Is a low waste lifestyle more expensive than life as usual? In this post I’m looking at a few ways ‘zero waste’ can seem to set us financial traps, and I offer some strategies to counter overspending in the name of sustainable living.
In theory it should cost less to use fewer resources, but in reality there are times where doing the right thing can cost more. Here I’m talking mostly about financial costs, though there are, of course, time considerations. To that I’ll just briefly say that while some people may rationally anticipate it’s going to take heaps more time to live low waste, I don’t find it does. Initially, sure, there’s a learning curve. Over time I’ve found living the way I do streamlines my life and improves the quality.
I want to acknowledge that I am a healthy, financial stable, white person with free time and significant autonomy over my choices. I can’t change the fact that I’ve had all the advantages in life, so I’ll speak from my perspective and promise to listen to yours. It’d be a mistake to dismiss voices like mine when there is reason to believe we’re amongst the most wasteful. A study of food waste showed that households earning over $100K a year are one of the most wasteful groups. In Sydney, that income is actually a little lower than the median. My interpretation and theory is that those who feel less pain from wasting resources will waste more resources. And if we’re a wasteful bunch with the time and money to reduce household waste by changing our shopping and consumption habits, let’s do it. It doesn’t preclude us from also working to make zero waste more equitable and accessible to low income communities through support for policies like container deposit schemes and bag bags.
Alright, let’s get into some of the financial challenges of zero waste and strategies to overcome them.
Financial trap #1: Shopping at bulk food stores can be expensive.
There are many flavours of bulk stores – coops, health food shops, regular grocers with a bulk section and discount bulk shops. Here in Sydney, Australia, we have a number of chain and independent bulk stores where you can shop with your own containers, but they are not the discount variety. Most focus on organic, local and specialty foods, or some combination thereof, which can make shopping in bulk more expensive than buying packaged, conventional, far away foods from Coles or Woolies. I’ll admit I’ve had sticker shock on occasional with bulk store purchases, but I’ve learned a few things that help me stick to a reasonable food budget.
- Look for coops, or buying groups, which are member run and not for profit. These will often offer a discount if you volunteer or become a member.
- Try farmers markets, which will often have a bulk foods vendor. I’ve found these spots to be better priced.
- Ethnic food stores were some of my go-to bulk stops when I lived in Vancouver, but sadly, I don’t live near in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs.
- If you’re lucky enough to have a selection of bulk shops to choose from, take notes on the best pricing for your favourite items.
- Focus your shopping on low cost and nutritious staple foods, like red lentils and buckwheat. Leave the trendy mermaid powders and mushroom teas alone, or try a scant amount to see if you like it before overbuying.
- Paying attention to the price per kilo can help you avoid overbuying expensive items. The denser the food and the higher the price per kilo, the more sparingly I buy it.
- Processed food is always more expensive, whether unpackaged or in bulk. Consider making your own granola rather than buying ready-made.
- If you will eat 10 kilos of rice and have the space at home, consider buying a 10 kilo bag of rice and recycling the wrapping. It’s not much difference in net waste than shopping in a bulk store, and it’ll be cheaper.
- Make sure you’re taring your containers properly and check your tally as they’re being rung up, or on the receipt before you leave the store. Mistakes can happen and this is a good way to correct any accidental overcharges before you leave.
- If you can’t afford bulk shop prices, look for the packaged goods with the best recycling outcomes in your area.
- My last tip is about reframing. I significantly changed the way I perceive the cost of food since reading the Omnivore’s Dilemma. At the time, I was still food shopping like a uni student (saving my money for drinking, ha) and the book guided me to think about the long term consequences of buying cheap food on my health and the soil. Food is precious, and I buy the best quality I can afford.
Financial trap #2: Eco consumables can be expensive
Biodegradable and refillable dental floss is expensive you guys. There is no denying it. Some products like this probably cost more to produce, and others might simply be mining a niche because we’ll pay more. For example, I’ve spent too much money on dish scrubbers that have either turned out to be greenwash, or conversely, a little too biodegradable, falling apart mere days after I started using them.
- Don’t feel you need to go all or nothing. I wrote about participation> perfectionism as it relates to dental floss, but the same thinking applies to other products. Be mindful of your own financial limits and wellbeing.
- Ask yourself whether something is truly better, or more sustainable. Often it’s not, but marketed to be. Most single-use ‘eco’ plastics designed to replace petroleum plastics fall under this category.
- Calculate your actual costs. When I wondered how affordable it really was to buy Who Gives A Crap toilet paper, the brand that builds toilets for those who need them, I tracked how long it lasted. Turns out 48 rolls lasts over 18 months at my house, so I’m paying an affordable $32/year to buy TP. I googled some Woolworth’s brands for comparison and found 12 packs for $9, which comes to $36 for 48 rolls.
- If a product claim sounds too good to be true, it might be. Don’t be afraid to inquire with sellers to check that they understand the materials used in their products. You’d be surprised how often goods are mass produced overseas and then white-labelled under various brand names, giving the seller limited control over the production process or insight into materials being used.
- Can you make the thing instead of buying pre-made? We don’t usually need separate surface, bathroom and kitchen cleaners, and buying eco-cleaners can be pricey. Simple unbranded ingredients like castile soap and vinegar are cost-effective multi-taskers. I don’t buy things like reusable makeup remover pads or special cleaning rags because I can make my own for no cost. I also make a few DIY products, like mascara, deodorant, lip balm, and the best hydrating serum I’ve ever used. It’s a cheap and convenient practice for me that honestly takes less time than shopping for these things. If you’re buying, use every last drop in the container.
