we are going, and what paths we have available for the journey. Comparing action steps on the “fruit tree of eco-friendly living” is far more complex than a snapshot of where we all are today. But it’s worth considering what the low-hanging fruit is for each of us individually and doing our best to take the individual climate action steps most available to us.

Don’t Be Discouraged Because Small Steps Can Make a Big Difference

All this is to say that our actions, especially early in our search for the low-hanging fruit, make a big difference. Whether you’re a long-time environmentalist or just dabbling in the idea of eco-conscious living, don’t be overwhelmed by the prospect of being perfect. Just get started, right where you are, and do the best you can.

Remember that, thanks to the law of diminishing returns, your first steps make big leaps. Start making small changes and know that the first piece of low-hanging fruit picked from the tree is just as helpful and meaningful as the last piece hiding out in the very top branches.

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Jen Panaro

Jen Panaro, founder and editor-in-chief of Honestly Modern, is a self-proclaimed composting nerd and advocate for sustainable living for modern families. To find her latest work, subscribe to her newsletter, Sage Neighbor.

In her spare time, she’s a serial library book borrower, a messy gardener, and a mom of two boys who spends a lot of time in hockey rinks and on baseball fields.

You can find more of her work at Raising Global Kidizens, an online space to help parents and caregivers raise the next generation of responsible global citizens.

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you – I feel much the same way and you put it far better than I could have! A culture of combined effort is far better than a cult of individual superiority.

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