What Does That Bargain Really Cost? What It Takes to Make 10 Everyday Items


An aluminum can costs about a cent. Almost worthless, so it’s easy to toss it in the trash. It’s like a magic trick, if you think about it. The thousands of stages in the manufacturing process, the material costs and the human stories, disappear into the air when we only have to spend a cent.

It’s how environmental catastrophes happen. We can’t see how unsustainable some products really are – because when they come in packs of 10 for a buck, who would be crazy enough to sell our planet off so cheaply? Separating price and value requires a shift in perspective. Things are often cheap because companies have figured out ways to externalize their true costs. Here’s a look at what it really takes to make 10 everyday items we all use.

1. A Ream (500 sheets) of White Bond Paper

Image: shell belle

-Hardwoods and softwoods. Ideally sustainably, but often not (a fact invisible to us, here at the end of the line). Sustainably growing wood for paper includes: forestry management, nursery management, developments to sustain air, water, soil and wildlife; seeding and planting; logging, purchase and maintenance of specialist machinery; collection and distribution of fertilizers; wages of everyone involved in the process; replanting to keep the cycle going.

-Transportation of wood to paper mills (fuel, wages, vehicle upkeep).

-Water – enough to wash all the dirt off the wood, before it is chopped into wood chips for processing. (Inclusive: water, machinery, wages.)

-Pulping: wood mixed with water and additives (such as titanium oxide) to make a pulp slurry, to separate out all the wood fibers. Drained through a mesh (this water is reused) and pressed between rollers to squeeze out excess water.

-Bleaching of pulp, giving the paper its whiter-than-white look. Inclusive: chemicals including, in the most eco-destructive cases, chlorine which leads to the release of dioxins; more huge quantities of water. (Side note: paper cuts hurt so much because that same bleach gets deposited just under your skin, sealed in as the cut quickly heals).

-The pulp is now around two-thirds water.  It’s sent through a series of hot rollers to press and dry them into sheets. (Inclusive: $millions of machinery; wages; rental costs; water; chemicals produced elsewhere).

-Rolling, cutting, packing, wrapping. Transportation. Storage. Advertising. Sale. (Incorrect print-runs at the office).

-All that for an average price of just $0.01 a sheet, ladies and gentlemen.

2. Aluminum Can


-Raw Materials –  aluminum extraction from bauxite, less than 1% of which is produced domestically in the U.S – by-product, toxic slurry containing caustic soda; magnesium; iron; manganese; silicon; copper. (Includes mining, wages, shipping). Or, because two-thirds of the world’s aluminum supply is in use today, recycling programmes to provide raw metal.

-Energy:  to make a single drink can is roughly the energy obtained from half of that can’s volume in gasoline, or in the words of New Scientist’s environmental consultant Fred Pearce, enough to run a TV for 3 hours.

-Aluminum ingots are heated, pressed into sheets and cut into blanks from which the base and sides of the cans will be manufactured. Blanks pulled up and punched to form characteristic shape, thinning the walls of each blank and forming the bulge in the base (which counteracts liquid pressure when the can is full). Trimming, cleaning, printing with the label.

-Shipping to canning plants. Filled with beverage. Fixing lid (including ringpull) which is a thicker material. Sold. Opened, drink consumed – and can is crumpled and tossed into a trash bin.

-Expensive? It’s your lucky day – $0.01 a can, to you.

3. Cotton T-Shirt

Image: flydime

-Historically, cotton has a bleak environmental and humanitarian record. The 25 million tonnes produced globally every year illustrate our enduring obsession with it, but it’s a costly process to get that throwaway 6-buck shirt into our hands.

-Industrial-Scale Cotton Production: truly vast amounts of water – between 7,000 and 29,000 litres for each kilo of cotton, including lots water lost to evaporation because cotton needs to grow in hot and sunny areas; planting; maintenance of upwards of 1,500 acres of fields; emergency measures in times of adverse climatic conditions (cotton requires just the right amount of sun, wind and above all, rain); pesticides in the form of a dizzying cocktail of chemicals (accounting for 25% of America’s pesticide use) ; fertilizers; upkeep of mechanical planting machinery;  Heavy government subsidization, wherever you look.

