The Complete Guide to Saving Money by Living Zero Waste

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By Jeff Smith

We live in a world of convenience. We’re constantly on the go, trying to get ahead at work, or caring for busy families. This often causes us to reach for the nearest, quickest, easiest items in our day-to-day lives. We microwave pre-made dinners and throw away things that have traditionally been made to last. The problem is, these convenience items are rarely economical, and it’s rarer still that they’re made with the environment’s best interests in mind.

When we become more mindful consumers and take strides to reduce our waste, it lessens our carbon footprint. As a bonus, reusable items typically save us money in the long run because we’re not replacing them after every use.

Every little bit helps, too, and there are plenty of small changes you can make without adding any inconvenience. Ask for an emailed receipt instead of a paper one when paying with a credit card, for example. Go paperless with your bills and choose to get them via email rather than through mail. To go one step further, consider using credit card companies that offer to donate rewards to green groups.

As you start thinking about how to live a less wasteful life, remember that – like any lifestyle change – it doesn’t happen overnight. Ultimately it’s the sum of the little changes that add up to a big change.

Read on for ideas on how to reduce your waste and save money everywhere you go, or jump to our downloadable zero waste checklists.

Table of Contents

Saving Money by Having a Zero Waste Home

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Your home is one of the easiest places to go zero waste because it’s a controlled environment. You get to choose what comes in and what goes out. So do your best to fill your home with the people and things that make you feel fulfilled and nourished – and lower your waste.

One simple trick to start with right away? Use large recycling and composting bins, while keeping your trash can small for things that absolutely must be wasted.

When in Doubt, Switch to Bamboo

In general, any time you can make the choice between plastic and bamboo, choose the bamboo. Why is bamboo considered so sustainable? Certain types of bamboo have actually won the Guinness World Record for being the fastest growing plant on earth. While most bamboo is fast-growing, the world-record holder can grow up to 35 inches per day, making it completely – and rapidly – renewable.

Here are some other simple ways to reduce your waste at home…

Shaving

According to the EPA, we throw away 2 billion razors every year. Since disposable razors are practically impossible to recycle, they’re definitely not zero-waste friendly. However, that doesn’t mean you need to give up luxuriously silky-smooth skin or stop shaving.

For a greener option, invest in a safety razor. You may need to invest more upfront on a good base (anywhere from $20-$100+), but it will last you a lifetime. Plus, replacement blades are stainless steel, recyclable, and can be as cheap as $1.

Essentially, you could start saving money as little as one year after you make the change. Not bad when you consider the lifetime of shaving ahead of you. Just make sure to store used blades in a safe place until you’re ready to recycle them.

Brushing Your Teeth

Toothbrushes are disastrous to the environment since they can’t be recycled—so make the easy switch to a bamboo toothbrush. The handle is completely compostable and the bristles can be removed and recycled wherever nylon is recyclable. The best part is that you can find them for as cheap as $2.

For a zero waste toothpaste, research DIY toothpaste recipes. Often times you can make an effective toothpaste from items you already have around your house. Just make sure to check with your dentist before switching your routine, especially if you have oral hygiene concerns.

You may also want to consider investing in a Waterpik to reduce waste caused by floss. You can use it in the shower to avoid a watery mess.

Showering

Swap your plastic mesh loofah in the shower for a bamboo scrub brush. It’s recommended that you swap your mesh loofah every 2-3 months, which is a lot of plastic to throw away every year. Bamboo scrub brushes will last much longer, and when it’s time to replace, you can compost the old one.

Look for locally-made, natural soap at the store with compostable paper labels or no packaging at all. Look for shampoo bars as well for a waste-free haircare routine. It’s also easier than most people think to make your own cold-processed bar soap. It only improves with age, so make a batch in bulk and never have to spend on soap for the rest of the year. Homemade soap also makes a great, inexpensive gift and is an effective way to spread the zero waste bug to your friends.

Using the Toilet

Bidet attachments are a great option for saving toilet paper and the plastic they come packaged in. They typically don’t require plumbing and can be attached in just a few minutes. Do your wallet and the planet a favor by skipping the 50 pounds of toilet paper used per person per year. For a savings perspective, that’s over $50 in toilet paper you could save per year by buying a similarly priced bidet attachment that will last you indefinitely.

