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How To Go Zero Waste When You’re Broke

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When you’re living hand to mouth it’s hard to focus on anything other than your survival. I know. I grew up in a poor single-parent household. I remember the day to day struggles for basic necessities, such as housing, clothing, and food. When life is a struggle, the zero waste movement can come across as elitist and in some aspects, I agree. The zero waste movement is primarily marketed to upper-middle-class white women. This leaves out a whole swath of the population, including a woman of color like me. But being zero waste isn’t a new concept. People all around the world have been bucking excessive consumption for decades, some do so out of necessity.

Namely, because it’s expensive to be poor regardless if you’re a zero waster or not. Whether you’re Bill Gates or making $15,000/year, groceries cost the same. Which means low-income families pay a higher percentage of their income on necessities like food, housing, and transportation. This presents the zero waste and minimalist movements with an important opportunity.

The poor are preyed upon by just about every sector of industry– landlords, banks, payday lenders, student loans, employers, and more. The zero waste (low waste) movement is different because it doesn’t want people to consume more. It encourages people to consume less and when they do consume to become conscious consumers. The zero waste/minimalists movements can benefit people of every income.

Listed below are 13 ways you can go “zero waste” when money is tight and all you can do is keep the lights on!

“Zero waste” is a term of art

There is no such thing as zero waste. Even the most ardent zero wasters produce waste. Even if they purchase ALL of their consumables from the beautiful bulk bins at Whole Foods, the store still uses packaging. Utilizing the bulk bins lowers an individual’s overall packaging, but it doesn’t eliminate it. Most zero wasters still send waste to the landfill and recycle. Zero waste is the goal, but rarely the result. Remember, there is no such thing as a perfect zero waster. Low waste is a more accurate description. If you are trying to limit your household waste, then go ahead and call yourself a zero waster or a low-waster.

Remember to refuse or find an alternative

The first mantra of zero waste is to refuse. Is there something you have been purchasing that can be purchased in sustainable packaging, can you make it yourself, or go without it? For example, I love strawberries in the summertime. Unfortunately, strawberries are typically in plastic clamshell containers. So I “refuse” the strawberries and purchase grapes instead. I still love strawberries, which leads me to my next point.<img src="7-Rs-of-zero-waste.jpg" alt="zero waste low waste mantra refuse reuse rot recycle">

Grow food wherever you are

If you’re low income you may live in a food desert. A food desert is typically a low-income community that doesn’t have a grocery store. There have been multiple studies indicating that fruits and vegetables are more expensive than junk food. From an economics perspective, it makes sense that grocery stores would target higher income brackets because they consume more (and subsequently produce more waste). This leaves some poor communities without a grocery store with fruit or veggies. Instead, they rely on a Dollar General, a gas station, or a convenience store for their groceries. If you’ve ever purchased food from a gas station, then you know how much more expensive it is. This led Ron Finely (aka the Gangsta Gardener) to start growing food in the heart of South Central Los Angeles. Green Indy has a wonderful article about being zero waste in a food desert.

Getting back to strawberries– the beauty of strawberries it that they can be grown in pots. You can learn all about growing them in a pot on Youtube. I have the privilege of a garden, but my strawberries are in pots because they’re easier to manage this way. You can find an ideal strawberry pot at Target for under $10, a metal watering can for $13, and a bag of good potting mix for $8. If you have a farmer’s market in your town/city you can purchase a strawberry plant for around $10. My favorite online orchard and fruit supplier is Star Bros. This doesn’t just apply to strawberries. You can grow your own food wherever you are. There is an active community of container gardeners on Youtube. If a woman can grow a jungle in her tiny New York apartment, I’m convinced you can grow veggies anywhere.

Purchase produce without packaging

You don’t need fancy cotton mesh produce bags. Grab a couple of pillowcases and throw your produce in the bags. Zero Waste Nerd has a great post on how to purchase low waste products at Walmart.

Stop junk mail and sign up for paperless billing

Living on a low-income can make automatic billing difficult, especially if you have to pay a bill late. If you cannot set up auto payments, then sign up for paperless billing. Most companies are eager to eliminate paper bills. Eliminating paper bills will also keep your house tidier. If you have a Gmail account, you are automatically signed up for a google drive account. You can scan important documents with your phone and save them on google drive. If you have an iPhone you can use your Notes app to scan documents. If you’re an Android user see here.

Junk mail is the zero waste easy button. If you want to know how to stop junk mail before it hits your mailbox see link below.

