The “eff” words are everywhere, these days. They’re unavoidable.

That’s right, I’m talking about effectiveness vs efficiency.

Do you know the difference? As I was recently reminded during a conversation with a friend of mine, many people get them confused.

Hybrids, electrics, and diesels, oh my!

This story starts a few months back, when my wife called me from our mechanic’s shop. Over the clanging and whirring of the work going on in the background, I heard her tell me a number that I did not want to hear. It was big. Too big.

Our “squeaky” clutch pedal turned out to be the symptom of a much larger problem. And there were more problems in development.

Electric car

One day, my electric friend… one day I will live somewhere that you will be practical.

As much as I didn’t want to admit it, our old car was finally about to fall apart. (Rule #1 of sustainability: Don’t buy something new if it’s reasonably possible to continue using the thing you already have. Let’s just say, using that old car was no longer reasonable!) Grumbling, and checking the bank account,  I started looking around at the various options for newer models in our price range.

Deciding which car to get was difficult, if only because the eco-geek in me really wanted to go with an all-electric model. The trouble is, our place doesn’t have anywhere we could set up a charging station. Relying on the few charging stations around town for 100% of our charging needs would be ridiculously difficult.

I looked at hybrids, of course, but I didn’t trust that they were really the best option. There are other cars with more standard tech that appeared to be getting the same kind of milage numbers.

A few years back I drove an old VW Rabbit that was converted to run on waste vegetable oil. So I looked at today’s diesels. We wanted a more modern car for the safety features, since we plan on starting a family soon.


Dirty Diesel, not dirt cheap!

As it turns out, when I did the research, diesel only barely hits the same numbers as hybrids do, and it burns waaaaay dirtier. Despite what the media may tell you, carbon isn’t everything, my friends! On top of that, the newer ones can’t be readily converted to run on waste vegetable oil the way the old ones could—which is what had drawn me to diesel in the first place.

In the end, we came right back around to the hybrid hatchback. We’ve been getting over 50 average mpg per tank, and it’s only getting better as the weather warms up. Works for me!

Effectiveness vs Efficiency

And that’s where we pick up with my conversation with my friend. We were hanging out after a day out climbing the rocks at Horsethief Butte. Gathered around the grill and sipping a few hoppy beverages, we were having one of those conversations that meandered from topic to topic before much could be said about anything.

We stumbled onto the topic of cars and fuel efficiency. My friend, as it turned out, had recently read an article comparing the Prius with Mercedes’ latest diesel. In real world tests drives, they burn through about the same amount of fuel per mile. And as if that weren’t enough, my friend started going on about how Toyota uses mostly virgin materials in the construction of their cars, whereas Mercedes is “well-known” for recycling.

Color me intrigued!

When I got home after that trip, I couldn’t help but immediately look into these claims. Could it be true? Could I have been duped into buying the hybrid when the diesel was really the better option, all along?



Does this Mercedes get better milage than a Prius? And does that matter?

Here’s how it breaks down. It’s true that the actual miles per gallon are pretty much exactly the same between the Prius and the new Mercedes Diesel. But the diesel still burns dirtier. And it still can’t be converted to run veggie oil (which isn’t a sustainable long-term solution, anyway.)

Most of all, the Mercedes costs nearly twice as much as a fully loaded Prius! And diesel fuel itself is usually more expensive than gasoline. If had gone with the Mercedes, I’d be getting the same milage, but my wallet sure would be lighter!

And those claims about the manufacturing practices? I couldn’t find a single thing to back them up. You’d think Mercedes would be calling that out, but no. Toyota has been well regarded by all sorts of organizations for their move toward sustainable manufacturing practices. Mercedes? I found nothing. (Please, if you can point me to something that says otherwise, I’d love to know about it!)

So when it comes to efficiency, these two vehicles are very closely tied. But when it comes to effectiveness? The Prius wins, hands down. Total cost to the driver over the life of the car will be far lower than the Mercedes, even if you have to replace the battery pack, multiple times!

And that’s not all..

Overall, I’m glad I went with the car I did. It was relatively inexpensive, and it gets incredible mileage. It does everything I need it to do, without being overkill. That’s  effective.

The real key, though? We just don’t drive all that much. I ride my bike most places. My wife takes the light-rail to work, most days.

Efficiency for efficiency’s sake

Focusing too much on efficiency works the other way, too. Sure, you can get the latest and greatest most hyper-efficient whiz-bang gadget. But if you barely use it? The energy savings will be minimal, and you’ll likely end up paying far more.

There’s a danger in focusing too much on efficiency. If you live in South Florida, buying a “highly efficient” furnace may not be your best option. Do you even need a furnace? The small space heater you inherited from Grandma may take more energy per BTU output, but you already have it, and if you’re only running it a few days a year…? It’s like buying something that’s on sale that you wouldn’t have purchased, otherwise. It may seem like a great deal, but you’ll save even more if you don’t buy it at all!

That’s why it’s important to get educated. If you’re looking to be efficient, be sure that you really understand the system in which you’re operating. Take all of the variables into account. And look outside the box for alternatives.

The most efficient system in the world is pointless if it isn’t reasonably functional and reliable.
And the most effective system may not be worth the costs (external and internal) of running it.

It’s time to put the two together. Efficiency and effectiveness are pointless, apart. But

Steps you can take:

Do the research! Or, find a trusted source… and then do some research, anyway. Issues are almost always more complicated than they seem, and advertising copy is never reliable.

1. Know the costs

Embedded costs – These are the resources (energy, water, materials, pollution produced by the manufacturer, etc.) required to create the product, package it, and get it to you. For instance, if you’re trying to decide between paper towels and a reusable cloth, it’s important to know how many paper towels you get for the same embedded costs it takes to make one reusable towel. There are some cases where a roll of towels and a single reusable towel have similar embedded costs. If it one of the cheaper reusable towels that starts to fall apart after a week of use, you might be better off sticking with paper towels. Of course, if you repurpose old t-shirts and bed-sheets, their embedded costs are practically zero. That’s the beauty of repurposing!
Ongoing maintenance costs – what resources are required for ongoing use? In the paper towel example, you have to figure the cost, energy, and water usage of washing the reusable towels, versus the cost of continuing to buy more paper towels.

2. Know the alternatives

What are the costs of simply using less or doing without? How will it affect your productivity and quality of life? If you give it up or reduce your use, will you get over it quickly? Or will it be a major annoyance? Remember, you don’t always have to do without something you really enjoy–though often you can do better. On that note…

…Is there something you already have that will serve your purpose?
If you’re replacing something, what happens to the old one? I once saw someone buy a set of brand new towels for the kitchen, and then pick up the roll of paper towels and say “well, I guess we don’t need these anymore!” and throw them in the trash!

Ack! At least they could have composted them!

Seriously, though, if you already have it, use it.

3. Prioritize

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with all of the options available for improving your sustainability. Don’t freak out! Set aside some time to sit down and list the things you’re thinking of doing. Rank their costs, financial and to the environment. Then pick the one that has the most positive impact for the least cost–and that is doable given your current circumstances. One at a time, you’ll end up doing more than you ever thought possible!

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