Is Saving Money a Good Reason to Go Plastic-Free?
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. In fact, I was thinking about adding a whole section to my plastic-free presentation about ways to save money. But I haven’t done it because I got to thinking… is that actually a good strategy? Or could it backfire? I’ll explain what I mean later in this post. I’d love to get your feedback. But first, yes, there really are ways to save money. Here are just a few…
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.
To save even more money, you could skip buying a new bottle altogether and carry water in a mason jar like No Impact Man did.
Storing food in reusable containers in the refrigerator and freezer means I don’t have to spend money on plastic wrap, Ziploc bags, or plastic containers that are meant to be used a few times and then discarded. Once again, good quality stainless steel and glass containers are an investment up front, but they too can save money in the long run.
Of course, similar to the water bottle situation, I save even more money by reusing the glass food jars I already have: in the cupboards, refrigerator, and even in the freezer. And my favorite way to avoid plastic wrap is storing leftovers in a bowl with a saucer on top.
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…
Baking soda deodorant instead of commercial deodorant in a plastic container.
Baking soda for cleaning dishes, toilet, refrigerator, counters, you name it.
Baking soda and vinegar instead of shampoo and conditioner.
Instead of facial tissues, napkins, and paper towels that are wasteful and come packaged in plastic, I have switched to reusable cloth.
Of course, we use cloth napkins instead of paper.
Reusable Skoy cloths take the place of 15 or more rolls of paper towels. (In fact, we’ve been using the same ones for years, just popping them in the dishwasher or washing machine when they are dirty.) Of course, to save even more money, you can cut up rags from old, worn-out clothes. But I prefer Skoy because they are so absorbent yet dry out very quickly.
Hankybooks are a very clever alternative to facial tissues.
But to save more money, I found several cute vintage hankies at a thrift store in my neighborhood.
And speaking of thrift shops, I buy nearly all my clothes and gadgets (including the computer I’m typing on right now) secondhand to avoid buying new plastic. That saves lots and lots of money!
Or, even better, I learn to fix things when they break instead of replacing them at all.
There are lots of other ways I find to save money and live plastic-free, but this post is long enough, and I think you get the point.
Is Saving Money the Best Reason to Reduce Plastic?
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. For example, sometimes it’s actually cheaper nowadays 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-90’s, 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 would have cost!
Probably, I should have found a cheaper way to replace those wheels. 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. Sometimes paying more is worth it.
So, what do you think? Of course I want people to know that there are lots of affordable options for reducing their plastic consumption and that for the most part, they 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?
Mycosys My aluminum and steel drink bottles will long outlast your plastics. I have aluminum glasses that were my grandmother’s from the 30’s. They have been through two generations of kids and not worn out yet. Try that with a plastic cup. My steel drink bottles have been dropped from my bike countless times now over 15 years. Unfortunately I ride past plastic all the time. I am not following your line of thought on the container issue You do have some valid points on the nuclear one.
I just found this blog and I’m really excited to read it, and also your book. I’ve been making rope-wrapped bottles for a few years now, and they’re lovely–and TOUGH! Only had one glass bottle inside the rope break, and that was because it fell off a fast-moving bicycle. SO easy to drink clean, tasty water (our city does it right!) out of a reused and reuseable glass container, rather than plastic-tainted blech out of a bottle.
Very helpful tips. I use hankies but my mum says that they are unhygienic and blah, blah, blah and i do lots of things to help the environment and be plastic-free. I absolutely love your blog and when you recommend products, advice and your plastic waste tally.
I like the idea of saving money, but there have been the few times where not doing the right things cost me more money. This is when I had to buy a new rechargeable battery for my phone it would have been cheaper to buy a new phone. It’s also cheaper to buy new razors instead of the heads only. I also got my leather purse repaired, and it would have been cheaper to buy a new purse. I buy glass bottled milk which is more expensive. These are just a few examples.
