For The Greater Goods (sm)


True Costs

I was thinking the other day about the repair of my ancient printer (see “The World Around Us” entry at and realized that the true cost of things is often not accounted for. It’s like a gaping hole in our accounting systems and metrics that allow us to disregard certain costs – those enormous, universal, hits-all-of-us kinds of costs.

For example, that old printer part. I purchased a part for $20 to fix my printer. The old board probably needs a single component, like a $0.10 capacitor, to make it run like new. However, I long ago sold my oscilloscope, I have an old soldering iron out in the garage, but I think my skills are just rusty enough that I would likely toast the entire board in the process of trying to discover which component went bad. That said, I’m sure there’s someone in this town that could repair that board. I’d be happy to give the part to him or her just to know it would be repaired and reused. But, I doubt I’ll find that person primarily because I don’t have the time to spend searching for someone to repair a $20 board that I don’t need.

But is it really a $20 board? What’s the cost of that board just being tossed in the landfill? What’s the cost of the metals and the toxic substances seeping into the water table beneath the landfill? What’s the cost of that part just sitting, mostly unchanged, in a landfill for generations to come?

Now, that part is not in a landfill nor will I be the one to put it there. It will, no doubt, live in my cache of ancient, unusable technical spare parts for years to come. Every now and then, I’ll pull it out, look at it, remember fondly the time I fixed that old HP IIP laser printer and put it back in the box. At some point, I might even get it together to bring a box of old spare parts to the computer recycling center so they can tear it apart and recycle whatever materials they can.

Still, most people would take that old part and toss it in the trash because it is, after all, only a $20 part. Our landfills are filling with things that may not be perfectly good, but things that might have a useful afterlife in some sort of recycled format – only there’s no economic incentive to do so.

More than that, we don’t account for all these costs. So, that $20 part isn’t really a $20 part. If we add up the environmental impact and the time it will live in the landfill and…..well, you get the point and it’s more like a $2,000 part at that point. Now, if it was a $2,000 part, I bet someone would be more interested in fixing it, don’t you?

We may not ever change our accounting systems to look at the cost in a holistic manner, but each of us can perhaps become more aware of the larger costs of our consumer products and begin to make small changes. Critics will argue that small changes by millions of us won’t change anything, but in fact, that’s the only thing that creates change – all of us together, one by one.