How my transition to zero waste has saved me thousands so far.
You are being hustled. Plain and simple.
I see you there, in the isle of cleaning products carefully selecting the next failure that will leave streaks on your stone counters, or that over-priced brand of laundry soap you have to use because you’ve got a 4:1 ratio of sensitive skin people in your house. I see you contemplating which cleaner will smell the nicest without giving you a headache, and I also saw the giant package of paper towels in your buggy as you stood pondering.
I saw you, because I too once stood in those isles. Like you, I once strode to the isle of cleaning products searching for the one brand of cleaner that left my granite counters shiny–only to find anguish that it was no longer being produced. I stood beside you grabbing my free and clear detergent because my wife has a skin disorder and I’m allergic to nearly everything under the sun. I reached past you as you grabbed for a giant bundle of paper towels in search of yet more rolls of toilet paper my children would eat or feed to gremlins. (I mean–how does it go so fucking fast, anyway?)
But I’m not standing in those isles anymore. In fact, I don’t even go down there. My house is cleaner than ever, it smells better than ever, and I’ve got way more wiggle in my grocery budget than I ever did before. Sit down for a spell and I’ll tell you the story about a girl who is perpetually tight-waded and you might learn a thing or two.
14 Years Ago…
“What the fuck is the point of diapers.” – Me, standing in the diaper isle of the grocery store.
This is when I feel my frugalness really began to skyrocket into the amazing machine it is today. For years we were broke, and I was feeding my family on an incredibly low budget that still left me sacrificing much. I used to loathe the inevitable month end “re-stock” trip that would have me purchasing laundry soap, dish soap, cleaners, toilet paper, razors even. In those days, I had to give up on bigger things just to make sure the household had all it needed. My rules were simple: Food first, then bills, then any pennies left over could maybe get me a pair of new jeans at the local thrift shop. My thighs had just worn a hole in the crotch again.
If you were wondering, I ended up cloth diapering and I remain a loyal supporter of the cloth movement.
Years later, I finally begin to get the picture. I was being exploited. I didn’t have the ability or knowledge to make any of this crap myself, and because I had allergies I had no choice but to spend the mega bucks on the over-priced brands of everything. Because I had asthma I had to be incredibly careful over which cleaning supplies I could use and not die. Because I had survived the H1N1 (Swine Flu) epidemic of 2009, I desperately needed all the disinfecting stuffs to protect my kids.
It’s all pathos, my friends. If I didn’t buy these things, my kids would get sick, my house would be in shambles, and I ran the risk of dying from an asthma attack or ripping myself apart from hives. Still, I remained trapped in the marketing and consumer machine that was purchasing the basic necessities of the household until my recent awakening.
About a year ago, I began listening to a podcast called, “By The Book” which featured two awesome chicks living by various self-help and life improvement books for two weeks and talking about how it did or did not change their whole world view. They did a podcast on a lifestyle called Zero Waste living. I consider myself to be a bit more eco-friendly than the average bear so I listened along. I was intrigued and a bit beguiled that such a lifestyle could really help me make an impact on the planet for the positive.
However, upon further research, I was immediately overwhelmed. Going Zero Waste seems monumental and impossible at first glance. It is also substantially guilt inducing much in the same way as going vegan is. You’ve contributed so much to this monster that is making our planet decay and it just makes you cringe and die a bit on the inside. If you don’t have the chops for it–you get angry and retreat; but if you are like me, you grieve your past ignorance and begin looking for ways to make a transition.
We’ll never be the people that can fit all their waste for an entire year into a mason jar. We’ll never be a “Family Cloth” family either. I’ll never stop traveling, so I’ve totally fucked the Earth with my airplane emissions, and I can’t afford a hybrid mini-van. But there ARE things I can control, like packing my own silverware, and reducing my use of single-use plastics. If we all just focus on what we can control, we can make a big difference.