Things I have saved money on though is,
1, making my own laundry soap
2. making my own yogurt
3. going to the shoe repair
4. using a diva cup
5. using reusable containers/cloth bags instead of buying plastic baggies for lunches
6. using reusable garbage bags for my recycling
7. using cloth napkins
8. getting my laptop fixed
9. making my own handsoap
9. using hankies instead of kleenex
10. making my own bread
11. using a reusable water bottle
12. replacing the head on my toothbrushes vs the whole toothbrush
13. making my own toothpaste
14. making my own shampoo and conditioner
15. never buying paper plates/disposable utensils
16. reusing tissue paper/gift bags
17. keeping every safety pin and button that comes in the house
18. repairing clothes vs replacing clothes
19. turning worn out clothes into rags/rugs/ razor sharpeners/quilts/face cloths/pajamas when they get too worn out to donate
20. buying used
21. growing and canning my own vegetables
22. keeping the heat down in winter and wear sweaters instead
23. not buying individual pop, juice, or candy
24. not buying disposable straws
25. not buying freezer bags instead using glass or stainless steel
26. living in a smaller heat efficient house
27. not buying junk
28. making my own deodorant
29. using reusable cotton pads
30. wearing minimal makeup
31. bringing my own cup
32. taking care of my stuff and not having to buy new all the time
33. taking public transit
34. taking my own containers to the local butcher. She tells me cheaper cuts of meat to get the same result.
These were proven to be virtually useless when it comes to cleaning. I did a lot of research on this, and AMWAY even got rid of theirs.
People are cheap, this is something I’ve come to realize. Common sense tells us that sometimes if things have more than one benefit, it is best to use what they care about to get the same results.
Mycosys “Get over the scare campaign over nuclear power”? How many times does something have to fail before we realize that it’s not the best option? There is no scare campaign, there is evidence from experience that make us realize that it’s not the best option. How many environmental disasters do we have to go through which affect nuclear power plants and create toxic environments as a result before people like you say “Ok maybe solar/wind power is better?”
Stainless steel and glass do not leech toxic chemicals into our foods. But I also love plastic and I think it should be used sparingly, and not wasted on pop bottles.
No one is saying that other materials don’t leave a carbon footprint. All she is saying is that using single use plastics for trivial things are a waste.
Great post! I do so love the money-saving aspect of reducing plastic use, and I LOVE baking soda. Such a miracle that stuff. While I do not agree with all of Mycosys’ views on plastic love, I do have to say that plastic is 100% necessary in a good health care system, although certainly they should be able to reduce in some areas as well. I think about plastic a lot while I do my work: throwing out plastic gloves many, many, many times per day; oxygen tubing; IV tubing, etc. Using disposable plastic in a lot of areas keeps us and our patients safe. It does sometimes cause me stress, but I have to mostly at peace with it or my job would be unbearable. Actually, it has made me want to reduce plastic MORE in my personal life, because for the most part in my personal and domestic life, I don’t NEED plastic, but in my job, things NEED to be sterile and efficient, and that means using plastic. So, I would like to save as much fossil fuel (ie, potential plastic) for the health care system (and likely other industries I know little about) where it would be nearly impossible to eliminate it. Sure, some might say that we used to sterilize glass IV bottles and tubing, but at this point in time, the amount of people in hospitals being much greater than there were in days of old, and our knowledge about microorganisms I don’t see that being efficient or possible.
Hi Beth. This is a such an interesting article. I DO think saving money is a
great incentive for those looking to live a little greener life. But when
I think about what motivates me to keep a low waste, green kitchen, it’s
not the money. It’s a mixture of anxiety and pride. At this point,
it’s second nature to think of the earth first before I buy just about
anything. Over many years of recycling and being mindful about our impact
as a family, It’s behavior change. It’s the culture we have created for
ourselves in this family. Living this way makes ME feel less anxious
about what we (as a human species) are doing to the earth – it makes me feel
proactive and like I am contributing (in a small way) to change and more
environmentally conscious behavior. There is a lot of feeling behind the
behavior for me. Money is a bonus, as I have no doubt I am saving
a lot of money in the long run, but that’s not what pushing me.