An estimated 45 billion period-related products end up in landfills every year. To further reduce your waste in the bathroom, consider switching to eco-friendly reusable period products such as menstrual cups or period-proof underwear. These products are relatively inexpensive (around $30 each) and only need to be replaced every 2–4 years. A lifetime supply of either of these products would only cost about $360 compared to disposable products, which could cost up to $2,000 over a woman’s lifetime.

Diapering

If you’re parenting an infant, you’ve probably noticed the cost of diapers can pile up almost as much as the waste they hold. Based on a cost of $0.20 per diaper, a child needs up to $550 worth of diapers in the first year alone. (See more research on the cost of a newborn.)

Yet there are a few budget-friendly and planet-friendly options for diapers you can choose instead:

  • Cloth diapers. If you’re not squeamish or sensitive to mess, cloth diapering may be the best option. Simply invest in reusable cloth diapers and wash them thoroughly after each use. Bonus points if you can get cloth diapers from a friend who doesn’t need them anymore.

  • Cloth diaper services as an alternative for the squeamish. If the thought of cleaning dirty diapers is unbearable, there are cloth diaper services that will pick up used ones and drop off fresh one. Just keep in mind the additional carbon footprint of the delivery service as well as the additional cost, and decide if it’s worth it to you and your family.

  • Choose bamboo diapers instead. Another option that’s a good middle-ground between fully zero waste cloth diapers and traditional ones is bamboo. Bamboo diapers are considered sustainable because bamboo can be regrown rapidly and absorbs more CO2 than other trees. It’s soft, gentle, absorbent, and biodegradable. You can even compost wet diapers as long as there’s no solid waste.

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Can or Freeze Food

Canning, freezing, pickling, and fermenting are all methods that have been around for generations. Before modern conveniences like refrigeration, this is how people kept food from spoiling and made sure nothing went to waste.

These methods are still as equally effective today, so the next time you notice you have too much cabbage, consider making kimchi. Berries about to go bad? Freeze them for a smoothie later on. Get creative and have fun preserving food. You’ll end up saving money by not having to go to the store as frequently. And you’ll throw less away.

Meal Plan to Avoid Waste

Another method for making sure all your food gets used is meal planning. Set aside one day per week when you have a few hours to go through recipes and plan what you’ll eat for the week. Make a list and stick to it at the store or farmer's market. This way everything you buy goes to a recipe and nothing gets wasted. Similarly to preserving food, you’ll save money by not having to go to the store as frequently.

Takeout is the bane of zero waste living, not to mention it’s expensive. The key to avoiding this heavily-packaged, plastic-laden dinner indulgence is to always keep a fully stocked kitchen. Keep your fridge, freezer, and pantry full of staples like beans and grains. Keep some frozen soups and casseroles in the freezer for nights when you come home exhausted and want something satisfying and easy.

Make Your Own Stock

Oftentimes when vegetables start to go bad, they’re still perfectly safe to eat. Carrots that lose their crispy crunch or herbs that begin to wilt can be frozen and saved up until you’re ready to make vegetable stock. Other veggie scraps that work well in stock are celery, onions, shallots, garlic, and leeks.

Simply thaw out your frozen veggie scraps and simmer in a slow cooker or stock pot for a few hours, strain, and enjoy. From a savings perspective, the homemade stock is virtually free, considering it was made from scraps that would have been thrown out otherwise.

Research DIY Cleaning Products

Water, vinegar, and castille soap bought in the bulk section can all make great ingredients for all-purpose cleaning products. Store them in labeled aluminum spray bottles. You’ll save major money on store-bought cleaning products by having one that does everything.

It’s also fairly easy to make your own laundry detergent and dishwasher soap from natural and cheap ingredients. Most recipes start with grating a bar of soap and then adding washing soda and borax, a naturally occurring mineral made from sodium, boron, oxygen and water. Having your own detergents, soaps, and cleaning products on hand ensures you’re not letting expensive, harmful chemicals into your home.

Regrow Produce Stubs

Think of this as a buy-one-get-one-free deal. You can re-grow certain vegetables such as romaine, ginger, and scallions from their stubs. Just place the end in some water and place on a sunny window sill in your kitchen. Change the water out every few days until you notice roots sprouting. Then the vegetable can be planted and enjoyed a second time for free.

Use Rags Instead of Paper Towels

Keep a large, decorative jar on the counter full of cut up old towels or t-shirts and use them whenever you would normally use paper towels. Wipe down counters and sop up spills, and when you’re done, toss them into the wash. Just make sure to have enough on hand so that you’re not constantly in a laundry frenzy. Not having to buy paper towels can save the average household $182 per year.