Now that we’ve done the big touchy-feels and saved the Earth, let’s talk about what your primary motivation should really be here.
Saving all the green…
I’m talking about DOLLAR, DOLLAR BILLS YA’LL! The BIGGEST benefit of going green is saving all the green! I’ve made small changes to our family that have already saved us hundreds and thousands so far.
Yes, yes…saving the Earth is all good and well. But I’m not going to be ashamed for saving MONEY being a motivator. I mean, that’s saving trees too–am I right? You’ve heard of economic vegetarians, I’m sure. I’m introducing you to economic zero wasting. And as I don’t think that actually exists yet, I’m going to say right now that I copyright it. So sod off my IP.
Here are some baby-steps we’ve taken to go zero waste by eliminating the following items, and how much money it has saved us so far. Total transparency, I’m including our “start up” costs to convert to a zero-waste life, as some aspects of this life do require a transition to a different product.
Paper Towels: This is probably the big ticket item that has driven our money savings up over the thousand dollar mark alone. Years ago, we went sans Bounty in the kitchen. We spent around $20-$40 a month in paper towels alone, and where were all those discarded towels ending up, anyway? In the trash! Now this was way before my “zero waste-awakening” as I am calling it these days, but I’d like to say it was the gateway drug for us. We replaced paper towels with a variety of rags, tea towels, and dish towels. We have one bucket for towels, one bucket for rags, and one bucket for dirties all stored under our sink. We toss them in the wash every few days with our regular bathroom towels.
Cost: Nothing–we already had these towels and old towels to be turned into rags in the house
Savings: $480 a year x 5 years = $2400
Plastic Wrap & Plastic Bags: I like to call this the silent killer to your budget. You buy a few rolls of this every shopping trip and use it to wrap up everything. I found it was especially useful for when I was missing a lid to a plastic container. This was really easy for us to phase out. I invested first into a new set of Glad plastic containers; they’re cheaper than a complete Tuperware set and I only bought a few sets of large and medium bowls. I then swapped plastic for aluminum as it was able to be recycled for a few years. I also tried using and reusing plastic bags but I loathed it, and plastic baggies are probably the most overpriced thing you’ll ever throw away! A few boxes of different sizes a month and your budget is already a goner! I then graduated to some silicone bowl covers (I didn’t want to use beeswax covers as I couldn’t be sure how the bee products were sourced) for any irregular shaped bowls. Honestly, those things suck and they were damned expensive. Now we just make an effort to store everything in bowls, jars, or our Pyrex dishes.
Cost: $40 on the worlds worst silicone dish covers. $20 on some Gladware containers. Jars were free through food items that came in jars. I will soon be purchasing some silicone reusable bags for use during travel. I also made my own food wraps out of re-purposed rice bags and I use them the most often!
Savings: $200 over a few years of ditching plastic bags, plastic wrap, and foil (all walmart brand products.)
Cleaning Products, Laundry Soap & Fabric Softener: I have a confession ya’ll. MG fucking LOVES cleaning products. I don’t know why this is, honestly–but I’ve always had this guilty little secret pleasure in trying all the new products. Chances are, if it is on a shelf I have tried it and can tell you how it smells, how it works, and how it doesn’t. As a child, I grew up helping my mother clean the vacation resort properties of the wealthy. As an adult, I clean as a way to work out stress and anger. As someone who has been broke and frustrated for many of her younger years, my introspected analysis tells me that a $3 bottle of cleaner was the cheapest way to treat myself. (Don’t study psychology folks, it will mess you up. Ha!) MG doesn’t love the price tag on cleaning products though. After switching to greener brands several years ago, those tiny bottles of Method were costing me a small fortune. I tried Grove Collaborative but hated the service, so I was back to elbowing the rich suburban mom’s out of the way to grab my 4 bottles of Method to get the $5 Target gift card every other month. Recently, I’ve started making my own. I’ve been researching various recipes for years-and I’m talking YEARS to find the products that were the most simple, did what I needed to do for my home, and didn’t bother my asthma while remaining as green as possible. I now make my own glass, granite, and all-purpose cleaners, along with my own dish soap. (I’ve tried and failed on several dish washer detergents so I buy the super expensive top-tier Finish packets which seem to be the only thing that actually works in my dish-washer. That’s a battle for another day.) Here is how I made my big bulk purchase of materials. Recipes here!!!