Happy Earth Day!
PlasticMinimalist Hi There. I see your point(s), but I just had to comment on your second paragraph. I don’t agree that plastic bags are virtually free. Buying a few reusable fabric sandwich and snack bags to replace plastic zip lock bags will run you about $20 (or a stainless steel lunch bin). And you can use these for YEARS! I’ve had mine for nearly 8 years. Here is the math:
If you use 2 plastic zip locks bags each day in your child’s lunch (or your lunch) for the entire school year (and this is modest estimate, as many families use plastic bags year round for MANY things) and for 18 years that’s almost 8,000 plastic bags and the cost…anywhere from $500 to $1,000 (depending on if you buy your plastic bags in bulk, which most people don’t – and they usually don’t take the time to wash and reuse them either) so the cost to you can be upwards of nearly $1,000! Oh, and this for just ONE child.
That sounds VERY expensive to me indeed. Just saying.
This could happen if you get rid of all plastic containers. LOL But for our planet, I much rather clean up the mess in my kitchen than the whole ocean!
I would hope people go plastic-free because they want to help our beautiful planet, not just to save money! There are definitely huge ways to save money going plastic-free because you can reuse so much of what you have. People must be open to being a little thrifty though :) Thank you for posting helpful links on the blogs too. For example, I never knew a HankyBook existed :)
I fall on the side of promoting the cost savings. If you frame it as a choice between spending money on plastic packaging, baggies etc… that will be disposed of vs. having the savings for something more meaningful, fun and long-lasting I think most people would choose the latter. Cost savings is a genuine motivator that can light the fire for some people to adopt more sustainable practices. I also think anything that makes sustainability accessible and practical for people of all incomes is a GREAT thing.
Money-saving for individuals and for whole communities should be highlighted. I like the balance you bring in this post.
I think there is a balance. People may automatically perceive reducing their plastic use as something that will cost them money and is therefore undesirable. They need to know that it’s not necessarily true.
one more great product is the “laundry ball”, it’s an excellent cleaner (Although it is covered in plastic). The company could have taken a piece of cloth and sow everything inside instead of the plastic. It can last 3 years!!!!
I’m glad you addressed this, as you know, it’s a pet peeve of mine that people think making the environmentally friendly choice costs more, when it usually saves money. I’ve always liked how your blog posts are balanced.
I agree with what the others have said thus far. It’s important to mention money savings, but also to remind people that as with plenty of other ventures in life, there is often an initial investment to get started. The reality of the other savings, like time spent shopping or space required to store the disposables, are also key to take into account.
Not the best reason but a bonus. I agree its a big of a up front cost sometimes but well worth it in the long run. Took me a bit to get over that hump but I’m glad I did. Great post Beth Terry :)
@Emmelien Beth Terry I used a Pampered Chef Crinkle Cutter, made to cut veggies…. and knife would do,
the soap is rather soft because it cures from the outside in and it’s a Goat Milk base soap. The more I cut the softer it was on the inside. I didn’t crumble, had it done so I would have just wet those pieces and stuck them back on the bar.
@Shalah Mycosys Every toxin is in the dosage.
What you claim is also true of using metals, and various chemicals in glasses. All of them can be produced responsibly, all of them can produce toxins during manufacture, all of them can release toxins in use. Proper manufacturing does not waste, the ‘waste’ of plastic manufacture are all valuable industrial precursors.
If we want a hope in hell of saving this planet and providing a decent life for its massive population we NEED to embrace plastics, we just cant afford the energy and resources to for instance waste aluminium on a drink bottle that will wear out more quickly than a plastic one.
Not all plastics are the same, and even if you are worried about the BPA hype (which is only of potential concern to infants and pregnant women) only polycarbonate is at issue.