How to Stop Junk Mail & Save Trees

Limit your disposable plastic usage

Most low wasters already know the drill about limiting their disposable plastic usage. The bottom has fallen out of the disposable plastic market ever since China stopped taking disposable plastic and paper recycling. This has sent many local municipalities into a recycling tailspin. Cities all across the world have been limiting or shuttering their recycling programs in response to this. When it costs more to operate a recycling program than the value of the recyclable materials, the municipality will have to landfill the disposable plastic or eliminate the recycling programs altogether.

See Recycling 101 and Why Recycling is not the Answer

Use soft plastics in lieu of hard plastics

Is there a product you can purchase in a soft plastic versus a hard plastic? Soft plastics are plastic bags or plastic film. Soft plastics and hard plastics (e.g. PET or HDPE plastic bottles) take the same amount of time to break down in the environment (between 450 to 1,000 years), however, soft plastics are easier to recycle and expend less energy in the recycling process than hard plastics. The good news is that many (not all) plastic bags are recyclable at your local grocery store, such as bread bags, bubble wrap, zip lock bags, plastic packaging from toilet paper or paper towels. So if you have to choose between a product in a soft plastic versus the hard plastic– choose the soft plastic.

NOT RECYCLABLE: Freezer bags, plastic wrap, “bio-degradable bags”, chip/snack, candy wrappers, and pre-washed salad bags, are not recyclable.

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How2Recycle.Info

Cardboard, aluminum, or glass

There are many products that you can purchase in cardboard or aluminum packaging versus disposable plastic. Like plastic, cardboard and aluminum are lightweight to ship (thereby lowering shipping emissions). For example, purchase your laundry detergent in cardboard, versus a plastic bottle. It is likely priced comparably and will give you the same result.

Cardboard is compostable and recyclable. When recycling or composting cardboard boxes, please be sure to remove as much tape and sticky surfaces as you can. Glass is recyclable and infinitely reusable, however, recycling glass expends an enormous amount of energy. Reusing and sanitizing glass bottles is much more efficient and effective. Services, such as milk delivery are very environmentally advantageous. But delivery services are expensive. My husband and I are a two-income household with advanced degrees. We could not continue to pay $10/gallon of milk.

This leaves us with glass recycling. Many municipalities have stopped recycling glass because the market for glass recycling has also bottomed out and it’s expensive to transport. Most municipalities have adopted mixed-used recycling, which means residents place all of their recycling in one bin. When glass breaks, it can contaminate the recycling stream and injure workers. I still use glass, but glass may no longer be the best option.

Aluminum is THE golden child when it comes to recycling. Aluminum is easier to recycle than disposable plastic, it’s metal which has value, expends less energy in the recycling process, and can be recycled indefinitely. Most aluminum cans you use are already made of 70% recycled materials. There is some aluminum in the system that dates back to the 1800s. You don’t have to listen to me, but please listen to Jason Momoa.

Watch out for greenwashing and save your money

BIODEGRADABLE IS NOT REAL. There is a distinct difference between compostable. Compostable means an organic product can be broken down in the environment when exposed to certain factors and oxygen flow. Biodegradable doesn’t really mean anything. Edit: There was a recent experiment with a biodegradable bag put in the soil and in the sea. It was still completely intact 3 years later.

Everything biodegrades eventually, even plastic, albeit in thousands of years. Remember landfills are anaerobic. Landfills do not promote biodegradation or oxygen flow. During waste sorts they have found 50-year-old hot dogs. So if you see a fancy new product that claims to be biodegradable–keep on walking. If you have to use disposable diapers instead of cloth diapers, then just use disposable diapers. Don’t be fooled into using the “greener” disposable diapers, especially when they are made of similar materials and will not degrade at a faster rate. If you have to send trash to the landfill, put your trash in a plastic bag. The best type of plastic bag you could use is a plastic bag made of recycled materials.

See the Best Zero Waste Cleaning Supplies

Separate your inorganic and organic materials

If you have balcony or patio space, consider composting. Composting is the best way to dispose of food waste and other organic materials. Consider Bokashi composting, which uses Bokashi powder to help break down the organics at a faster pace. It’s a fermentation process versus a traditional “hot box” compost. You can find a Bokashi system at Walmart for $32.  When your financial situation improves you can purchase a compact composter for under $100.

It’s the mixing of inorganic and organic materials in landfills that creates methane, which is a greenhouse gas, thereby contributing to climate change. If you cannot compost, then consider carefully managing your food waste through planning, storage, and leftovers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides an excellent guide on how to limit food waste.