1.Kirk’s Castile Soap Bars x 48 = $57.95 ($1.21 a bar) purchased on Amazon. (I shred and cook this soap into liquid castile soap. 1 bar makes 4 cups of liquid castile, which is the basis of every natural cleaning product you can think of. You can also use this soap to clean your own body and hair which is my long term plan with some further research on how it affects dyed hair. MG dyes her hair purple, I’m not having my purple dye leach out. Fuck that. MG needs more research.)
2. 70% Rubbing Alcohol x 6 32oz bottles = $17.55 ($2.92 a bottle which equals out to $0.09/ounce)
purchased on Amazon.
3. Aromatherapy Oils 20 Count Variety Box = $29.72 (there are cheaper ways to buy these oils but I wanted to experiment with scents to find combinations I liked and this was the biggest bang for my buck.) purchased on Amazon.
4. Super Washing Soda 55oz box = $4.12 (for laundry detergent) purchased at Walmart.
5. White Vinegar 64oz = $1.92 (various uses for this cleaning power house, but do NOT put it on stone surfaces!) purchased at Walmart.
$112 to make a bulk purchase of cleaning supplies I can make myself. These ingredients can make: Laundry Detergent, Fabric Softener, Window Cleaner, Granite and Glass Cooktop Cleaner, Dish Washing Soap. When shredding the bar soap to cook into liquid soap, you save even MORE money than buying the overpriced bottles of pre-made liquid. If my calculations are right, the bars will convert to 384 cups of liquid castile soap. That is over 1 year of both Laundry Soap AND Dish soap which both call for the liquid castile soap. This means I’m paying $9.13 a month for laundry soap, dish soap, fabric softener, window cleaner, and granite and class cooktop cleaner.
Savings: $450 a year (breakdown below)
I’m going to compare my savings to the exact brands of products I used before switching to my own cleaning products. My prices may be higher than yours–keep in mind, we have severe allergies and asthma in the MG household so we can’t use a lot of the cheaper products on the shelf or we die a bit.
Method Counter Cleaner: $3.29
Method Granite Cleaner: $5.99
Method Window Cleaner: $3.29
Weiman’s Cooktop Cleaner: $3.96 x 2 a month = $7.92
Method Dish Soap: $4.99
All Free and Clear Laundry Soap Pods: $9.97
Downy Infusions Amber Blossom $6.94
Total Products = $42.39 for one month + $4.20 sales tax = $46.59/month Which is a total of $560 a year in cleaning products and endless bottles of plastic that can’t be recycled more than once or twice?! What the fuck!
Coffee Stands/Starbucks: Living in the PNW it would be the biggest understatement of all time to simply say we like coffee. Coffee is part of the culture here. We have coffee shops and drive-through coffee stands on every corner. Here in the PNW you can find 3 Starbucks within a minute walk from each other, but most of us prefer the privately owned brands and we all have our favorites. For a few years we got into the bad habit of buying coffee on a regular basis. Around here a mocha or latte sets you back around $7 a cup with a tip. More if you are ordering frozen coffee drinks or adding shots and flavors. We didn’t know how to make it ourselves or where to find the products they were putting into our coffee, so I started making inquiries. “Do you use sauce or powder in that?” “What brand of soy milk is that?” “Where can I buy that? I want some to have at home!” And you’d be surprised how many friendly baristas will tell you all about the products, where to buy it in your neighborhood, and how they make your drink! (Some recipes are chain secrets and won’t be shared.) Through this series of tough investigative work I determined how our favorites were made and where we could get the products. We now go to a local food service store and buy all of it ourselves. We actually gave up Costco completely because we can shop in bulk here without paying a membership fee! Food Service stores are usually open to the public but no one knows about them. We make our own coffee at home, and for the drinks we absolutely can’t make at home (Like the Starbucks Mango Dragonfruit refresher) we bring our own cups–they give you a small discount for that. (I do tend to favor Starbucks when I’m in a pinch and traveling because they have the most lucrative rewards system and are everywhere.)
