The high cost of being zero waste is no secret. Organic refill shops and products made of natural materials often come with a hefty price tag, discouraging many from adopting the lifestyle.
With the rising cost of living and reports that more people are now relying on food banks, is a switch to zero waste realistic or affordable?
Discover the cost of the waste-free lifestyle and learn how to be zero waste on a budget.
What is zero waste?
The zero-waste lifestyle involves reducing and preventing waste, ensuring all parts of a product are used. The goal is that no rubbish is sent to landfills or pollutes the environment.
Being zero waste means reducing or, in some cases, eliminating our everyday waste. This is usually done by making better choices with things like food packaging or household items.
Refill shops promote the waste-free movement by encouraging shoppers to bring their reusable containers, paying for the product’s weight instead. Buying loose fruit, vegetables, and items packed in reusable packaging is another way to be more zero waste. Buying second-hand clothes and mending your garments instead of simply replacing them is also part of a waste-free lifestyle.
Is zero waste better for the environment?
Zero waste is better for the environment as it reduces our climate impact. By reducing packaging, resources are conserved, and pollution is minimised. The waste-free lifestyle lessens the effects our discarded materials have on the environment.
Usually, once goods are used, they are dumped into landfill or destroyed in an incinerator. These waste disposal methods emit dangerous greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane. Large amounts of these gases prevent heat from escaping the earth, warming our climate and resulting in devastating, often irreversible, environmental effects.
However, with a zero-waste lifestyle, nothing is sent to a landfill once the items have been used. Reducing rubbish directly impacts the climate crisis, while the broader waste-free movement that embodies other environmentally-friendly elements, such as mindful spending and ethical or sustainable purchases, has an even stronger impact.
Reducing the need for single-use packaging also conserves the earth’s natural resources. Extracting and manufacturing the materials needed for packaging releases fossil fuels into the environment, destroying ecosystems and scarring the earth via factories that pollute the atmosphere. Going waste-free lessens our reliance on these items and reduces the need for the damaging processes needed to create them.
How expensive is the zero-waste lifestyle?
With the above in mind, you may wonder why more people aren’t adopting a waste-free lifestyle. One of the major limiting factors of being zero-waste is the upfront cost.
It’s often cheaper and easier to get everyday items from wallet-friendly supermarkets. Finding a specialist zero-waste store or website isn’t as accessible as major supermarkets and will likely eat into your budget and use more time.
But how far can this thinking be applied?
Zero-waste vs supermarket shopping
The rising cost of living has seen the price of food and other necessities rise significantly, with supply chain issues and increased demand pushing this amount even higher. Supermarket deals are becoming few and far between, with the average price of everyday items regularly rising. In May 2022, the average cost of a weekly food shop was 22.8% above its value compared to its corresponding month in 2021, with notable increases in cereals and meat.
Many people are looking for ways to reduce their weekly spending, turning to cheaper alternatives and, in some cases, food banks. Could the zero-waste movement be a budget-friendly solution to supermarket shopping?
Zero waste is less expensive
Shopping zero-waste promotes the concept of only buying what you need, which could reduce your monthly outgoings in the long run. Marketing tactics, including eye-catching packaging and deceptive offers, are money-spending traps often used in supermarkets. By eliminating these, you’ll shop with a more precise mindset.
Food waste is a national problem that contributes to the climate crisis. In the UK, it’s estimated we throw away 9.5 million tonnes of food every year (the highest in Europe), costing us billions of pounds. Zero-waste shops allow us only to purchase the amount of food we intend to eat, something many prepackaged supermarket items don’t offer. Shopping like this prevents us from wasting money on items we know will likely go in the bin.
Zero waste is more expensive
The zero-waste movement usually involves investing more money upfront – not an option for people on a tight and shrinking budget. Buying your washing-up liquid or pasta in bulk may work out cheaper over time, but it is a daunting price to pay to save a few plastic bottles or bags.
Most zero-waste or refill shops are also organic and specialist retailers – the two movements often align. Excellent news if you want to try a cleaner way of living, but difficult if you can’t afford to do so. Organic products are usually more expensive, meaning you’ll have to pay the premium price, despite bringing your container.
The typical cost of zero-waste items
The cost of your zero waste shop depends on what you buy and where you go. Most refill shops charge for the weight of your item, which differs significantly between products. Cereals like oats and pasta may be more comparable items to the price of those in your usual supermarket, while speciality oils, herbs, and teas will be more expensive.
