Is Shopping Zero Waste More Expensive? Or Can It Save You Money?

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Is it more expensive to shop zero waste using your own jars, containers and produce bags? It can be, but it can also be comparative, if not cheaper.

Is the zero waste lifestyle elitist? It definitely can be, but it can also be a way of saving money as well as the planet.

Instagram feeds can make it look like zero wasters live an unattainable, perfectly pristine and trashless existence, which can put people off from even trying. But in current society, there is no such as being truly zero waste and the majority of people in the zero waste community believe in ‘progress not perfection’ and are very supportive of anyone doing anything at all to reduce their impact on the planet in any way whatsoever - no matter how small and no matter how far they still have to go - including us!

If you look at the zero waste lifestyle as a whole, it can be a very frugal way to live and some people live a low waste life out of necessity. Reusing, not wasting money on things not needed, buying second hand over new, and repairing and DIYing are all cheaper options and all some people can afford to do.

On the other hand, looking at some bulk stores’ prices and the price of some zero waste products, it can be seem very pricey. And it definitely can be.

We’ve found that, as with anything, while some things are more expensive, some things are cheaper. Of course, this also depends on where you live and what resources you have available to you.

If something is unattainable for you, that’s fine; do what is. Don’t compare yourself to others. Do what you can and be proud of your efforts - no matter how tiny. They matter and we’re proud of you for each and every step you take to reduce your waste.

To try and suss out if shopping zero waste is truly more expensive and  or if it can actually save you money in the long run, we’ve tried to look at the cost of having a zero waste home from all angles - where it can be cheaper and save you money and where it can be more expensive, and how you can find cheaper bulk food options.

Obviously this is coming from our perspective and experiences - a couple without kids earning a decent wage and living in the inner suburbs of Melbourne. But I have read a lot of other people’s experiences and opinions on this issue in zero waste forums as well, which I have incorporated. We would love to hear your view on this as well so please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

ARE PRICES HIGHER AT STORES SELLING FOOD IN BULK? AND WHERE CAN THE CHEAPEST BULK FOOD BE FOUND?

Of course, the answer to this question depends on the bulk food store that you go to, but I have done a comparison of the six bulk food options in my neighbourhood and its surrounding neighbourhoods with that of the major supermarket chains to try and find out if the food prices at bulk food stores are higher. I found that the prices for chickpeas, olive oil, pearl barley, muesli, and oats were comparative at some bulk food stores, the prices for rice, most beans, lentils and popcorn were higher at most bulk food stores, and the prices for quinoa, buckwheat, freekeh, spelt grain, most spices, and savoury yeast flakes were cheaper at most bulk food stores.

I found dishwashing powder, laundry powder, and hand and body wash to be generally more expensive at these bulk food stores, while dishwashing liquid, laundry liquid and everyday cleaner were higher at some and lower at some.

So, not all things are more expensive at the bulk food stores in my area and not everything is cheaper at the large grocery store chains. It depends on what you buy.

In addition, what can skew the picture is that the food on offer at bulk food stores is generally organic, which is generally more expensive than non-organic, and it is often locally sourced as well, which is also generally more expensive than imported produce. The pasta is also usually gluten free, which is also a more expensive choice than regular pasta.

Further, these stores often do not have the bulk buying power that supermarkets have. I’ve looked at distributor costs and supermarkets sell some products at a price that is lower than the cost at which they can bought from distributors. So, small independent stores are not necessarily gaining high profits from their higher prices; they may have no choice but to have higher costs to cover their overheads.

We fully understand that not everyone is in the position to buy food at these prices. We are privileged to be able to afford these prices and to be able to support local, organic producers and if you are also in the position to, please support them too, as by supporting these stores and producers, prices will hopefully come down.

But, make sure you look around before giving up on buying in bulk. You can find food in bulk being sold at prices that are cheaper or comparative to supermarkets.

The stores that sell food in bulk at the cheapest prices seem to be Indian, Middle Eastern, Asian or Greek or similar small ethnic groceries that have been selling bulk produce in hessian sacks long before dedicated bulk food stores became a thing and generally have cheaper non-organic, non-local options and co-operatives, which are run on a volunteer basis so costs can be kept very low.

See if you can find one of these in your area. You’ll be surprised what you find once you start looking! Our map of Where to Shop Zero Waste in Melbourne shows all the bulk food stores in Melbourne we know about, including those shops with small, cheap bulk sections and local co-ops. Let us know if you find any more!

Or, you can still shop plastic free as much as possible at supermarkets by looking for items packaged in non-plastic packaging like paper, cardboard, metal, or glass.

SAVE BY ONLY GETTING WHAT YOU NEED

Where we have found that buying at bulk food stores is cheaper is that we only buy the exact amount we need for the week. This means we don’t pay for any food that ends up being wasted and our weekly costs for food are less overall.

And if we are making a recipe that needs something we generally don’t use, we can only get the small amount we need, rather than a massive packet, which just ends up sitting at the back of the pantry and going out of date.

We also don’t buy any unnecessary packaged food products. No more impulse buying has definitely saved us money! We now plan a menu for the week and we stick to it. We are no longer distracted by the oh so tempting sweet and snack aisle or new food offerings or specials and don’t buy sugary drinks or fruit juice (we simply drink water at home).

We’ve found that going vegetarian/vegan and not eating meat has cut our food shop costs too. But, if you do buy meat and cheese, getting it from a deli in your own container instead of pre-packaged also means you can cut costs and waste by getting the exact amount that you need.

We also don’t buy unnecessary bathroom and cleaning products. We have simplified these down to the minimum that we need and are saving heaps of money here.

We have learnt that we don’t need a different cleaner for every room and purpose, but a few natural products can clean most things and a lot of these can be DIYed cheaply.

