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. Zero waste on a budget is simply an impossibility.
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 some of those factors. I personally have privilege and access, but definitely don’t earn enough to join the bourgeoisie.
Case study: I personally live zero waste on a budget
In January of 2018 I will be documenting my exact budget and what I purchase throughout the month and writing about my findings – numbers and all! – afterwards. Follow along on my Instagram for a look at the process.
Let’s lay it all on the line here: my husband and I do not make a lot of money. A lot of this is by choice but it’s also a function of working in high-stress jobs in underserved communities. No one’s got the money to pay. But that’s a whole different article…
In general, though, we tend to earn under $50,000 combined yearly, usually closer to 40.
Honestly, I was shocked when I added it up because it felt like so much more. Very rarely do we feel like we struggle. We own a car, we bought a house, and our lives are approximately 90% zero waste.
Somehow, we made it all work and rarely feel like we’re missing out.
Admittedly, we do still come from a place of intense privilege. That’s obvious. We have the ability to find steady work. We feel settled in our house with a very cheap mortgage, 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 some level of a zero waste lifestyle is pretty attainable for a lot of people.
Zero waste on a budget is possible.
The honest truth about living in a zero waste home
I would say our house is fairly atypical from the standard American home. We live in a 1000 square foot home with minimal possessions. We eat out about once a month. We don’t own a television and we don’t subscribe to any sort of online streaming services. I’ve found that embracing minimalism has naturally made the transition to a zero waste lifestyle easier for me (someone interested) and my husband (someone not-so-interested).
That being said…
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’d love to invest in items for our 128-year-old house like solar panels or a more efficient heating system for . We also rely heavily on “rescued” items, whether they be used furniture which requires some cosmetic work or food items which generally come packaged in plastic.
All this adds up to a lifestyle that is very conscious, but not as low waste as we could if we got more militant about it. Because as much as I enjoy challenging myself to find ways of creating less waste, I’m also keenly aware that a life of total deprivation is not sustainable. And that’s OK with me.
We made do without, rather than investing in “zero waste items”
While I love the travel set of silverware I was gifted, it’s not something I would ever purchase myself. Because really, if you think about all the zero waste items being schilled online, many times you can substitute it for something you already have. You can make produce bags out of spare fabric. You can throw a fork in your bag instead of a tidy bamboo set.
My exceptions: nice chopsticks for my husband, reusable mugs, and a plethora of vintage handkerchiefs to use as napkins.
My husband and I work in an industry with massive food waste – which we try to rescue
I kind of fell into teaching and ended up staying there. My husband followed and works as a cook/culinary instructor. The perks of working in our industry generally means at least once meal will be provided during the day. For many of my jobs, because the kids were extremely high-risk and needed constant supervision, I was given two meals a day (and snacks!) and expected to eat with the kids. This has been integral to our budget as well as it drastically reduces our grocery needs. (Exploit your surroundings! Use what you have available!)
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. Thankfully my husband is the one who controls the kitchen in his current job, so he either gets creative with extra items or brings home items that technically need to be disposed of, but are perfectly edible.
Warm weather = growing a ton of our own food
When we lived in apartments, I grew what I could but we’ve finally purchased a house and I can’t wait to tear up our lawn and turn it into useful space. Not only does this allow us to brag about eating hyper-local produce, it also takes away some of the financial strain of finding and purchasing unpackaged produce.
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. (Also, the majority of a household’s waste tends to be centered in the kitchen.)
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.
6 actionable tips for going zero waste on a budget
These are some tips for going zero waste on a budget that have worked for me and my particular situation. Everyone is different in terms of what they have access to and what is realistic for them. Take these tips with a grain of salt; use what works and ignore the rest!
If you have a shortage of something, don’t expect to be close to zero waste
If you don’t have the time, money, or experience to invest, you will have no chance at cultivating a nearly zero waste/organic/vegan life. That’s OK. Zero waste is a misnomer anyway; it’s really about the conscious reduction of waste going to the landfill, whether that looks like one trash bag per week instead of two or half a Mason jar instead of a whole one per year. (Ha.)
Alternatively, exploit what you do have. For example, while my husband and I may be money-poor (is that just regular poor?), we have a lot of free time. This has been a conscious choice. We could have gotten other jobs, but instead use our time as the valuable resource it is. I cook almost every meal, I make a lot of our toiletries DIY, and I spend time working on passion projects like this which – hopefully – will eventually provide some form of income.
I know, I know. I’m not much of a DIYer myself, so I can feel the groan some of you are making. But really, going DIY – particularly with cosmetics items – is a huge budget helper. While the initial cost may be more expensive*, the savings (of both money and unnecessary packaging) can be substantial. For example, the shea butter and coconut oil I use to make lotion cost about $15 and have lasted for nearly the entire year. The chances you spend less than $15/year on a quality lotion is pretty low.
* If the initial cost of items are too high, consider finding a friend or two that would be willing to split the cost. This also helps avoid unnecessary product waste as many cosmetics products require only very small amounts of specialty ingredients.
Cut the crap in your diet and invest your savings elsewhere
The average American spends about $100 on fast food per month. They consume about 54 gallons of soda per year. Some sources say junk food makes up a quarter of our diet. All of that comes with health issues and tons of unnecessary packaging. By kicking those non-essentials out of your shopping list, you’ll have more money free for whatever else you may need. (I, of course, acknowledge that for some people – particularly without access to grocery stores – junk food is a necessity. For many, though, it’s not.)
Identify your weaknesses and make a plan to fight them
We all have items that tempt us to break our zero waste habits or spend an unnecessary amount of money on something we don’t need. ID what makes you weak and find an easily attainable zero waste alternative for it. That frees up your mind to fight bigger battles.
>Ex. My husband loves potato chips. Instead, we’ve found a bulk salty snack he really likes and I always keep a jar available at home. It’s decreased his chip-buying significantly. My weakness? Alcohol. I love buying different wines to try or experimenting with cocktails, but it can get expensive and creates a lot of – albeit recyclable – waste. Instead, I’ve started making ginger beer and mead at home, which decreases my desire for store-bought. (Sometimes.)
Complete a trash audit
I talk more about trash audits here – and even offer a PDF guide to reducing your trash by half in four weeks (use code ZWBUDGET for 50% off) – and surprisingly they can be a great idea of how to streamline your budget. When you look in the trash, you’ll not only be motivated to reduce the trash you create, but you’ll also quickly identify the items you’re buying that are simply not worth the price. Being vigilant and truly opening your eyes to what you consume is a game-changer.
Focus on what you can change for free
Check out this list of simple tips for starting out a zero waste lifestyle. They’re all simple, functional tips that don’t require an investment in your home, grocery list, or otherwise. Stick to things like switching from paper towels to rags from old clothes (which – incidentally – saves you $$$) or drying your clothes without a dryer at least once a week. Simple, easy, no cost.
Don’t feel pressured to buy to create a zero waste life
Remember the very first R of zero waste? It’s refuse. Too many people get caught up in the Pinterest-perfect idea of what zero waste should look like. That leads to buying items in order to achieve a lifestyle which ferociously advocates for not buying stuff. Weird, right? Stick with the ugly mug and the boring old plastic containers to bring your lunch to work. Once they no longer work, find the best way to retire them and only then carefully consider what to buy. Zero waste is not about spending money.
What tips have helped you lean toward a zero waste lifestyle that didn’t require a substantial financial commitment? I’d love to hear in the comments.