Peanuts can come to around 95p per 100g, which is much more costly than ASDA’s Smart Price Salted Peanuts at 24.5p per 100g. Similarly, dates will set you back around £1.10 per 100g – a staggering difference from the ASDA alternative of £2.50 for 500g.
However, the higher upfront cost can sometimes save you money in the long run. A quality safety razor costs around £25 initially, but the individual replacement blades are cheaper than their disposable counterparts and need to be replaced less frequently.
The best way to estimate the cost of your zero-waste shop is to visit your local stores and see the prices for the products you use.
Pros and cons of going zero-waste
The zero-waste lifestyle is unarguably better for the planet but isn’t without its challenges. The waste-free movement has a variety of pros and cons to consider when analysing how efficient and accessible the lifestyle is.
Aside from the eco-friendly aspects of being zero-waste, the lifestyle comes with even more positives.
Shopping zero-waste encourages us only to buy what we need and consider what we eat and use over a certain period. Challenging us to think like this reduces our reliance on ‘things’, preventing us from pointless spending for the sake of buying. A waste-free lifestyle can be especially effective if you need a stricter way to control your finances and track your spending.
Aligns with other ethics
The waste-free lifestyle often aligns with other movements, including veganism and ethical and sustainable shopping –most zero-waste shops only stock organic products or items from eco-friendly and morally ethical brands. Nearby refill stores are mainly independently owned, so you’ll be supporting a small business and fuelling your local economy by shopping here.
Many consumer companies that use sustainable or zero-waste packaging are often B-corps, which means they are recognised for their social and environmental performance.
Zero-waste shops usually sell better quality products than larger supermarkets. Their organic origins, small batch production, and premium ingredients improve taste, while household items often contain reliable, made-to-last materials.
While the main con of a zero-waste lifestyle is the inflated upfront and general cost, there are other barriers and negative aspects associated with the movement, limiting many from getting involved.
With only a select few chain supermarkets offering zero-waste alternatives or refill options, finding a waste-free shop within your area can be difficult.
The lack of accessibility is especially true if you live in a more remote area, don’t have a car, or rely on online deliveries for your shopping. While some zero-waste shops offer local delivery, the waste-free movement is still primarily targeted at the non-disabled, excluding vulnerable people who face specific challenges to everyday tasks like grocery shopping.
Finding and visiting a refill shop is also time-consuming and often doesn’t fit into regular routines, making it difficult for busy families to adapt their shopping schedules. Others may have to allocate extra time for public transport or pay more for the petrol needed to get to their nearest store.
Unfortunately, buying everything you need while avoiding additional packaging is practically impossible. Most refill shops are significantly smaller than supermarkets, stocking just a fraction of the products you would usually buy. Doing a like-for-like shop is incredibly difficult and would require visits to multiple locations. With the fuel needed to do this, you may find that your carbon footprint increases.
Product limitation is also an issue if you rely on a particular item or brand, which is especially significant for vulnerable people or families with children who might be fussy eaters. Some of these necessary products can’t be replaced for those that come without packaging or when bought from a more ethical retailer. In cases such as this, the zero-waste lifestyle benefits those who can adapt to (and afford) a brand new shopping list.
In recent years, Instagram and TikTok have pushed the zero-waste movement to be more aesthetically pleasing. Images of pretty glass jars filled with cupboard ingredients, impeccably organised cabinets, and bamboo-centric bathroom products flood our screens, making the lifestyle more visually desirable.
While this can encourage many to discover the movement and embark on a waste-free mission, the unrealistic nature of these posts means some people come to the zero-waste lifestyle for the wrong reasons. Going zero-waste simply because of how it looks or because of its social media popularity means you’re less likely to engage with the true intentions of the lifestyle – to reduce our carbon footprint and promote a circular economy.
Most digital influencers who promote the waste-free movement are also white, non-disabled, and from privileged backgrounds. They have the means to quickly adopt a new and more costly lifestyle, excluding those who, for whatever reason, cannot. The guilt and envy we feel from seeing such posts could prompt others to exert their budgets, making people open to financial vulnerability elsewhere. Alternatively, the representation of the zero-waste lifestyle on social media could fuel the perception that it is reserved for a select group, discouraging others who aren’t as financially comfortable from trying it.
Can you go zero-waste on a budget?