Cost: White Chocolate Powder, Chocolate Powder, Chai Powder $15 a bag. High quality coffee beans $10 a bag (brews better coffee when fresh ground!) Coffee Grinder $8. Reusable Ceramic Coffee Cup $10 (You can find reusable coffee cups in any material, but I prefer Ceramic and use a cup by Ello.)
Subtracting my one time reusable coffee cup investment. I say that a bag of each flavoring lasts us about 3 months. Beans we replace every month. So $75 for a three month supply of custom drinks = $25 a month, divided by two people is $12.50 in coffee per person a month. One drink at Starbucks runs us about $7 each. That is $0.42 cents a cup per person per day in our household. Bonus points for not producing all those disposable coffee cups, lids, straws, and stir sticks! Plus if there is a drink I really want at Starbucks, I bring my own cup and get a $0.10 discount on my drink. I recently broke my plastic tumbler, so I’ve been bringing in my Guardians of the Galaxy “Rocket” Cup with my own straw and no one bats an eyelash.
Savings: (Ok, I did my at home coffee math for the year, because we do drink coffee or chai every single day. If we were ordering out, we would never be able to afford to drink every day, so I’ve adjusted the numbers to three times a week which seems slightly more reasonable.) For two people at $7 a cup, this comes out to $504 for three months of coffees. We’re saving $459!
Water & Drinks: We are a family of five that travels a fair bit, including an every week hour + drive that would always result in kids complaining they were thirsty. Even stopping and grabbing the cheapest waters at a gas station is $5, and then there is all the plastic that now needs to be recycled. About two years ago, I purchased one of those Coleman drink cooler jugs at a thrift store and our entire way of life changed. We now take that thing with us on every single trip, filled with ice water. No matter if it is 30 minutes or 3 hours. We fly with our own water bottles, run errands with our own water bottles, and go on vacation with our own water bottles.
Cost: The Coleman Beverage Cooler we picked up at a thrift store set us back $3. It will cost you a whopping $15 on Amazon. Think about that, you can carry 1 gallon of water with you indefinitely for a small one time investment. You might even be able to find one at a thrift store like I did. We also purchased everyone in the household their own water bottles. This can get complicated as Mrs. MG and I don’t like metal bottles, and we dont want to carry heavy glass with us everywhere. Mrs. MG carries a Contigo brand water bottle and I use an old one she had in storage and never used. We bought the kids these 2.2L bottles that are only a few bucks at Walmart and are BPA free with a safe plastics code for their car water. (They carry different bottles at school.) I recommend checking out Ross, Marshalls, TJ Maxx, or any other similar discount store for water bottles. They’re the cheapest and generally have a wide selection of styles. We spent about $22 on water bottles. On the rare occasion we want soda, I’ll pick up a 12 pack and keep it in the trunk. Still a lot cheaper than buying 1 bottle at the gas station and the metal can is a better item to recycle than plastic bottle.
Savings: We were purchasing several drinks a few times a week. It would be insane to even attempt to add this all up, but I know that we’ve saved hundreds of dollars by bringing our own water jugs.
