Have you ever taken money out of your wallet and thrown it straight into a trash can?
Well, of course not, you’re thinking. That would be crazy.
But if you’re like most people, you probably spend money every day on things that end up in the trash. Everyday items like water bottles, soda bottles, food storage bags, coffee filters, and paper towels all add up to hundreds of dollars of your hard-earned money going straight into the waste bin. Now that’s crazy!
To make matters worse, all those disposable products aren’t just costly for you — they have a cost for the planet as well. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2017, the U.S. produced 80 million tons of “containers and packaging waste” and over 57 million tons of “nondurable goods” that last less than three years. That’s over 137 million tons of material that used up natural resources, energy, and water during production. To make matters worse, most of these materials end up in landfills.
Plastic waste, which accounts for about 13% of all the trash in the U.S., is a particularly big problem. This durable material doesn’t break down quickly in the environment, and we recycle less than 10% of it. According to a report by Science, about 8 million metric tons of plastic each year end up in oceans, causing harm to sea turtles, coral reefs, and fish and potentially harming the humans who eat those fish.
If you want to be part of the solution to our growing waste problem — and keep some extra cash in your wallet at the same time — ditching disposable products is an easy way to do it. By replacing the disposable items you buy every day with more sustainable alternatives, you can save money and help protect the planet at the same time.
Disposable Items You Can Do Without
In most cases, the easiest way to ditch disposable items is to replace them with reusable items that do the same job for less money. In other cases, you can turn disposable items into reusable ones by cleaning them and using them again. And once in a while, you can do without a disposable item entirely, which saves you even more money.
Here are some of the most wasteful disposable items to start getting out of your life and your budget today.
1. Water Bottles
According to the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), Americans bought 13.7 billion gallons of bottled water in 2017. That’s more than 42 gallons per person. A single-serving bottle of water is typically 16.9 fluid ounces and costs around $1. If you buy two bottles of water every day, that’s $730 per year for a drink you could get out of the tap for mere pennies.
Bottled water takes a severe toll on the environment too. In 2013, the Huffington Post reported that Americans were buying 1,500 bottles of water per second. Producing those bottles required 17 million barrels of oil, which is enough to fuel a million cars for a year, and it took 40,000 trucks to deliver them to stores. Most of them ended up in landfills or oceans. These exposed bottles break down into fragments that pollute the water and land and poison animals and humans.
Ditch your water bottles and drink tap water. Municipal tap water is subject to the same safety standards as bottled water, and its reporting requirements are more rigorous than bottled water. As for the taste, numerous blind taste tests have found that consumers typically like the taste of tap water about as well as bottled water, if not better.
If you happen to live in an area where the water supply is unsafe or bad-tasting, a water filter can take care of the problem. Filtering your tap water adds to the cost, but it’s still much cheaper than buying bottles. For instance, a PUR filter pitcher and a set of three replacement filters can give you 160 gallons of clean water for about $76, or $0.475 per gallon. Visit the Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database to find out what pollutants are in your water and select a filter that can remove them.
If your primary reason for drinking bottled water is to stay hydrated on the go, try a reusable water bottle. You can buy a refillable stainless-steel flask for around $20 or a lightweight, BPA-free plastic bottle for about $10. Cheaper still, buy a $2 bottle of juice, drink the contents, and clean out the bottle for refilling.
2. Single-Serve Soda Bottles
Soda is a close second to bottled water in popularity. According to the IBWA’s statistics, Americans consumed an average of 37.5 gallons of soda each in 2017.
There’s no shortage of studies showing that sugar-sweetened sodas are bad for your health. A research summary from the Harvard School of Public Health says they increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease, gout, diabetes, and bone density loss. A growing body of research suggests that sugar-free sodas pose many of the same risks, according to Consumer Reports.
The actual cost of a soda habit in dollars is a bit harder to calculate because it depends on what you buy. Cans are usually cheaper than large bottles, and large bottles are less expensive than smaller ones. Single-serve bottles are the biggest ripoff at around $2 each, or $1.20 per 12-ounce serving. Of course, those individual plastic soda bottles are also the most destructive to the environment, causing all the same problems as water bottles.
