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Are zero waste swaps actually cost-effective?

Written by

Polly Barks

This is a sponsored post, which means some of the brands mentioned paid to be included. This site supports these brands and thanks them for helping keep the lights on here!

“Don’t you worry about the world literally setting itself on fire in a decade?”

“… meh.”

My husband, everyone. And a lot of other people.

To be completely honest, we’re not going to change the world by appealing to the eco-warrior and/or humanitarian in everyone. So let’s talk something people are more likely to be swayed by: saving money.

Making sustainable swaps is expensive. It should be expensive; not only to remind us of the true cost of what it takes to make things, but to also push us to spend less. This can be a hard sell. Whether they’re on a super-tight budget or they’ve just gotten comfortable paying rock-bottom prices, the high price of sustainable items is a big turn-off to a lot of people.

(This is obviously not speaking to those who are systematically marginalized and who do not have the privilege of paying up front for these swaps. For them, we need to use privilege to make zero waste more accessible, change the system to support all – and in the meantime, share our over abundance with them.)

So we need to re-frame the issue.

Instead of buying single-use, disposable items we have no connection to, paying a higher price point forces us to really evaluate whether we need something. It also – as I’ll show you down below – generally saves you money in the long run.

Are zero waste swaps actually cost-effective?

While a lot of sustainable items have a high initial cost, they actually work out to be much cheaper over time. And I’m not just saying that – I can actually prove it. There’s a pretty simple way of doing it.

So as I talk through these zero waste household swaps, I’m going to show you a pretty simple breakdown:

  • Commercial item: the single-use, unsustainable item.
  • Cost and CPU: the cost of the item and its cost per use (CPU); ie. if an item’s $1 and you can only use it twice, the cost per use is $0.50.
  • Sustainable swap: the more sustainable product you could use instead.
  • Cost and # of uses: the cost of the sustainable item and how many time’s you’d have to use that item to break even, cost-wise; ie. if the swap of that $1 item is $20, you’d have to use it 40 times to bring the CPU down to an equal $0.50. Simple, right?
  • Worth the $$? ie. would you realistically be able to use this sustainable item enough times to break even?
Read more:  13 examples of zero waste fashion - yes, it's a thing!

In this post I’m going to talk purely about money, since that’s a tangible motivator for everyone. But beyond that, we need to think about the impact of these items and their benefits beyond saving money. Be sure to talk to your friends and family about the additional benefits like: eco-friendly materials, fair wages for creators, how they won’t end up in a landfill once you’re done using them, etc.

A comparison between single-use and reusables

Some of the brands in this post paid to be included. I also asked that they donate product for photography which would later be given to those in need.

The kitchen is fraught with single-use items that are produced so cheaply it seems ridiculous to make swaps. In fact, you can typically save money with more sustainable items since they’re far more durable than their commercial counterparts.

Zero waste soap swap -

Commercial item: paper coffee filter
Cost and CPU: $1.52 for 200 (~$0.01/use)
Sustainable swap: Coffee sock from Bring Your Own
Cost and # of uses: $13 (1600 times to break even)
Worth the $$?: probably. I’ve used mine for 2 years so far

Commercial item: synthetic dish sponge
Cost and CPU: $3.99 for 4 ($1 each, use depends)
Sustainable swap: scrubbers from The Little Green Store
Cost and # of uses: $10 for two (?)
Worth the $$?: probably

In terms of packing food up, there are so many more elegant options beyond single-use plastic bags. Using natural fiber cloth bags not only allows you to compost the bags at their end of life, but you can also endlessly customize your fabrics!

Zero waste swaps cloth bag -

Commercial item: 50 freezer bags
Cost and CPU: $7.40 (~400 uses, or $0.02/use)
Sustainable swap: Cloth snack bag from NoTraceShop
Cost and # of uses: $6.99 (350 uses to break even)
Worth the $$?: yes!

Commercial item: plastic produce bags
Cost and CPU: $15.99 (380, or $0.04/use)
Sustainable swap:  bags from Kimberly-Carr Home
Cost and # of uses: $3.70 each (92 uses to break even)
Worth the $$?: yes!

As someone who often struggles with money thanks to choosing low-paying service jobs, I always find it hard to justify paying more for higher-quality items. These towels, though, I regret not buying ages earlier. Not only are they gigantic, soft things that could double as a blanket, linen is also a far more sustainable alternative to cotton!

Read more:  33 easy ways to start zero waste living

Commercial item: cotton towel from Target
Cost and CPU: $7.99
Sustainable swap: linen towels from Urban Earth Lovers
Cost and # of uses: $35
Worth the $$?: hard to gauge. (But in softness alone, YES!)

One of the main tips I give people who want to dive into zero waste is to create a zero waste kit.The kit depends on your lifestyle and the waste you make daily, but are super-effective in drastically reducing your daily single-use item usage.

Zero waste swaps klean kanteen -

Commercial item: bottled water
Cost and CPU: $12.48 for 24 ($0.52/use)
Sustainable swap: Klean Kanteen from EcoGirlShop
Cost and # of uses: $30.95 (~60 uses to break even)
Worth the $$?: yes!

Commercial item: plastic utensils
Cost and CPU: 96 utensils for $5.76 ($0.06/use)
Sustainable swap: bamboo utensils
Cost and # of uses: $9.50 (160 uses to break even)
Worth the $$?: maybe, silverware also works

Commercial item: plastic Tupperware
Cost and CPU: $16.97 for 10
Sustainable swap: stainless steel from Bring Your Own
Cost and # of uses: $17.50
Worth the $$?: probably, the steel will last longer

Food storage is key because, as I’ve talked about before, plastics and food (particularly hot food) aren’t the best mix. Finding alternatives that work for you and your specific needs can take a bit of time, but luckily there are plenty of alternatives!

Are zero waste swaps actually cost-effective? -

Commercial item: Cling wrap
Cost and CPU: $4.47 for 400 sq. ft. ($0.01/use)
Sustainable swap: Beeswax wrap from NoTraceShop
Cost and # of uses: $9.99 (~1000 times to break even)
Worth the $$?: with care, possibly.

Commercial item: 50 freezer bags
Cost and CPU: $7.40 (~400 uses, or $0.02/use)
Sustainable swap: silicone bags
Cost and # of uses: $5.99 each (300 times)
Worth the $$?: From personal experience, I think yes.

NB: curious about the silicone bags? Sign up for the newsletter to get 20% off your first order from Amazon. They do come packaged in a plastic bag.

Do I have you – or, perhaps more importantly, your unwilling family member – a bit more on board now? While the upfront cost of sustainable items may be daunting, it’s time we began respecting the resources we consume and paying fair prices. As an added bonus, most items are so durable they’ll even save you money in the long run!

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