Saving Money by Ordering Zero Waste at Restaurants

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Just because you’re trying to reduce waste doesn’t mean you can’t indulge at your favorite restaurants. All it takes is a little planning beforehand to make sure you’re prepared to respectfully decline any single-use packaging you may be offered.

To go a step further, see if your city has any restaurants that are zero waste or that donate their extra food instead of throwing it away. Supporting these establishments will show other skeptical businesses that sustainability can be profitable.

Bring Your Own To-Go Container

Many eateries charge an additional to-go “tax” to cover the charge of packaging. Order and eat your meal at the restaurant to save money and reduce your waste. And if you absolutely must order food to-go, ask if they will package it in your own container.

If you like to stop by your favorite local coffee shop before work every day, remember to bring your own reusable cup. A lot of places offer discounts if you provide your own cup and/or straw. If you know you’re going to a restaurant later, pack a to-go container in your bag in case you have leftovers. Don’t be afraid to ask for “no straw” when ordering your drink—the more servers start to hear this request, the more it will become normalized.

Share a Meal

Restaurant portions are notoriously large and packed full of fat and sodium. To avoid the risk of ordering your own entree and possibly wasting some (especially if you didn’t bring a container), consider splitting a meal with a friend or partner. Not only will you be eating a healthier portion size, but you’ll cut your check in half and save more money. Additionally, ask your server to leave off any unwanted extras from your plate to cut down on food waste. There’s a chance your meal could be discounted based on what you take off.

Eat Out Less

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the average family spends just over $3,000 per year eating out. Of course, this number will vary based on where you live and how you like to eat, but it’s almost always cheaper to eat meals at home.

One way to turn infrequent eating-out into a fun treat is to make a list of 52 of your favorite restaurants. Include new restaurants that you’ve been curious about or wanting to try. Write each one down on a piece of (compostable) paper, put them in a jar, and draw a new restaurant each week.

Saving Money by Shopping Zero Waste

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Being a mindful consumer starts at the store. Do some research on which grocery stores near you have the most comprehensive bulk sections. Find clothing stores that use sustainable methods and quality fabrics.

Remember that a zero waste lifestyle isn’t always about what you buy, but more about what you choose not to buy. When considering a purchase, ask yourself if you really want to bring this item with you into your future. If the answer is no, skip it. Nothing helps save money more than simply not spending it.

Shop Secondhand

10.46 million tons of clothing go into landfills every year. This equals about eighty pounds of clothing tossed out every year per person. If you love fashion, there are sustainable ways to love what you wear. Thrift stores offer brand names at a fraction of the price.

Before you go shopping, assess your wardrobe and identify any missing staples, make a list, and hunt them down at your local thrift shop. While they may seem intimidating, putting in the time to find something you love is rewarding and affordable.

When it’s time to get rid of clothing, be mindful of how you pass it along. Instead of contributing to landfill waste, consider donating your clothes or installing an app that lets you sell used clothing.

Be Mindful of Fabric

We’ve grown accustomed to fast fashion and garments made from cheap, thin materials that become threadbare after two washes. When shopping for clothing, invest in quality pieces that will last you years, and avoid trendy pieces. You’ll save money in the long run by not having to re-buy these cheap pieces over and over again.

Another thing to keep in mind when building a sustainable wardrobe is the physical material of the fabric. Plastic-based materials like polyester, acrylic, and acetate don’t break down in landfills. Even if the piece is durable and high-quality, it’s better to opt for more natural fabrics like cotton and bamboo.

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Bring Your Own Grocery Bags

Remember to bring your reusable grocery bags to the grocery store. To help you not forget them, place them back in your car after emptying them out so that you’ll always have them handy when you pull up to the store. Not only are plastic grocery bags disastrous for our oceans, but some grocery stores are now charging extra for them. Save the money, save the planet, bring your own bags.

Shop the Bulk Section

The bulk section at your grocery store will become your best friend during your journey to live zero waste and save money. Most of the time, food items are cheaper per pound in bulk, and you can buy only what you need. For non-perishable staples like beans and grains, stock up and you’ll always have something to eat at home. Just remember to bring your own cotton drawstring bags so that you don’t have to use their plastic ones.

Depending on how big the bulk sections are near you, you can even buy things like oils, vinegars, and pet food in bulk. Do some research and you’ll be amazed to find all the opportunities to skip out on wasteful packaging.

