Zero Waste Doesn’t Have to Be Zero-Sum

By Beth Terry, PPC Ambassador

I thought the idea of saving money might encourage people to reduce their waste — plastic in particular. But then I remembered a particular co-worker of mine who liked to throw things away. Even recyclable things like yogurt containers she would toss in the trash instead of the recycle bin because she didn’t feel like washing them out. I asked her why, and she would just blow me off. But finally, one day, she explained. She had grown up dirt poor. Her family had to clean out and reuse everything out of necessity — not because they cared about the environment, but because that was the only way to survive. And now that she was making plenty of money, she enjoyed throwing things away. It felt like a privilege to her… like she had “made it.”

So, I’m wondering… if we encourage people to go green in order to save money, will they simply go back to their wasteful ways once they are out of debt and financially secure again?

Besides, not every plastic-free, waste-free option does save money. Sometimes it’s actually cheaper to replace a broken gadget than to have it repaired. I had this experience last year with my suitcase. I had been dragging around the same wheelie suitcase from city to city since the mid-’90s, and the wheels were worn down to almost nothing. I really was, quite literally, dragging it instead of rolling it. So I took it to a local luggage repair shop to have the wheels replaced. And I almost had a heart attack when I got the bill.; replacing the wheels cost more than a new suitcase.

But after the initial sticker shock, I still felt good about my decision because I get to keep my same suitcase for another 20 years. That suitcase has been with me everywhere. I’m so glad I don’t have to send it off to the landfill.

There are lots of affordable options for reducing your plastic consumption, and for the most part, you don’t need to go out and buy a bunch of new stuff. But should environmentalists focus on ways people can save money by going green? Or should saving money be presented as an occasional bonus?

When I give talks, one question people frequently ask is whether it costs more money to go plastic-free. My answer: a few things cost more initially, but in general, I save money living this way. 

Plastic-Free Ways to Save Money

A really good quality water bottle made from stainless steel or glass might be a bit pricey, but I save money in the long run because bottled water actually costs more per gallon than gasoline!  A 32-pack of Aquafina is $35 today on Amazon, which means I would make back the cost of a Klean Kanteen water bottle in about a month if I drank a bottle a day.  I’ve had mine for years.

Instead of spending money on expensive personal care and cleaning products, I now use cheap baking soda and vinegar as much as possible. Yes, the vinegar that comes in a glass bottle tends to be a little more expensive than the plastic gallon jugs of vinegar. But compared to the personal care and cleaning products I no longer use, it’s a lot less costly. Consider these savings…

Beth Terry is author of Plastic Free and has been blogging at My Plastic Free Life, where this post originally appeared, since 2007.  

Top photo: Chiot's Run | / CC BY-NC; above photos courtesy My Plastic Free Life.

3 responses to “Zero Waste Doesn’t Have to Be Zero-Sum”

  1. John Barress says:

    I’m 49 years old. I remember when I was just a baby almost nothing that my mother and I wore was made of plastic. cotton nappies, glass bottles, wood and cotton swabs, grocery bags were made from paper and so on. Mother Nature gives us so many options yet, why not use them instead of terrible plastic?

  2. This is a brilliant article.

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