-Defoliation of plants by chemicals (strong enough to strip the leaves off living plants, and leaching into the soil afterwards) or by hand. Harvesting. Transportation. Cleaning and storage. Processed through gins which fluff up the material, separate out seeds from fibers and roll cotton into bales which are checked and certified.

-Spinning; bleaching (all too often, chlorine rears its ugly head again); washing; dyeing; finishing (toxic chemicals, particularly in developing countries). Note: finishing can be a long and elaborate process where a product is transported great distances between specialized workshops – this is deemed “efficient”.

-Shipping to retailers. Marketing. Branding. Advertising.

-A very reasonable 10 dollars for that t-shirt, please. (At that price, you could buy another one next week).

4. Polyethylene Terephtalate (PET) Plastic Bottle

Image: judepics

-Raw Materials: Petroleum (ie. oil refining, including the cracking of crude oil – and thus all the challenges and problems of oil drilling) and creation of hydrocarbons; chemical catalysts. Or – recycled shreds of PET plastic. Around 30% of the world’s PET supply goes towards bottle-making.

-The polymers formed are often produced as plastic pellets called “preforms” – these can be expanded and reshaped by manufacturers as need be.  It’s during manufacture that PET is believed to slowly leach out its catalyst antimony trioxide, which has been linked to a number of human development problems. People working day in, day out manufacturing these bottles are on the front line.

-Once bottles formed, sterilization procedures (water and heat) – as bacteria thrives in plastic bottles.

-Filling, capping, decorating/labelling, packing, shipping. Advertising. Sale.

-That’s right, you heard me correctly – just 1 cent for all that work. It’s a steal (from whom, we wonder).

5. 1.5 Volt Alkaline Cell

Image: JasonRogers

-Raw Materials: Steel, Nickel, Zinc, Brass, Potassium Hydroxide, Manganese Dioxide and Graphite. (People, places, energy, time).

-Chemical batteries create electrical energy via a current running between a cathode and an anode. The cathode is created first, forming the outer cell – a layer pressed against the inside of a nickel-plated cylinder. Once a paper separator lines this cavity, the anode (a gel) fills the remaining space, pierced by a current-conducting rod. When fully sealed, the cell has the manufacturer’s label shrink-wrapped onto it.

-Activities included in battery manufacture: the transport of truly huge quantities of constituent materials, in particular for the cathode which is compressed into shape; vigorous health and safety inspections and the enforcement of regulations; workers on the production line who run the risk of long-term exposure to the chemicals involved in manufacture (thankfully mercury, which used to accompany zinc, has largely been phased out); specialized machinery.

-Discharge – and throw. One of the lesser known recyclable items, batteries still end up in landfills in astounding quantities. The UK alone throws away some 600 million a year. Alkaline cells are not designated a hazardous material – yet potassium hydroxide is a skin and respiratory irritant, and it’s unclear what effect large quantities leaching into the environment will have.

-And what do you pay for this marvel of modern refining technology? Let’s say 50 cents if you buy in bulk. (You can throw them away for that price).

6. White Granulated Sugar


-What we know as “white sugar” comes from a mixture of sugar cane (between 60% and 70%) and sugar beet (the remainder). Around 120 countries worldwide are involved in producing the 100+ million tons of sugar crops – in temperate zones (northern Europe, for example) it is the hardier sugar beet that dominates.

-Requirements: large quantities of water (processing cane requires 4 times more water than beet); vegetable transportation costs to processing plants; extraction of raw sugar juice from cane or beet via pressing or diffusion; clarification of juice; crystallization of sugar liquor; evaporation to create syrup; centrifuging (how molasses are extracted); drying. Then a long process of refining that ends with granulated sugar’s characteristic whiteness. Heavy machinery, staffing costs and startling amounts of power are included in these requirements.  The final stages of refinement into white sugar may involve the use of phosphoric acid, carbon dioxide or filtration techniques. Throughout, a number of pollutants (PDF) are created from the burning of oil, coal or bagasse (sugar cane residue) -such emissions are monitored and regulated by specialists.