- Consider what products you can skip buying altogether. I have vastly simplified my face and body routine over the last ten years to my financial benefit. I use less volume of product, and fewer products, I am more accepting of myself and ‘need’ less gunk to face the world (I’m keeping concealer though…).
Financial trap #3: Zero waste food storage containers are pricey
Blame picture perfect Instagram pantries for stoking our collective desire for perfectly matching sets of glass jars. I’ve bought a few new containers over the years, but the majority of what I use are from the recycling bin, salvaged plastic containers or containers I’ve scored from secondhand shops. I.e cheap.
- Make the op shop your first stop. It’s a great place to find glass Pyrex containers and flip top jars.
- If you want to invest in new containers, consider your needs specifically, rather than focusing how it will look on your shelf. If I had my time again I would skip Weck jars, which I’ve broken too easily and have too many parts and fussy clips. I favour Mason jars because I can make sprouts, ferment veggies, store food, and travel with them without leaks. All practices that save me money. I cherish my stainless steel Onyx containers because they are leakproof and lightweight, two essentials for biking to work with lunch and my laptop on my back. I didn’t run out and buy these items all at once, I really thought about what purpose they’d be for, and I only bought them when my other solutions (op shop finds and recycled jars) didn’t work as well.
Financial trap #4: Reusables require an upfront investment
Affordability is relative, and I feel frustrated for anyone who is not able to make investments in reusables. I wish there were instant government rebates on reusables. How cool would that be? Or at the very least, end of year tax rebates. Because the return on investment can be significant.
Let’s take menstrual products for example. Without completely knowing they would work for me, I spent almost $100 on reusables: $60 for the cup and $38 for three reusable pads. However, over five years, I will save $400 that I used to spend on tampons.
Coffee cups are another example of a one time investment generating a yield over time. You can save up to $0.50 on a coffee at Responsible Cafes on each visit. If your reusable cup cost $20, it’ll have paid for itself after 40 uses, and everything from there on is pure savings.
- Consider the total lifespan of the reusables to get a sense of how much you’re saving longer term. This can help you decide if something is worth it. In many cases, I’ve found significant financial advantages to reusables.
- Make investments as you’re able to. Don’t feel pressure to do everything right away and take your time to research the best solution for you.
- When in doubt, try the op shop. You won’t find menstrual products, but you can often find inexpensive reusable cups, thermos flasks, and pieces of cutlery for your on-the-go kit.
Financial trap #5: Repairing things can be costly
Repairing goods to keep them in use is a great way to avoid the impacts of new manufacturing, like mining, chemical discharge and transportation emissions. But it also saves money to put off new purchases as long as possible. Sometimes repair costs can seem high compared to the cost to buying new. The solution is partially to change our mindset, but also to uncover community resources available to help you repair something.
- Consider the value of your time. If I have a pair of shoes that fit me well, and I like, why would I want to waste time searching for a new pair then breaking them in (UGH) when I could just have my favourite back? Browsing a shopping centre, physical or online, is my nightmare. Repairing my cherished items saves me time and mental effort.
- Consider also who is benefiting from your spending choices – is it a small family business who will probably recirculate the money locally, or is it an overseas company that will take the money into a different economy?
- Recognise when mental accounting is convincing you to overspend to have ‘new’. I took a broken stick vacuum that a friend was giving away and paid $150 to replace the broken handheld unit. I could frame it as spending $150 on a repair, or as getting a like new vacuum worth $300 for half price.
- Learn to repair at least some stuff yourself. I sew buttons, mend holes and do basic maintenance on my clothing. If it’s beyond my skills, I’ll take it to a tailor. Little hole-in-the-wall tailors are always cheaper than mall tailors.
- Take advantage of free repair services offered by companies like Nudie and Patagonia.
- Check for repair cafes and bike maintenance workshops in your area. These are often free and supported by councils.
- Do you have a friend, neighbour or someone in your network with the skills to help? My boss’ son enjoys taking electronics apart, and was excited to fix my broken hair dryer.
- Does your town have a local exchange network? These are networks that operate with alternative currencies, usually based on community contributions. Try Sydney LETS if you’re local.
Not only do I believe zero waste living doesn’t have to cost more overall, I know that it’s equipped me with the skills to save money. The best way to save money while living zero waste is to slow the new and/or unnecessary inputs, in whatever way makes most sense to you. Use less, use what you have for longer, find value in the secondhand and buy the best quality you can afford. Don’t sweat it if your bandaids aren’t biodegradable!
My usual response to anyone who’s concerned about the cost of zero waste is stay out of the shops. The more time more you spend browsing retail, even the lovely eco stores with the natural fibres, the more likely you are to buy something you don’t need. I’m not against buying new goods, but I know if I spent more time at the mall, I would spend more, simple as that. I’ve cut unnecessary purchases by considering what I actually need before going into environments where it’s the seller’s job to persuade me to buy. This is why I don’t link to products on this site – encouraging anyone to shop is the opposite of what I’m trying to do.
How can you tell if something is a need or a want? My rule is that if I buy something new (even secondhand), I need to start using the crap out of it right away. If I can’t see myself doing that, it’s probably a passing want, not a need.
What’s your biggest financial concern about zero waste and low waste living? If you have any other tips and tricks to add, I’d love to hear in the comments.