Does Zero Waste Cost Too Much?

A friend of mine expressed to me the other day that she was worried about the startup costs of going zero waste. This is actually an opinion that many people have expressed to me since I started spouting about it regularly. “I’d like to try going zero waste, but it sounds expensive and inconvenient.” After all, there must be a lot of specialized things that you need to buy in order to start cutting down on your waste, right? (Not really). Regardless, I decided to do some elementary summing to see whether the startup costs are really all that bad. The lists below should give you an idea of what a zero waste “startup kit” looks like.

In order to get an idea of how much “zero waste” items cost versus “regular” items, I selected a set of items that, in my opinion, are the easiest and most convenient to switch out for less wasteful options. I used and to get prices and assumed that the items would be used in a two-person household. I tried to assume that the “regular” item users are already trying to cut down on waste to a certain extent (e.g. 1 roll of paper towels per month rather than 2 or 3, which I imagine a house can go through fairly quickly).

You shall not pass.

Let us begin.

Organization: The items are organized by category and sub-organized by “wasteful” and “less wasteful” with first-year costs in bold and 10-year cost in (parenthesized italics). I do not take interest into account since I would likely massively mess it up. Assumptions are stated beneath the items.

If you are going to read anything, read this: I find it an unfortunate condition of our consumerist society that it takes cold hard cash to get people’s attention rather than the real, horrible environmental effects of our wasteful lifestyles. I hope that even as you look over cost comparisons, you keep in mind the real goal of zero waste: to preserve and protect our home planet for ourselves, our children, and the wonderful and diverse life that we share it with.

Spoilers: If you don’t want to see the proof, the conclusion is this: It is only slightly less expensive to implement the following zero waste measures in the first year ($203 vs. $317). The real savings are seen in the 10 years post start-up, where we find that continuing a wasteful lifestyle costs a whopping $3000 dollars over 10 years and following a zero waste lifestyle costs $75, and that’s only if you’re extra clumsy with dogs prone to shredding things.

The Nitty-Gritty Numbers

My collection of microfiber cloths, hand towels, and "rags" (Sean's ratty old undershirts and such).

My collection of microfiber cloths, hand towels, and “rags” (Sean’s ratty old undershirts and such).

Category: Kitchen and Cleaning

Wasteful Items:

Paper towels – $30/year ($300 for 10 years)

$20 for an 8-roll package of Bounty paper towels at 1 roll/month

Bleach wipes – $20/year ($200 for 10 years)

$5 for a 35-sheet bottle of Clorox bleach wipes at 1 bottle every 3 months

Paper napkins – $31/year ($312 for 10 years)

$2 for 40 Vanity Fair everyday paper napkins at 6 napkins per person per week (2 people)

Less Wasteful Items:

Microfiber cloths – $10 startup ($10 for 10 years)

$10 for 10 cloths (any automotive brand), assuming 1 gets lost, destroyed, or contaminated with smallpox each year

Cloth napkins – $20 startup ($40 for 10 years)

$20 for 10 Ikea napkins, assuming 2 get eaten by pets, lost by kids, or absorbed by dryer each year

Hand towels – $12 startup ($15 for 10 years)

$12 for 4 Threshold towels, assuming 1 gets bloodstained and left at the emergency room and the other 4 just get raggedy beyond repair (5 replacements over 10 years)


First Year Costs:

More Waste: $81

Less Waste: $42

10 Years After Costs:

More Waste: $812

Less Waste: $65

Put it in a jar!

Put it in a jar!

Category: Food Storage

Wasteful Items:

Sandwich baggies – $7.22/year ($72 for 10 years)

$6.50 for 180 fold-top Glad sandwich bags, assuming 40 working weeks in a year and 5 sandwiches per week

Quart freezer bags – $17.33/year ($173 for 10 years)

$9 for 54 heavy-duty Ziploc quart freezer bags, assuming 2 bags per week

Plastic wrap – $11/year ($110 for 10 years)

$11 for 400 ft. of Glad plastic wrap, assuming 1 roll per year

Less Wasteful Items:

Durable plastic tupperware – $20 startup ($0 over next 10 years)

$20 Rubbermaid 34-piece set (includes lids, several different sizes), assuming no replacements needed (label them with your name if you need to). I do not wish to condone buying plastic, but I couldn’t be as zero waste as I am without my set. You can get them at Target, where they are frequently on sale. I have had my set for at least three years now, and they are still functioning beautifully.