There are several ways to reduce the cost of soda, as well as its environmental impact:
- Buy Bigger Bottles. Buy your soda in 2-liter or 3-liter bottles, rather than single-serve ones. If you pay $2.20 for a 2-liter bottle of Coke, that’s $0.39 per serving — about a third of the cost of soda in small bottles. Also, one large bottle creates less plastic waste than three or four small ones.
- Choose Cans. Aluminum cans are a greener choice than plastic bottles because they’re much easier to recycle. According to the Aluminum Association, over 70% of all beverage cans are made of recycled aluminum, and nearly 50% of them go on to be recycled again. Cans of soda are also cheaper than small bottles. You can get a dozen cans of Coke for about $7.20, or $0.60 per serving — half the cost of soda in single-serve bottles.
- Make Your Own. You can eliminate packaging waste entirely with a home soda maker. However, you won’t save much money. For the most popular system, the SodaStream, it costs $15 to refill a SodaStream CO2 cartridge that makes 60 liters of sparkling water. A bottle of flavor syrup that makes 12 liters of soda costs $6. That’s a total of $45 for 60 liters, or $0.75 per liter — a bit cheaper than Coke, but still more expensive than buying store-brand soda in 2-liter bottles.
- Don’t Drink Soda. The most radical option is to stop drinking soda, or to at least drink less of it. If you can replace just one $2 bottle of soda per week with plain tap water, you’ll save over $100 per year and keep 52 bottles out of the waste stream. Plus, you’ll be doing your health a favor as well.
3. Single-Serve Snacks and Meals
Just like drinks, food costs a lot more when you buy it in single-serve packages. Here’s a sampling of prices for individually packaged snacks and meals:
- Chips (Vending Machine): $1.50 for 1.5 oz.
- Chips (Supermarket, Single-Serve Bags): $0.50 for 1 oz.
- Cookies (Vending Machine): $1.50 for 2 oz.
- Cookies (Supermarket, Single-Serve Packs): $0.63 for 1 oz.
- Peanut Butter Crackers (Supermarket, Single-Serve Packs): $0.47 for six crackers
- TV Dinner: Between $2 and $6
- Microwave Mug Cake: $3
Aside from their high cost, most snacks sold in single-serve packages aren’t very healthy. Even the TV dinners tend to be dishes like macaroni and cheese or Salisbury steak, which don’t have a lot of veggies or whole grains. Plus, all of those single-serve containers use up resources to produce, and most of them aren’t recyclable.
The simplest way to cut down on both cost and packaging waste is to buy your snacks in bigger packages and portion them out at home. For example, a 10-ounce bag of chips costs about $2.50, or $0.25 per ounce. That’s only half of the cost of single-serve bags from the store and one-quarter the price of chips from a vending machine. And if you measure out your single servings into reusable containers, you’ll have only one bag to throw out instead of 10.
If you’re willing to do just a little more work, you can save still more by making your snacks at home. For instance, instead of buying that microwave mug cake, use your microwave to make one from scratch with about $0.30 worth of ingredients. You’ll cut your cost by 90% and your packaging waste by 100%.
Making your snacks and meals also allows you to make healthier choices. Some good options for healthy homemade snacks include fresh fruit, air-popped popcorn, veggies with hummus, and hard-boiled eggs. Simple ideas for healthy dinners on a budget include soup, chili, and stir-fry. You can also make your own “TV dinners” out of leftovers for those busy nights when there’s no time to cook.
4. Food Storage
If you’re making your snacks and meals, you need something to store them in. However, disposable plastic bags, such as Ziploc bags, merely add to the waste problem. They’re not that expensive — about $5 for 90 bags — but when you use two or three every day, that’s still more than $40 per year going into the trash.
Plastic bags aren’t the only disposable product used for food storage, either. Plastic wrap and aluminum foil, two products many people rely on for storing leftovers, also tend to end up in the trash after only one use. And if you try to save money by taking a brown-bag lunch to work, that’s about 250 paper bags you’re tossing in the bin each year.