In addition, we don’t buy cleaning cloths or paper towels, but use old clothing and scrap materials instead. We do buy biodegradable bamboo scrubbers and scrub pads, but we find that these last a lot longer than plastic spongers. A cheaper option is cutting a loofah into small pieces of sponge. You can even grow your own loofah plant!

Things like shampoo bars may look expensive when directly compared to a bottle of shampoo, but you need to take into account that one shampoo bar equals three bottles of shampoo. They last much longer! And you don’t need conditioner with some bars, saving you from having to buy conditioner. You don’t need to buy anything if you go the no-poo way.

We’ve found that we’re savings by not buying unnecessary bathroom and cleaning products and not making unnecessary purchases in general and buying second hand over new or borrowing rather than buying.

Of course, if you were already keeping these purchases lean, this wouldn’t make a difference.

SAVE BY USING WHAT YOU HAVE TO SHOP IN BULK

Save money by using what you already have when venturing out on a waste free grocery shop!

There is no need to buy glass jars to use for bulk food shops - save the glass jars you already have in your fridge for this and/or ask friends and family for their old jars - big pickle and mayonnaise jars are perfect.

You can use an old pillowcase as a bread bag, you can use an old bed sheet or curtains or scrap material to sew some produce bags, or use any drawstring bags you have lying around, and you can use the plastic containers you already have to get deli products like meat and cheese in.

SAVE BY BUYING WHAT’S IN SEASON AT LOCAL MARKETS

Buying in season fruit and vegetable is cheaper than buying fruit and vegetables that are out of season.

Also small local fruit and vegetable stores and markets can be better at using less plastic as well as cheaper than supermarkets.

Another tip for low cost fruit and vegetables is to go to the market just before closing time - stall holders will generally be selling their produce at reduced prices to get rid of them before the end of the day. You’ll also be saving food from going to waste!

Eating more vegetables and less meat will also save you money as they are cheaper than meat (and this is better for the environment overall!).

You could also start bin diving and get your groceries for free while saving food from going to waste.

SAVE BY GROWING YOUR OWN AND MAKING HOMEMADE VERSIONS

A great way to save costs and avoid plastic packaging is to grow your own food and make your own version of things you can normally only buy in plastic packaging, like household cleaners, salad dressings, tortillas and wraps, yoghurt, hummus, and plant-based milk.

Even if you don’t have a garden, you can at least grow your own herbs in your kitchen. A lot of herbs can be grown from clippings and cut-offs, like mint, rosemary and green onion. I grew mint and rosemary from foraged cuttings and I grew green onion from the roots of a bunch I bought. Now I’ll never have to buy them again!

If you do have a garden, grow as much of your own food as you can! You can make free fertiliser for yourself by composting your food scraps.

TIME THE BIGGEST COST?

Probably the biggest expense is time. Generally, you are unable to buy everything you need from one store, so you will need to visit a few different stores - one with bulk dry goods, a butcher, a deli, a fruit and veg shop - which can take longer, especially if they are not conveniently located. This time can be minimised by being prepared, mapping out your expedition beforehand, and going straight in and getting what you need and straight out again.

Time is also an issue when it comes to DIYing. It can be a struggle to find the time to make your own cleaning products, dips, crackers, deodorant, nut milk, etc etc.

But, when I do make the time, I’m always surprised at how easy and quick it is to do. And enjoyable. It feels good using my mind and hands and like I’m increasing my self-sufficiency every time I make something myself instead of buying it.

We honestly don’t do much complicated cooking that requires many of these DIYs though. We eat very simply most of the time and occasionally treat ourselves with some homemade hummus, crackers, or nut milk. We generally just don’t eat these. We now snack on things that we can easily get zero waste and that don’t take much effort like popcorn, pretzels, vegetables cut into sticks, and fruit, and simply do without things like milk.

We also find when we plan our menu for the week, we save time during the week as we know what we’re cooking when and have all the ingredients and just have to get on with cooking it. Even better, do all your meal prep for the week ahead of time. This will take some time out of your weekend, but will save you a lot of time and effort during the week. Meal prepping is something we strive for, but never achieve.

And things like DIY cleaners and bathroom products only need to be made every now and again and are generally quick and easy recipes that only require mixing once you have the ingredients on hand.

DIFFERENT PEOPLE, DIFFERENT SITUATIONS, DIFFERENT ABILITIES - DO WHAT YOU CAN

Everyone’s journey is different. Everyone has different circumstances and abilities and difficulties. We are definitely privileged to be able to live our lives in the way that we want - we have a steady income, we live in a neighbourhood that supports this kind of eco-lifestyle, we are able in body and mind, and our time is our own - we don’t have children or elderly family we need to look after.

I think it is important to acknowledge this and the fact that this lifestyle is not fully accessible for everyone. However, I do believe that it can benefit everyone in some way too - it can be a very frugal way to live that can save you money and teach you to use and value what you have and to consume less.

And implementing as many sustainable zero waste changes as you can will hugely benefit our planet and improve its changes of future survival.

Hopefully big business starts implementing these changes too, making it easier and cheaper for everyone to live this way. But for now those of us who can, must vote with our dollars.

Another way you can make a difference that costs nothing (besides a little bit of time) is to lobby big business and the government and speak up about changes you want to be made.

It is important to remember that this lifestyle is not all or nothing - do what you can! The way society is currently set up it is impossible to be zero waste. Zero waste is just a goal. Just aim for less waste. Every little thing makes a difference, so make a difference where you can, and don’t stress about where you can’t.

This opinion is coming from someone who is privileged. I fully acknowledge that and I would love to hear from those coming from different backgrounds and situations. Have you also found that you’ve saved money by going zero waste? Or have you found the zero waste lifestyle inaccessible? And how do you think the lifestyle could be made more accessible?

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