Saving Labor with Disposables
By Art Carden
by Art Carden
“I wonder if they make disposable towels.”
A few flicks of the thumb later, I had discovered that yes, in fact, they do make disposable towels and secured a box of 300 of them to be delivered to my house. My relief is tangible: I joined a gym about a year ago, and one of the inconveniences of my gym membership is that I regularly have to shower and change at the gym. Some gyms provide you with towels. My gym–Planet Fitness–doesn’t.
This means I spend a lot of time carrying around soggy towels and wet washcloths. Keeping them separate from my dry clothes is a minor annoyance, but having them stink up the car if I happen to forget they’re in there and wondering whether I have a clean towel or not is just another distraction in an already-crowded morning.
Hence, disposable towels or a fantastic addition to my quality of life. This is true of all sorts of disposables: disposable cups, disposable plates, disposable silverware, and when my kids were younger, disposable diapers. Disposables are a great source of convenience and better sanitation.
They also free up my time and energy for other things, like writing. The world is better off, presumably, to the tune of the additional articles I am able to write and lectures I’m able to prepare because I’m not spending as much time fussing with towels and dishes. Markets direct resources for their highest valued uses, and for skilled workers in places like the United States, their highest value activities are not washing dishes and doing laundry. Sure, we do some of this because it can be costly to outsource–you can eat at restaurants often, but it’s not that easy to find someone at 7 PM who is willing to do your dishes for a few dollars–but the less of it we can do, the better.
There is an important lesson here in wise stewardship. If you’re reading this, your time, energy, and focus are your most valuable assets. On net, you’re probably not doing the good you could do if you concentrated your time and attention on the tasks for which you have a lower opportunity cost. You create income for others by focusing on the tasks for which you have a comparative advantage and outsourcing to them the tasks for which you don’t. If you’re an engineer, then unless you really enjoy it, you probably shouldn’t mow your lawn. A better contribution to the world would be to do more engineering and pay someone else to mow your grass. On net, you and your trading partners end up with more engineering and better-kept grass. Disposables save you time and energy you would otherwise spend doing dishes and laundry, and on net the world is better off because of the additional engineering you’re able to do.
If you’ve gotten this far, you might be wondering about the environmental costs. Surely, it’s extremely wasteful to dispose of cups and towels after a single use. Perhaps, but if this is the case, it might be because the prices are wrong. Garbage service might be too cheap. Landfill space might be too cheap. Lots of products emerge out of a dizzying array of subsidies, taxes, restrictions, inducements, and other rules that distort the price. In a competitive market with well specified property rights, all of the relevant information is reflected in the price. Finally, one can think of a landfill as an “inventory” of sorts in the same way we might think of mines as inventories. Most of what’s in there isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and who knows? Maybe the engineers who are able to do more work because they can hire lawn services will come up with cheap and effective ways to recycle all this stuff.
This means that our best estimations of the downstream environmental costs will be reflected in the prices of disposable towels and disposable cups. To the extent that there is an environmental problem with disposables, it’s because we’re not letting the price mechanism do its job, which is to ensure that people enjoy the benefits and bear the costs of their actions without imposing them on others.
Exchange and labor-saving convenience innovations like disposables free up time and energy we would otherwise spend on relatively low-value activities and enable us to direct this time and energy toward high-value activities. Don’t feel bad about making the most of them. After all, they enable you to make an even bigger contribution to the wealth and well-being of others.
Art Carden is Associate Professor of Economics at Samford University’s Brock School of Business, and he is by his own admission as Koched up as they come: he has an award named for Charles G. Koch in his office, he does a lot of work for and is affiliated with an array of Koch-related organizations, and he has applied for and received money from the Charles Koch Foundation to host on-campus events.