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The Wasteful American

The Wasteful American

In a new series from the
Null, the Wasteful American, a.k.a. Katelyn Sack, investigates ways in which we may or may not be squandering the planet’s precious resources. In installment two, the Wasteful One tackles America's obsession with cleanliness - and recommends staying dirty.

As an American, when I am not scouring the streets for terrorists, I am invariably showering. While I was waiting for the hot water heater to recuperate one evening, my smelly European neighbour dropped by to borrow a cup of sugar. When I asked him if his shower was broken or if he needed money for soap, he patiently explained that the American abhorrence of body odour is not a universal human stance.

Research question
What and how much do we Americans waste making sure we don't smell like animals? Is it enough to justify invading a country rich in the natural resource of soap?

Let’s do the math
A (literal) Navy shower
The most obvious resource wasted by excessive American hygiene habits is water. So first we will need to calculate the amount of water Americans waste showering daily (as is most often the case) instead of (a) a different bathing technique – a half-bath, detached showerhead, or other method that uses somewhere between what a Navy shower and a Hollywood shower use (three and 15-25 gallons of water, respectively); and (b) a different bathing schedule – performing full-body ablutions between two and four times per week instead of seven.

I had planned to use Leibniz's frightening looking formulation:

♂'(u) = d♂/du

where ♂(u) = body odour (because men are the smellier sex), as a function of u (water use, where 3 ≤ u ≤ 25 gallons), and ♂'(u) gives us the rate of change of body odour ♂. However, thanks to the robot sent from the future to erase my memory of college calculus, I can do nothing further with that pretty formula.

Instead, I can estimate that only 67.2% of approximately 301 million Americans are in the "primary bather" age range R, where 14<R<65 (that is, they are old enough to stand in the shower and go to school or work every day, but not typically old enough to retire to sponge baths and blessed hermitude – with too-young and too-old ages pegged generously high and low, respectively, to correct for the ill and the wilfully disgusting).

What’s the waste then?
So we have about 202.272 million daily showerers in the US. If the mean water usage of these showerers is between 15 and 25 gallons of water per shower (assuming five gallons per minute), and we estimate that figure at 20 gallons because shorter hair styles are en vogue and Billy-Bob is always late for work, then we're talking about 4045 million gallons of water a day, or 1,476,586 million gallons of water per year, of which at least half (738,292 million gallons) is waste resulting from abhorrence of a shorter or smarter (3-14 gallon use) shower method and/or abhorrence of skipping a shower every other day. The cost of heating the wasted water alone, assuming 738,292 million gallons of water times $0.08/kWh and standard efficiency? $11 billion.

I’m not done yet
Water and electricity are not the only resources we waste in our quest to smell so fresh and so clean-clean. We also expend resources researching and developing, producing, advertising, and buying fragrance in personal hygiene products ranging from deodorant and antiperspirant, to laundry detergent and fabric softener, as well as Febreeze when we sneak cigarettes into high school, and cologne with pheromones to make up for stripping the body of such natural enticements via showering before dates.

In monetary terms, this extra waste is equal, at least, to recent (2022) annual net sales of some of the top fragrance, flavour, and perfume producers in the world:

International Flavors and Fragrances $2.3 billion
Coty Inc. $3.3 billion
Sensient Technologies Corporation $1.2 billion
Robertet Over 116 million
Givaudan CHF 4,132 million

After converting CHF (Swiss Francs) to US Dollars using the conversion factor – wait, Switzerland still has its own currency? Why don't we just invade them to make things easier on everyone? Anyway, where F = the monetary cost of funky fragrances, F ≈ $2.3 billion + $3.3 billion + $1.2 billion + $181 million + a paltry Swiss $4,091.90 million ≈ $11.2 billion1.

The $11.2 billion figure does not even begin to account for other hygiene expenses, like the research, development, manufacturing, marketing, and consumption of mouth care products, moisturisers to nourish over-washed skin, and make-up to cover up blemishes that might have been hidden by a healthy layer of dirt.

The outcome?
It's safe to say the American obsession with hygiene wastes a bare minimum of $22.2 billion, plus 738,292 million gallons of water annually. That's about ¾ of a trillion gallons – and that's if we start conserving instead of continuing on our current arc of increasing consumption. Thus it is in America's national interests to invade and occupy a country with large natural stores of soap.

In what is surely pristine coincidence, human society first discovered soap in Iraq.

1Since none of these companies profit solely from selling the types of fragrance at issue, this may be a gross overestimate - which I'll use to offset the fact that I've only listed five.

As always, my sincere thanks and praise to Mark Nandor of The Wellington School, who kindly provided his math and science expertise for this article. However, any remaining empirical errors or miscellaneous idiocies are mine alone.

Katelyn Sack regularly blogs about art and the creative life at Visiopoetics.

For wasted time, breath, heads and research funds, try these:

Timewasters Central
  Stop Breathing, Save the Planet
Jellyfish Grow Twelve Heads
  Studies of the Bleedin' Obvious
Title image: Fleur Suijten
Navy shower: Hippyshopper

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11 Feb 2009
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