Pet Care: We have 3 cats, and 2 dogs, but I’m going to talk to you about the two big changes we made with our cats that have helped us produce less waste. #1, type of cat litter! We were using a system by Purina that used pee pads and special pellets in their uniquely designed box when we had one cat. We could scoop the poo into the toilet but the pellets and the pee pads always went into the trash. Pretty wasteful, but I never stopped to think about any other way. When we got our Persians, our breeder told us she uses a corn based litter. This is where things began to shift, I had no idea they made litter out of corn, then discovered they even make it out of recycled walnut shells too! We transitioned all three cats to a walnut shell litter. This litter is totally biodegradable and can be flushed down the toilet. No more plastic bags with old pellets and pee pads going into the trash. We just scoop, then replenish the litter. The second big change we made was in cotton pads. Persians have to have their eyes cleaned every day. I hated throwing away the cotton balls, but knew a wash cloth wouldn’t be gentle enough for them. One day on Pinterest I stumbled across a zero waste blog where the key picture was of reusable cotton pads. I purchased some on Amazon that day. Now we just toss them in the wash with our kitchen towels and use again when dry!
Cost: New litter boxes $3 each x 3 = $9.00. Our litter is about $20 for 25 lbs. This lasts us about two months, and is not producing any waste. Our old systems were totally disinfected and donated to a local rescue. Reusable cotton pads $8.00. We were spending about $15 a month on the old litter system so we have about a $10 every two months savings on the new system but our biggest motivation was reducing waste. We chose the walnut because after a trial run of corn, I couldn’t stand the product. It doesn’t trap the odors and doesn’t clump well. Walnut clumps the firmest and does the best job with controlling odor. It is still more expensive than the traditional clay litters, but this is a better environmental choice. Reusable cotton pads $8.00 vs. $5 a bag every month.
Savings: Litter: $60 a year. Cotton balls: $52 a year.
Trash Service: Yep. I went there, but quit freaking out! It isn’t like I’m telling you to be like the people who can fit 10 years of trash into a mason jar for fucks sake. I’m just talking about really taking a hard look at what you are paying for on your trash service. We are a family of five and had the big trash can and one recycle can. We found that we filled our recycle can much faster than our trash. I called our trash company and asked for an extra recycle can and they said, “You can’t have an extra recycle can, but you can have another trash can.” WHAT?! I was pretty angry that they wanted me to produce more waste instead of more recycled material. So after a few heated words, I hung up and decided that we’d just take our extra recycling to the recycling center instead. As I began this transition, I started thinking of what I was actually throwing away. Most of our trash is parts of fruit/vegetables we don’t eat, any leftovers that we didn’t get finished in time, and the vegetable scraps I had already boiled down for broth. This led me to composting. I was a little intimidated by it because frankly, reading and researching online led me down a rabbit hole filled to the brim with a bunch of conflicting opinions. Then there was the expense of making your own system or buying a system, then came the research into each avenue. Ultimately I decided on a simple system from Amazon that was relatively inexpensive. I actually got super lucky and found the same system in my local thrift store and paid only $10 for two of them! Now that we are composting, we are very careful about sorting our trash. I’ve also been semi-obsessively revamping the way I shop. I’m picking products that come packaged in recyclable materials. I’m avoid products packaged in plastic. I’m trying as much as possible to avoid items packaged in materials that are not recyclable at all (like the mesh bags apples come in). What absolutely can not be composted or recycled then goes into the trash and it wasn’t that hard to teach our children the new trash/compost/recycle rules. Now we produce about 4 gallons of trash a week, if that. After a few weeks of this level of production, we ordered the small can from our trash service and it is still way too large for us! We’re going to begin requesting once a month pick up trash service instead of bi-weekly. All of these changes has brought our trash bill down in a significant way.
Cost: Composting bins from Thrift Shop $10. Organic matter and paper for composting, free.
Savings: At this time, we’re still waiting on our trash bill to stabilize. We have a credit and we’ve been making changes to our service so it is difficult to say, but I know we’ve saved at least $15 a month by swapping the cans. The compost is saving us money as well by becoming rich organic nutrients for any gardening we may decide to do. Our plan is actually to allow our neighbors to grab some whenever they need.