While living utterly waste-free on a smaller budget is challenging, engaging in the zero-waste lifestyle while looking after your wallet is possible.
Alex Robinson, CEO of Hubbub, an environmental organisation which encourages sustainable and collaborative ways of living, says:
“36% of the UK public say the main barrier to taking positive environmental action is that it can be expensive. However, it doesn’t have to come at a cost and often can help people save money, which will be welcomed by many feeling the pinch at the moment.
“At Hubbub, we’ve been providing tips and advice on how the public can do this, particularly regarding food. We launched the Ways to Save campaign in response to recent research showing that one in six people fear they will go hungry as a result of the rise in the cost of living.
“It aims to help people buy only what they need, eat what they buy, and cook creatively to make their food go further, which could help the average family save up to £60 on food bills a week.
“While there are fears that rising prices might shift the focus away from green ambitions, it’s really important that we continue to find ways to inspire and support people with steps they can take to save money and have a positive impact, such as cutting waste, when the two go hand in hand.”
To echo Robinson, by reframing how we perceive the waste-free movement and looking elsewhere for affordable, plastic-free alternatives, it is much more financially viable to live a more zero-waste life.
Use what you have
Many of us are guilty of placing things in our cupboards or shelves and forgetting about them. Thankfully, most canned or packaged goods have a long shelf life and are perfectly safe to eat years after purchase. Do an inventory check and use those neglected tins before your next food shop. By not buying new items, you’re instantly cutting down the amount of packaging you use.
Instead of stretching yourself to splurge on a more expensive zero-waste product, list what you want to buy and start saving for it. Investment items such as metal razors, reusable period underwear, or washable cotton pads are products that are good for your body and the planet. After the initial payout, these items will save you more money in the long run than their single-use alternatives.
Make your own
Making your own beauty or cleaning products is surprisingly easy, often using products you already have around the house. There are tons of DIY recipes online that use cheap and widely available ingredients. DIY beauty products are also great if you struggle with sensitive or problematic skin and want to use chemical-free products.
Create a meal plan
Creating and following a meal plan ensures you’re using all the ingredients and products you purchase – the ultimate example of zero-waste. Get creative with your recipes and find multiple ways to use your food items. For example, a tin of black beans can be a healthy addition to vegetarian chilli and is also the main ingredient in black bean wraps, making them a wonderfully versatile ingredient
Start a garden
If you’re lucky enough to have some outside space, utilise it. Packets of seeds, plant pots and soil are very budget-friendly and save from purchasing plastic-covered herbs, fruits and vegetables. The satisfaction you’ll also get from growing and eating your produce is unrivalled.
To maintain your green space, start composting your food scraps. You don’t need an expensive compost bin to do this either – just pick a corner in your garden and create a pile, turning it with a shovel. This homemade compost enriches your plants and vegetables, encouraging growth.
While some products are impossible to purchase without packaging, the materials used can often be turned into something new.
Glass wine bottles make fantastic candle holders or stylish table decorations, while large jars can store other items like cotton balls, hair ties, or your leftover pennies.
Are you someone who gets a lot of deliveries? Keep your boxes and packing materials and use them to wrap and send any items you sell or presents you send. They’ll also come in handy if you ever move house.
Tips for affordable waste-free shopping
Changing your shopping habits is an excellent step in investing in the waste-free movement. Despite common misconceptions, many zero-waste alternatives don’t have to break the bank.
Look for sales
Zero-waste sales may not be as frequent as regular supermarket deals, but they can be much more budget-friendly. Follow your local refill shop on social media and watch for any bargains. Many stores slash their prices to eliminate outdated stock or items close to their sell-by dates.
Shopping secondhand is often overlooked when it comes to zero-waste living. After all, purchasing used products or items that aren’t explicitly manufactured for you is the best example of a sustainable economy.
Charity shops are affordable places to get your clothes and homeware items, while apps like Too Good To Go offer restaurant-quality food at a fraction of the price. Local selling sites like Gumtree or Facebook Marketplace also offer the chance to haggle for used goods and support your neighbours.
Invest in higher-quality items
Our throwaway culture promotes cheap items that aren’t meant to last more than a few uses. While higher quality items are more expensive outright, paying more could save you money over time. This is especially true for daily products and items that get a lot of wear, such as clothing, shoes, cooking utensils, bedding etc. Consuming less and putting fewer items into landfill are some of the main goals of the waste-free lifestyle.