Divorce isn’t just a family matter. It exacts a serious toll on the environment by boosting the energy and water consumption of those who used to live together, according to a study authored by two Michigan State University researchers.
The analysis found that co-habiting couples and families around the globe use resources more efficiently than households that have split up. The researchers calculated that in 2005, divorced American households used between 42 percent and 61 percent more resources per person than before they separated, spending 46 percent more per person on electricity and 56 percent more on water.
Their paper, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, also found that if the divorced couples had stayed together in 2005, the United States would have saved 73 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and 627 billion gallons of water in that year alone.
Married households use energy and water more efficiently than divorced ones because they share these resources – including lighting and heating – among more people, Liu said. Moreover, the divorced households they surveyed between 1998 and 2002 used up more space, occupying between 33 percent and 95 percent more rooms per person than in married households.
“Hopefully this will inform people about the environmental impact of divorce,” said one of the paper’s co-authors, Jianguo Liu. “For a long time we’ve blamed industries for environmental problems. One thing we’ve ignored is the household.”
Liu, who directs Michigan State University’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, and research assistant Eunice Yu spent five years analyzing data from 12 countries, including Belarus, Brazil, Kenya and Greece.
Lester Brown, president of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute, said the study’s finding made sense, but it is hard to craft public policies to address the problem of the increasing number of households in the United States and elsewhere. He noted that in many countries, such as Japan, women are choosing to marry later or not marry at all.
“I’m not sure how to get around this,” Brown said. “Shifting to more energy-efficient appliances is the answer, not trying to prevent divorce or trying to make divorce more difficult.”
There is one solution to this conundrum, the study’s authors found: Individuals who remarry soon establish new households that use the same amount of resources as married couples who have never divorced.