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When most people think about the zero waste movement, they think of ultra-privileged folks with a massive amount of expendable income to spend on fancy products.
Is that a fair assessment?
To a large degree, yes. People can only participate in the zero waste movement because their basic needs have already been met. People can only participate in the zero waste movement because they have access to stores with plentiful options. People can only participate in the zero waste movement if they have a surplus of money and time at their disposal.
Of course there’s inherent privilege in all of that.
But I’d also like to offer my own situation as a case study of what’s possible when you’re like me: you’ve got privilege and access, but definitely don’t earn enough to join the bourgeoisie.
A case study: two person, dual low-income household
Let’s lay it all on the line here: 2016 was our first full year here in Indy. We both worked for about 10 months out of the year after my husband found work in February and I had summer break off (unpaid).
Combined, we both made around $35,000. (That’s about $15,000 under the median household income in Indiana in 2015 for those keeping score at home.)
Honestly, I was shocked when I added it up because it felt like so much more. Very rarely did we feel like we were well and truly struggling.
During that time we paid off nearly five figures of debt. We bought a car with a 1/3 down payment. We upgraded to a slightly more expensive apartment. 2016 was also the year I went zero waste.
Somehow, we made it all work and rarely felt like we were missing out.
Admittedly, we do still come from a place of intense privilege. That’s obvious. We have steady work. We feel settled in our apartment and face no threat of eviction. We have a car to get us to work and to the stores we need. That car also allows us a quick commute, ie. more time at home to cook, prep, etc. We’re both fairly confident that we can find jobs well over minimum wage without too much effort.
We’ve got a lot going for us.
So. We are a family of two with a tight budget, a big goal of being debt free in the next year, and the intent of heading towards zero waste. If we can make it happen, chances are it’s pretty attainable for a lot of people.
Zero waste on a budget is possible.
What zero waste on a budget looks like to us
Zero definitely isn’t zero. Our small budget limits us in a lot of ways. We can’t consistently afford a CSA even though we’d love one. Our budget rarely extends to any high-tech or high-end eco-conscious good that would further reduce waste. We haven’t pulled the trigger on owning our own property, so we’re limited by the constraints of a rental.
All this adds up to a lifestyle that is very conscious, but definitely not zero waste. Which is totally OK by me.
I work in an industry with massive food waste – which I try to rescue. I kind of fell into teaching and ended up staying there. Right now I work in a private school which feeds kids two snacks and two meals a day. The first part of this is I pretty much only have to provide dinner for myself (major help on the budget front). The second bit is less stellar: because of all the licensing issues around serving food, so much goes to waste. Extra cereal in the ziplock bag after breakfast? Throw it away. Extra veggies left from lunch? Toss it.
I can’t do much, but I do rescue all the extra food in my room that I can. I either take it home or leave it in the break room if I think other people will eat it. So. Much. Food. Waste.
We don’t buy a fancy composting system. It’s a bucket we found in the back of our car topped with an old plastic bowl and aluminum foil, because it didn’t come with a lid and we’re fancy like that. We melted holes in the side of the bucket with the tip of a glue gun because we don’t own a drill. #oldschool #wedontbuystuff
Definitely not a great system, but the stuff inside will degrade, eventually.
Warm weather = growing a ton of our own food. I’ve got a balcony, starter plants, and a decently green thumb. During the warmer months we’re going to grow as much as possible; then, can/freeze the extra so we’ll have it later on.
We don’t pay for a recycling service. We live in an apartment complex which doesn’t offer a recycling program, ie. the norm for most people in the area. Instead, we store a bunch of stuff for a long while until we have enough to toss it in the car. There’s a decent recycling spot on our way to work which takes pretty much everything paper/plastic/metal.
We go without on a lot of food items. Honestly, that’s probably good. You may notice that my form of zero waste focuses a lot on the kitchen. That’s because I can go without spending on clothes, makeup – really just about anything – except for food. I love food.
But since starting zero waste, I’ve realized just how much money (and packaging) we’ve wasted on unnecessary food items. Our shopping list is now pared back and probably a whole lot healthier than it was before. We buy tons of cheap veggies (cabbage, carrots, onions, potatoes) and supplement it with tons of spices.
Lots of washing up gets done in the shower. Again, we live in an apartment complex so we have to haul our stuff downstairs and pay for washing/drying.
With zero waste comes a lot more material which needs to be washed: cloths which used to be sponges, paper towels, cotton rounds, etc. With the frequency we go through all of it, I’m not about to pay $1.50 for a washing machine ($2.75 if I choose to use the dryer) several times a week. Instead, as I finish my shower I let the tub fill and leave the gross stuff to soak. Then, I rinse it out. Good enough.
So there it is: zero waste on a budget. Tricky, but not impossible. Are you zero waste (or simply trying to be more eco friendly) on a budget? Share your tips/thoughts in the comments below!