-Once a luxury, sugar is now used as a flavouring and preservative in countless varieties of food and drink. With the assumption that it’s easy to make. (Not so).

-But even after all that, you’re paying just $1.50 for 16 oz. No wonder we love the stuff so much!

7. Pencil

-Graphite, a form of carbon: either mined directly out the ground (Madagascar, Mexico and Sri Lanka are graphite-rich) and refined until it is pure enough, or created artificially by heating dense carbon at high temperatures for long periods until graphite crystals form. Either way, graphite is non-renewable.
-To make the “lead” of a pencil, graphite is often combined with fine clay, charcoal and wax at a pressure of many tons, and fired in long strips inside a kiln at 2,000° F for many hours.

-Wood: most commonly cedar or juniper.  Wooden planks have grooves etched into them, into which the graphite tubes are laid and sealed by a second plank. This composite is then sawn into individual pencils.

-The final stage is the coating of many layers of lacquer, to give the characteristic shiny exterior, sharpening of the end, and the hot imprinting of the manufacturer’s name and pencil hardness rating. After this – packaging, marketing, shipping, sale and use (such as for doodling in the margins).

-Between you and me, I can let you have this pencil at a frankly criminal $1, my friend.

8. Nails

Image: nzgabriel

Imagining a blacksmith hammering on an anvil? You’re well wide of the mark.

-Raw materials: steel (galvanized with zinc) is most common, but expect aluminium, copper, brass, steel, nickel, bronze, silver and iron to crop up occasionally. Machinery, people, air and sea miles – and as yet, not a nail in sight.

-Metal drawn into wire and fed through a machine – clamped in place while hammers and clippers form the head and point of the nail and chop it into a nail’s length. If any serrated patterns are required, the nail goes into a further forming machine – otherwise, into a rotating barrel of caustic soda that cleans oil residue off the surface. If a shine is required, it’s another drum filled with sawdust – or dipping into a tank of molten zinc to galvanize the nail and protect it from rust.

-Packing: sometimes nails are magnetized so they fall into their boxes pointing the right way, and then demagnetized before despatch.

-When they’re used correctly, nails become invisible – out of sight, out of mind.

-If you want a box of 7D galvanized nails, despite all that industry, it’s just $2.50 for a pound of them. No need to thank me.

9. Computer Mouse

Image: William Hook

If your hand is on a computer mouse right now, there’s a good chance it was made in one colossal factory in the Chinese city of Suzhou.  Owned by Logitech, it makes 70 million mice a year, assembling them from a chain of some 400 component manufacturers. Much of the assembly work isn’t mechanical – and as Fred Pearce discovered, women are preferred for their manual dexterity.

-Mouse: metal, rubber, electronics (printed circuit board, for example) – plastic, plastic, plastic.

- You’d think the world would be overrun with computer mice by now. But that’s noting compared with  the question of what happens to all the existing mice, old and new, when this faithful cornerpost of the Information Revolution goes out of fashion.

-But for now, this one-in-70-million marvel is just $5 to you, if you want a basic model. All inclusive, of course.

10. Tea Bag

Image: guinn.anya

Tea-leaves held in a porous bag – enough to make an Englishman weep with joy.

-Processes involved: making the tea, making the bag. The former is far too detailed to list here (but HowStuffWorks has a useful primer). The latter is still a touchy subject. Tea bags are white, and that’s via bleaching of the filter paper – a process traditionally associated with dioxins, although the industry has now largely cleaned up its act. The filter paper is known as “long fiber”, made from manila hemp that comes from abaca. In other words, your teabag paper comes from either the Philippines, Borneo or Sumatra.

-After an extensive series of factory-floor preparations, the tea leaves are mechanically portioned into amounts of roughly two grams, and deposited onto a conveyer belt in the centre of the lower half of a tea bag. The upper half is then heat-pressed into place along the indentation lines along the edge. Then it’s into boxes. Running alongside all of this is quality control to meet company and industry standards.

-10 cents a bag. How does that sound?

Source: How Products Are Made
Image: Clearly Ambiguous

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.