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
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 under-served communities. No one’s got the money to pay. But that’s a whole different article…
In 2018, we made a gross income of just under $28,000.
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 while approaching zero waste on a budget.
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.
That being said, no matter how much time, money, or access you have – zero waste isn’t zero.
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.
Zero waste on a budget forces you to look critically at your consumption habits. Here’s a list of ways to start zero waste for free.
Warm weather = growing 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, 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. Here’s where to source zero waste DIY 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.)
Complete a trash audit
I talk more about trash audits here 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.
No one can be truly zero waste. Embrace that fact and move forward boldly, doing as much as you can!