If you really wanted yo can even vacuum deposit metals on plastic and them you have no chance of leeching – but they were the last great hype about health. I didnt give up on aluminium then (I actually paid attention to the science) and I wont be giving up on the miracle of plastics now.
I will also be praying that people get over the scare campaigns over nuclear power (caused by mismanagement at a level that would have caused similar catastrophe in any industry of what should have been safe but very inefficient and very old designs, or in the case of chernobyl a design that should never have been built which still needed utter morons to make it go wrong) so we can bring online new technology plants that ARE utterly idiot and terrorist proof, that cannot melt down, and which can solve the problem of nuclear waste by using what ‘waste’ we already have to provide all the power we need for the next 500 years, leaving behind something that only needs to be kept safe for hundreds, not hundreds of thousands of years. That should be enough time to avoid climate catastrophe and bring new technology we haven’t thought of yet online.
But fear mongering will likely cost us the planet because govts dont have the guts to do it, because people are xenophobic., The same thing that cost blacks their culture is going to cost us all our futures – people fear what they dont understand.
So sorry that I am more worried about humankind surviving at all, and my kids having a livable future where they dont need to fight for food than I am about tiny amounts of contaminants that are far less likely to hurt me than walking or going into the bathroom or driving or just ebout every other thing we do every day.
I think both Mycosys and PlasticMinimalist make good points, in that choosing Plastic Free is part of a larger issue regarding consumerism, and making conscious decisions about spending finite resources, including our money.
If we reduce our consumption of some things, such as personal care products, home cleaners, clothes, disposables, then we have the resources to spend on quality products, including organics, and to support businesses we value.
This is relevant, though, only once we understand WHY we would choose to not use plastics, choose to buy organics, choose not to produce waste (including what is “recycled”) so.. always! your original message is paramount!
Just my 2 cents
Mycosys It’s more than just the wastefulness of single-use plastic (that stays forever in the environment once its use is done), it’s the TOXIC chemicals that are produced. In the manufacturing process of plastics, a lot of toxins wind up in the environment. Also, those toxins leach out of the plastic into your food and water. While you love plastic, it is slowly killing you (and your children, if you have any…). Trust me, it does NOT love you back!
I love plastic. I despise fossil fuel use because i cannot hep think how much wonderful potential plastic is just being wasted. Our supply of plastic is potentially inexhaustible and it can be used as a carbon sink using plastics made from biological material. It can make materials efficiently and make efficient use of space.
Just like i hate seeing petrols burnt i hate seeing plastics wasted. more than a tiny film to protect foodstuffs from wastage (which IS an important job in itself and can be achieved with a couple of grams) is horrible to see. They can free up steel and aluminium and other metals for applications where we need them (rather than wasting them on trivial crapo like bottles and jars). Manufactured properly they will last lifetimes and are near indestructable. They enable ergonomics unthinkable without them, and they are cheap and low energy to produce.
Dont blame plastic – plastic is amazing, blame a consumer culture.
Great post! Since I started my plasticminimalism project I have compared the cost of plastic vs plastic-free for several products. In some cases plastic-free is cheaper. This is especially true for herbs and spices. Buying these in bulk is a lot cheaper than buying tiny plastic packages. The same holds for good quality tea and for home-made bread.
On the other hand, buying stainless steel containers is expensive compared to plastic zipper bags. Those are nearly for free (especially in China where I am based now). However, the glass jars you mentioned are for free too. But people might find it inconvenient to bring along glass jars.
Actually, the one person I know who lives on a tight budget would use re-use glass jars and plastic bags. However, the person also accepts new plastic bags in the store. Mostly for convenience I think. Most of the bags are saved and re-used, so based on this one example I guess we could say saving money is good for the environment, but living low budget is not necessarily a plastic-free lifestyle.
In sum, I don’t find the saving money a great argument. Plastic can save money too.
