Stay Married to be Green

Appeared in Orange Coast Voice, October 2008, page 11

Stay married to save the planet

According to a recent investigation, divorce creates pretty hefty costs to the environment. Courtesy Orange Coast Voice

Stay Married to Stay Green
by Sarah S. Mosko, Ph.D.

If you are looking for reasons to patch up a rocky marriage, here is one you have probably overlooked – do it for the planet! While it is common knowledge that divorce can be costly to the pocketbook, a recent investigation exposes pretty hefty costs to the environment too.

Divorce is on the rise in the United States as evidenced by an increase in divorced households (households with divorced heads) from 5% to 15% of total households between 1970 and 2000. The proportion of married households (with married heads) sank from 69% to 53% over this same interval.

One spouse typically moves out during a divorce. Michigan State University researchers Eunice Yu and Jianaguo Liu hypothesized that this splitting of families should translate into more but smaller households with loss of resource use efficiency on a per person basis. Their predictions were in fact borne out by tapping into the largest publicly available census based on individual U.S. households – the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series-USA.

Nationwide, divorce contributed 6.1 million extra households in the year 2000. Divorced households were smaller, averaging 2.0 persons compared to 3.2 persons in married households.

With fewer occupants per home, room use efficiency could be expected to suffer. Indeed, divorced households were found to average 3.3 rooms per person versus 2.1 rooms per person in married households, indicating more land use per person. Furthermore, divorce accounted for nearly 36 million additional rooms across the nation.

To examine the impact of divorce on water and electricity use, the researchers tracked a sample of U.S. households from 2001 to 2005, comparing the utility bills of households that divorced during this interval with those that remained married. Each month, divorced households paid about $10 more per occupant for electricity plus $3 more per occupant for water in 2005. Generalizing to the whole nation, divorce accounted for 73.5 billion extra kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity and 627.3 billion extra gallons of water use in that year alone. That’s enough electricity to power 6 million homes for a full year (each consuming 1000 kWh per month) and the water equivalent of 12 billion showers (10-minute showers using five gallons per minute).

Although not a specific focus of this study, it’s easy to speculate how fewer occupants in divorced households draw upon more resources on a per person basis. Think air conditioners, refrigerators, automatic yard watering systems and other domestic devices that guzzle resources whether household size is six or one.

Common sense dictates that divorce has other environmental impacts outside the scope of this study. For example, many once shared household items, anything from toasters and pots & pans to stereo systems, are duplicated when one household splits into two, and manufacturing those additional belongings consumes a spectrum of resources. Added air pollution from chauffeuring children back and forth between parental dwellings is another glaringly obvious example.

For eco- and bill-conscious divorcees open to partnering up another time, the good news from this research is that tying the knot again tamps down resource use to the same level as having stayed married all along. On the downside, there’s the nagging question of what to do with that extra toaster and other duplicated belongings.

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