How to Be a Frugal Zero Waster

Public Domain. Unsplash

Step 1: Ignore the Instagram-driven message that your zero waste home has to look perfect.

It is a common misconception that a zero waste lifestyle has to be expensive. Of course, if you spend too much time on Instagram, you might start to think that you have to load up on fancy matching jars, cloth bags, wooden brushes, sea sponges, and stainless steel containers in order to do it properly. But that's not true.

A recent blog post by Anne-Marie Bonneau, a.k.a. the Zero Waste Chef, whose work I love and cite often on TreeHugger, challenges this assumption that one must be well-off to live zero waste. When it comes to acquiring the proper gear (or a 'zero waste toolkit', as it's sometimes called), she sums it up in a Michael Pollan-inspired quote:

"Buy quality. Not too much. Mostly used."

When I look at my own stash of zero waste goods, there are a few things I purchased new, like cotton drawstring bags (although you can make your own easily) and a few stainless steel food containers, but the rest is mostly jars. It helps that my extended family works in the food industry and I am able to nab the enormous empty jars used for pickles and tomato sauce, but really, anyone can find these things at most thrift stores or even in people's recycling bins when they put them out on pickup day. Or go ask a local restaurateur – I'm sure they'd be happy to hand over some empties.

glass jar collection

© K Martinko – Glass jars from my ever-growing stockpile

Over time, what you buy will drive up the cost more than anything else. Bonneau has a number of great suggestions for cutting down on food costs that include buying less (to avoid food waste), buying more (bulk costs less per serving and can be divided among friends if it's too much for you to handle), growing some of your own food, cooking from scratch, preserving food, reducing meat consumption, etc. You can also make some of your own cosmetics, skin care products, household cleaners, and repair clothing before replacing. You'll eventually find that you buy less overall, just because you're always avoiding superfluous packaging.

Frugal zero waste living boils down to a willingness to source food and products in alternative ways, different from the typical weekly grocery store run. Once you are willing to look for things in different places – the thrift store, the farmers' market, a roadside stand, garage sale, a recycling bin, a local farm with a sign out front – then you start to figure out ways around packaging.

But if you stick to the aisles of fancy bulk and health food stores, filling your cloth bags with premium ingredients, you will spend more compared to a discount grocer. This is the difference between frugal zero waste and Instagrammy 'status' zero waste.

Where zero waste is more costly (and Bonneau doesn't touch on this) is in time. Don't listen to anyone who tells you it's a time-saver just because "you don't have to take out the trash or sort the recycling." While it's true that you save a bit of time there, it doesn't make up the difference in time you'll spend running errands to different stores and making food from scratch.

loaves of oatmeal bread

© K Martinko -- Loaves of oatmeal bread, straight from the oven

Going zero waste is a major lifestyle transformation, a whole new way of thinking and doing. It means I have to think about when to set dough to rise so kids have bread for school lunches. I have to start soaking beans well in advance of whatever meal I need them for. I have to take time to pick berries in summer to freeze for winter. I have to put in online orders by a certain deadline if I want my milk delivered in glass jars. I have to thaw out stock way before I need it because it's in glass and I don't want it to crack. I get groceries at four different locations, which doubles the length of time it takes to stock the pantry each week, especially if I'm using my bicycle to pick up. These are small details, of course, but they add up over time.

But it's still worth it. It feels like a meaningful way to spend my time, especially because my kids are often part of the process. It teaches them useful skills, shows them that not some things aren't worth buying and that making decisions for environmental reasons has to take priority over convenience.

So, use what you have. Don't worry about getting it perfect or reaching 100% right away. I'm not even close to that! But every effort counts and can be built on. The most important thing is not to give up.