Start small

When I started my zero waste journey in 2017, I thought I could go to the grocery store and purchase everything I needed without packaging. It doesn’t work like this. I was soon disappointed that the changes didn’t happen as fast as I wanted them to. Start with one change, such as a cleaning product (make your own) or a personal care item (e.g. menstrual cup or bar soap). One of my first goals was to stop purchasing disposable juice pouches for my daughter. I found reusable drink boxes from Drink in the Box. My second goal was to stop buying shampoo in plastic bottles. I soon discovered shampoo and conditioner bars, which I love.

Minimize your clothing and your possessions

Check out Project 333. Courtney goes through a step by step process on how to minimize your wardrobe to just 33 items (not including undergarments). Minimizing your clothing and your possessions will make room for more in your life. Not necessarily more stuff. Clutter wastes time, money, and energy. I started decluttering my home in 2012. Before 2012, I had the mentality I had as a young child– “what if I need this one day?” This kept my house cluttered. Letting go of that mentality allowed me to make room in my life for the items I really enjoyed.

Learn How to Organize Your Home by Removing One Item a Day

Find cheap reusables where you can

The second mantra of zero waste is to reuse, which requires reusables. Unfortunately, reusables have a higher upfront cost than disposables. Remember when I said it was expensive to be poor? My husband grew up in upper middle class. He never heard of Jiffy Pop because his family had a popcorn maker that they reused over and over again. Amazingly, this late 1970s popcorn maker still works! His parents passed it on to us and we use it with our kids now! Seriously, we are using a 40-year-old popcorn maker. This is a perfect example of how different our experiences were. My family had to frequently move because of ever-increasing rents. In addition to constant moving, we simply couldn’t afford the upfront cost of a popcorn maker. So Jiffy Pop it was.

There are affordable reusables out there, but it takes time to find them. Walmart is a great resource for reusable items, such as a water bottle. Don’t focus on buying the pretty stainless steel and glass reusables you see on Instagram. Go ahead and purchase a reusable plastic item. Again, plastic is not necessarily the enemy. Plastic is a versatile material that can be used in many different ways. DISPOSABLE plastic is the problem. Walmart has a slew of other reusables for low prices, such as cotton dishcloths (lower your paper towel usage), menstrual cups, menstrual panties, bamboo toothbrushes, bar soap (instead of liquid soap), shampoo bars, conditioner bars, safety razor, various low-waste cleaning supplies such as vinegar, baking soda, essential oils, and so on.

See 11 Zero Waste Deodorants

Small changes make a difference

When I look back at one of my first goals of eliminating disposable juice pouches, I realize how one change can make a difference. Prior to becoming a zero waster I purchased at least one bulk pack of Capri Sun juice pouches from Costco per month. One bulk pack contains 40 six-ounce packages or 480 per year. These packages are made of an amalgam of aluminum and plastic and are not typically recyclable. (Terra Cycle does have a recycling program for juice boxes, but it costs more than the products themselves.) After two years of not purchasing juice pouches, I have saved 960 juice pouches from the landfill. This one small change is significant. If 1 million people made this one small change, it would have a huge impact. It may even cause manufacturers to change their packaging.

See Zero Waste Juice Boxes

Time of Use Rates (Edit 5/3/2019)

This is one of my favorite EASY methods to save money. Time of use rates is as the term implies. Your electric company can charge you different amounts for the electricity you’re using depending on the “time of use.” So if you use your dryer during peak hours, you will pay more for the electricity to run that dryer. Many utility companies have time of use rates published for their customers to see.

However, some utilities require that the customer actively signs up for the time of use rates. If you don’t actively sign-up you will be charged a flat hourly rate. So knowing the peak hours of your electric company is only part of the equation. You have to make sure you are signed up for time of use rates. This may require an email, a phone call, or filling out a form.

My utility required that I submit an online form to sign up for time of use rates. My peak hours from April 1 to September 30 are Monday through Friday from 10:00 am to 10:00 pm. Peak hours from October 1 through March 31 are Monday through Friday from 6:00 am to 1:00 pm and 4:00 pm to 9:00 pm. Weekends are off-peak hours. You better believe I follow these time windows to run big appliances like the dryer or dishwasher.


I’m sure I’ve left some great ideas off the list. If you have any suggestions please tweet me at @msquare1 or leave a comment. If you this like article and want to see more please hit the subscribe button.

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