Perhaps if you would do a much wider calculation that includes the environmental costs as well as health costs resulting from plastic consumption, the financial argument would be convincing. For example, if we would look up how much (non)governmental organisations spend on cleaning up the environment, it would no longer make sense to buy plastics at the scale we do now.
Hello Beth! I think that including this topic in your presentation is actually a good idea. I don’t want to be mean, but sometimes your have to wake up people by passing by their wallet. If the environment argument doesn’t work, the cost one might probably work. Like you said, not having to buy expensive Z****** bags or other disposable item is in fact, a good reason. Maybe some people will argue that they do not want to wash the container cause it’s time consuming, so I will suggest you prepare an answer for that.
Continue your good job, we all love you!!
Love, love, love your blog. Being raised by an organic gardener, I’ve always had a certain sensibility about how my actions could affect the environment. But I have to say, your blog has taken me to a new level of awareness. And, interesting serendipity today as I just e-published the latest newsletter for my acupuncture practice. In it, I looked at how green practices could positively affect one’s health, wallet and planet.
I grew up poor also, but continue my family’s frugal ways although I am no longer poor. I believe my style has contributed to my financial comfort. My sister has responded in the opposite way, similar to your co-worker. Going plastic free should net us plenty of glass food containers to replace pricey tupperware.
Beth Terry Yes, you can use a sharp kitchen knife and heat it up a little before you cut. That way your knife goes through the soap very smooth, instead of breaking it into little pieces.
It took a little time for me to notice a difference in our grocery bill but even my husband commented that our weekly grocery bill has come down by $20 to $30 dollars. Not only have a stopped buying laundry soaps, pre-wash and softners (started making my own) I’ve also stopped buying things like paper plates, cotton balls (I made flannel pads to apply toner or witch hazel), paper towels and any type of re-usable/disposable (aka zip-lock type) items. I order our bath soap (ZUM bars) in a loaf from our local Whole Foods, they give me a discount. I cut the loaf into bars. One loaf yields 24 bars. Single bars sell for just under $6. By the loaf they average $2.80 each. Cutting back on plastic, has made me aware of SO much more and saved money without even trying.
Great idea to buy the whole soap “loaf” and cut it yourself. What do you use to cut it? A regular knife? Does it not crumble? I’ll have to see if our Whole Foods carries that brand. I don’t think I’ve seen it there.
I also think we need to consider medical costs. Especially raising children in this age of highly-toxic daily items. Less debilitating diseases lead to a longer, healthier, more enjoyable life without the restrictions and medical care costs that are being linked to many plastic-leaching components. Additionally, organic food wouldn’t cost so much if it were more prevalent, meaning more plastic-less resources to grow healthier foods (soil, waterways, fish eating plastic food particles, etc).
Great point! I hadn’t thought of that when I wrote this post.
While saving money might not be the best argument for reducing plastic use, I think it is important to show people that it doesn’t have to cost them money. The examples you give in your post, such as reusing glass jars, are great and would make excellent additions to your presentation if you’re not using them already. If people understand your environmental argument, but think they will have to spend a bunch of money on expensive, sometimes hard-to-find alternatives, they might not switch. It’s the same thing as using money as a reason to avoid healthy food choices. People need to know that they can do it inexpensively.
I do, in fact, use the picture of the inside of my refrigerator with all the glass jars in my presentation as a way to do just that — let them know it doesn’t have to be expensive. But I just don’t emphasize that going plastic-free will save them money over using plastic because I don’t want them to think that’s the best reason to do it. You know?
This is a
great post Terry. I have not consciously thought hard about the money I have saved.
There have been some biggish outlay costs like the stainless steel containers you
have and also buying cloth pads and a cup for my period, which was expensive. I
have used the cloth pads and cup over the last 10 months and I have saved about
$120 (our pads and tampons in Australia are a little expensive). That is a lot of
Some of my
friends have made little changes, which is great but the bigger ones are harder
because they love convenience. I think convenience trumps money these days in a
lot of areas. Convenience and great packaging!