Thrift Stores: If you aren’t shopping second hand, what are you even doing with your life? I have been a bonafide thrift store junkie for my entire adult life. When I was a brand new young adult and newlywed I relied heavily on the thrift store in our little town to get the things I needed. We lived overseas and my choices were the expensive military department store or our military thrift store. I was so obsessed, that I even worked at that shop! My obsession remains to this day, having had three kids I nearly always start any clothes shopping at the thrift store. Kids grow so fast, many of the clothing I find is brand new and has maybe been worn once or twice. I look for clothing and scrubs for myself (though more often than not I strike out on clothing due to my size) before I head to the mall. I also stop in when I have a list of planned purchases to see if the thrift store has it first. Why? Because A, the thrift store is going to be cheaper, and B, it reduces waste! I donate or give away everything we no longer need/use. (I’ve tried selling things before but I just get frustrated with it. If the price is $2.00 why in the hell do you have to feel the need to haggle me down to $0.45? Just pay the $2 bucks!) These items still have plenty of life in them and could benefit someone else. This is the entire premise of thrift stores, and I’ve found the exact thing I’m looking for more times than I can count! Recently I picked up a $70 blender for $15 bucks! I found a mountain bike and drifter bike both brand new that were hundreds of dollars each for only $25 a piece at the thrift stores which were immediately purchased and given to the kids as birthday gifts. I was thrilled beyond measure when I found a $50 board game I’d wanted for years there still in its original plastic for only $5 because the corner of the box was dented. I’m currently lounging in my $80 Ikea chair that was only $19.99 at the thrift store. Not only am I saving money by purchasing gently used items, but I’m helping prevent these things from ending up in a landfill. I’m not recommending you buy everything at a thrift store, some things should just be purchased new. (Mattresses, underware, socks) I only recommend that for any other purchases you are planning that you start at a few thrift stores first before buying it new. I can’t give you a cost/savings break down on this one–but know that thrift stores benefit everyone and the planet!
Save that money!
I know this sounds like a ton of work. You are probably thinking I’m some kind of stay at home wife who has a ton of time in her day. I’m not. I work a full time job, I’ve got special needs pets, and three children, plus a wife that needs some of my attention sometimes. These changes were brought in gradually and developed over time. It seems crazy, but you might remember a grandmother or aunt doing these things. That is because the Great Depression taught an entire generation how to be frugal, how to reuse things, how to do it yourself, and how to re-imagine things.
The vast majority of our purchases when it comes to food and household items are designed to be as convenient as possible to us, and we are paying a steep premium for having other people chop our vegetables, making our soap, and designing items that can be thrown away after one use. Once you start doing these things yourself, it becomes second nature. Chop up your veggies after you get home from shopping and put them away already prepared for the week. Throw your reusable rags into the wash when you wash your bathroom towels. Instead of throwing all your egg shells and banana peels into the trash, put them into your composting bucket and dump it into the pile once a week, make your laundry soap and cleaning products in big batches so you don’t have to do it as often. I honestly see a big difference in my budget every single month by taking a few minutes to do these things for myself and so will you!
I think of how I did things before and all I feel is frustration. I was played by these companies, plain and simple. There were times when we were so broke I wondered how I’d have the gas to get to work, and those were the times these companies were exploiting my ignorance. I was eating beans and rice for the tenth time, and the CEO of *insert product name here* was probably on his 5th vacation for the year. If I could go back and tell myself during those times what I know now, maybe I wouldn’t have been so stressed out, so resentful, and so tired. Since I can’t go back in time and talk to myself, I’ll share these things with you instead! If you are worried about your friends and acquaintances judging you, or saying you are “old fashioned” so be it, then laugh your way straight to the bank with all the money you are saving while they’re trying to figure out how to pay for things. I’m done feeling like everyone is benefiting off my hard earned dollar, and I’m done feeling like there is nothing else I can do for the planet. Aren’t you done too?