Mason jars – $9 startup ($7.50 over next 10 years)

$9 12-pack of regular-mouth quart Ball jars, assuming one dropped and broken per year. Great for lunch storage as well as bulk purchases.

Lily pad lids – $26 startup ($0 over next 10 years)

$26 for a 4-pack of lily pad lids, assuming none lost or melted. Great plastic wrap substitute.


First Year Costs:

More Waste: $36

Less Waste: $55

10 Years After Costs:

More Waste: $355

Less Waste: $7.50

Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.

Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.

Category: Water

I realize this is a subject that I have beaten over the head, waste-wise, but I would also like to stress how much cheaper it is to drink tap water. I don’t factor in the cost of the tap water here because we rent, and I have no idea how much it costs, so these numbers are technically inaccurate, because the Poland Springs includes the cost of the water. However, I think the cost of the piles of plastic bottles being wasted, not to mention the cost of the Water Wars, is significant enough to offset the omission.

Wasteful Items:

Bottled water – $167/year ($1670 for 10 years)

$11 for 24-pack of Poland Springs, assuming two people drink 365 bottles together over the course of a year.

Less Wasteful Items:

Reusable water bottle – $30 startup ($0 over next 10 years)

$30 for a 1-liter Sigg bottle.


First Year Costs:

More Waste: $167

Less Waste: $30

10 Years After Costs:

More Waste: $1670

Less Waste: $0

Go ahead...make my day.

Go ahead…make my day.

Category: Feminine Sanitary Products

This is where I turn the guys away (unless you have a vested interest in someone’s menstrual cycle, this will not pertain to you, you lucky sods). Feel free to skip to the conclusions.

Wasteful Items:

Pads – $11/year ($110 for 10 years)

$7 per 46-pad pack of ultra-thin regular Always with wings (they can fly!), assuming one period per month, 6 pads per period

Tampons – $23/year ($230 for 10 years)

$7 per 22-tampon pack of regular Tampax pearl, assuming one period per month, 6 tampons per period

Less Wasteful Items:

Cloth pads – $30 startup ($0 for 10 years)

$30 for a 3-pack of Gladrags w/ 6 inserts

Silicon cup – $46 startup ($0 for 10 years)

$46 for Diva Cup Type 1


First Year Costs:

More Waste: $11 (pads) or $23 (tampons)

Less Waste: $30 (cloth pads) or $46 (silicon cup)

10 Years After Costs:

More Waste: $110 (pads) or $230 (tampons)

Less Waste: $0

Notes: This is the part of zero waste that has the biggest start-up cost but is ultimately quite rewarding, especially depending on your body. I wrote more about this here, and again urge all women to seriously consider this. Think of all the plastic we could keep out of landfills.

Be one with nature.

Be one with nature.

The Conclusions

In addition to numerous environmental savings and the reduction of your possessions – who has storage room for piles of paper towel rolls? – making a few switches in what you use from day-to-day will ultimately save you a good amount of money. Keep in mind that this is a rough estimation (don’t take this to your tax man), but here are the numbers:

First Year: $317 for “regular waste” and $203 for “zero waste” ($114 savings)

10 Years Thereafter: $3000 for “regular waste” and $75 for “zero waste” ($2925 savings)

Keep in mind that you can reduce other things even further to save money and live a simpler lifestyle. Check out my other Zero Waste posts for more information!

The thing is, my friends, zero waste is not a gimmick. It’s not something that promises to make your life better if you’ll just hand over $300. It’s not a club you have to join or a badge you get to wear. It is a lifestyle of compromise and conscientiousness. No, perhaps it isn’t as convenient as grabbing a pile of paper towels to mop up your cat’s puke and chucking them and never having to think about them again (I recommend soaking your microfiber cloth in some non-chlorine bleach after that kind of clean-up, but only if you are as germophobic as I – otherwise, just put it in the wash as usual!), but going zero waste is so much more than a moment of grumbling. It is a simple series of tweaks in your lifestyle that make you a better Earth Citizen. At the end of the day, it’s not zero waste that costs too much. It is a wasteful lifestyle that costs too much.


2 thoughts on “Does Zero Waste Cost Too Much?

  1. Is there anything special that goes into a gladrag type reusable panty liner? I’m wondering if I could make my own since I have plenty of leftover fabric from other projects.

    • You can absolutely make your own. I know the outer “jacket” is flannel and the inserts are terry cloth sandwiched between flannel. I have seen some tutorials online – they seem a lot cheaper to make than to buy. I have been wanting to try it for awhile!

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