Not to mention the potential cost savings, since packaging costs typically make up about 1%-10% of the total product cost. Which means if you buy packaging, you pay significantly more per product. That adds up quickly.

Reduce Your Use of Animal Products

Animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transportation sector combined. Increasing your intake of whole plant foods and decreasing animal product consumption is one of the biggest ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

Plus, swapping beans for beef is almost always cheaper pound-for-pound, and you’ll find you won’t have any trouble getting adequate nutrients. For starters, consider going meatless one day a week.

Frequent the Farmer’s Market

Big-box grocery stores ship in produce grown from regions all over the world, resulting in a large carbon footprint. It’s always better to shop locally, so if your area offers a farmer’s market, take advantage of it. If you’re on a tight food budget, many farmers will discount their goods towards the end of the day to ensure it all gets sold.

Saving Money by Being Zero Waste at Work

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If you’re employed, it’s likely that you spend at least 40 hours a week at work. Most office buildings aren’t typically eco-conscious, so it’s important to take matters into your own hands when establishing zero waste habits.

Pack Your Lunch

If you’re trying to avoid eating out and all of the potential waste that comes with it, it’s crucial to plan ahead and pack your own lunch for work. If you take some time over the weekend to meal prep, this is as easy as popping a sandwich or salad into your bag before you head out the door.

If your office doesn’t offer silverware, or if plasticware is the only option, make sure to bring your own silverware. Consider buying a travel set of bamboo utensils to take with you wherever you go—it’s compact and will ensure you can dodge the plasticware in any situation.

Avoid Printing Documents

We live in a digital age, and paper documents are becoming a thing of the past. If you have a choice, politely refuse to print out materials and opt to send them in an email or file sharing service instead. You’ll waste less paper and save on ink and toner, which sometimes costs more than the printers themselves. If printing is not optional, remember to make your documents double-sided.

Make Supplies Last Longer

Store highlighters, pens, and markers in a cool, dry place and use them frequently so they don’t dry up and become useless. Use staples and paperclips sparingly. The longer your supplies last, the less you’re sending to the landfill and the more money you’re saving.

Walk, Bike, or Carpool

If your workplace is within walking or biking distance, don’t drive. You’ll get more exercise and reduce your CO2 emissions. If you have a coworker who lives nearby, consider carpooling. Even better, look into work-from-home options and see if your employer will allow you flexibility. Working from home can boost your productivity and save you commute time and gas money.

Saving Money by Traveling Zero Waste

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Living zero waste is often hardest when we’re traveling, because sometimes unexpected things happen and it’s impossible to plan for everything. Just control what you can control, and don’t be too hard on yourself if you have to use something disposable if absolutely necessary.

Take Public Transportation

Before you leave, research the city you’ll be traveling to. Do they have a subway or bus system? Familiarize yourself with the routes and opt for public transportation over renting a car or getting an uber. It will likely be cheaper, as well as more eco-friendly.

Stay in Homes Instead of Hotels

Hotels offer unnecessary housekeeping services and disposable single-use items. Do you really need your towels washed every single day, or a small plastic bottle of shampoo you’ll use twice? If you do stay in a hotel, ask for less frequent housekeeping services. Otherwise, use Airbnb or stay in a hostel. If you’re staying in a house, they’re more likely to offer recycling or even composting. Plus, you’re more likely to save money as opposed to a pricey hotel.

Swap Souvenirs for Snapshots

When you’re looking to make memories on a trip or vacation, always opt for experiences over objects. Don’t buy a physical item that will likely be thrown out later. Instead, take photos to capture memories. Going for a hike or site-seeing is more fulfilling, and you’ll save money by not buying souvenirs.

Going zero waste doesn’t happen overnight. It’s all about making small, mindful changes in your home, on your vacations, and in your workplace. Remember not to be too hard on yourself if you slip up. Just keep striving towards a greener, cleaner home. You’ll spend less, save more, and improve your financial health so you can start working towards a better credit score and less debt. Your wallet and the planet will thank you.

Interactive Zero Waste E-Checklists

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Additional Resources

Sources: Business Insider | EPA | CNN | Investopedia | Change to Green | AOL | Bureau of Labor Statistics | FAO | National Resources Defense Council | Waste Management

About the Author

Jeff Smith is the Head of Content and SEO at Self.

Written on February 11, 2019

Self is a venture-backed startup that helps people build credit and savings. Comments? Questions? Send us a note at hello@self.inc.

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