You can choose from all kinds of permanent storage containers to store your leftovers, lunches, and snacks. For example, you can buy a set of 32 reusable plastic containers with lids in a variety of sizes for around $6. If you prefer a container you can reheat in the microwave, consider Pyrex bowls with lids, which are about $30 for a set of six, or simple glass canning jars that cost less than $1 each. Or if you want something more packable, choose reusable cloth snack bags or sandwich wrappers.
When taking lunch to work or school, try a reusable lunch box or bag. Nowadays, lunch boxes aren’t always the little cartoon-covered cases you took to school as a kid. There are lots of adult-friendly options, from simple insulated bags to jazzy metal tiffin boxes with stacking sections for different courses. Simpler still, you can tote your lunch in a canvas sack or even a reused shopping bag.
For parties, picnics, and lunches on the go, a lot of people rely on disposable tableware. Paper plates, disposable cups, and plastic utensils certainly make cleanup easier, but that convenience comes at a cost. Here’s a sampling of prices from Party City for disposable picnicware:
- Plates: Paper plates cost around $10 for a pack of 50. Disposable plastic plates are a little pricier at $12 for 50.
- Cups: Large (16-ounce) plastic cups cost about $6 for a pack of 50. Paper coffee cups are $5 for 40.
- Utensils: A mixed bag of forks, knives, and spoons for 70 guests costs $10.
- Napkins: A pack of 50 lunch-size napkins costs $4. Larger dinner napkins are $7.
At those prices, a picnic with 50 guests would require about $30 worth of tableware that would go straight into the trash after the party was over. If you use paper napkins at every meal, as many people do, the costs are even higher, nearing $100 per year for three napkins per day. Even if you buy cheaper bulk napkins on Amazon, that’s still over $50 a year for just one person.
For everyday use, it makes sense to choose cloth napkins. You can buy a dozen cloth napkins on Amazon for less than $10 and use them for years. As a bonus, your dinner table will look much classier.
Using cloth napkins means you’ll have to do laundry a little more often, but you can save on laundry costs by reusing the same napkin until it gets dirty. With careful reuse, you’ll only need to do a couple of extra loads of laundry each year. That will cost you a few dollars at most — much less than the cost of using and discarding a paper napkin at every meal.
Choosing reusable tableware for parties is a little tougher. Real plates, glasses, and silverware cost more, weigh more, are more likely to break, and take up more cabinet space. A good compromise is lightweight, reusable plastic plates and cups that cost about $1.50 each. As a substitute for single-use plates and cups, these will pay for themselves after eight to 10 uses. You can also wash plastic utensils after a party and save them for the next one.
6. Coffee Filters
One popular money-saving tip is to make your coffee at home. But if you make yours in an automatic-drip machine, you’re probably throwing away money every day on paper coffee filters.
Paper filters aren’t that expensive — only $5 to $10 per hundred. However, the process of bleaching them can release harmful chemicals, such as dioxin, into the environment. Dioxin builds up in the food chain and can cause a variety of health problems, including cancer. Plus, unless you have a home compost bin, the paper filters end up in landfills.
Single-serve coffee brewers, such as the Keurig, produce even more waste. According to The New York Times, the number of K-cups discarded in 2015 is enough to circle the earth roughly 10 times. Although the cups are now made of recyclable plastic, they’re not that easy to recycle because you have to take them apart and clean them out first. Single-serve pods are also a lot more expensive, more than tripling the price of each cup of coffee you brew.
If you have a drip coffee maker, invest in a reusable mesh filter for $6 to $12. These aren’t much harder to use than a paper filter — you simply dump out the grounds after brewing and run it through the dishwasher. If you drink coffee every day, it will pay for itself in just a month or two.
Coffee brewed in a metal filter typically has a darker and more robust flavor. If you prefer the brighter and cleaner flavor paper filters provide, try reusable cloth filters. These cost as little as $10 for a set of three.
Reusable filters are available for single-cup brewers as well. For instance, the $19 My K-Cup for Keurig brewers allows you to use your Keurig with regular ground coffee, cutting the cost per cup by more than half.
A final alternative is to switch to a French press or cafetière. These devices can cost as little as $15 and are very simple to use. Just add ground coffee, then boiling water, let it sit for several minutes, and push down the plunger to strain your coffee. A French press is more work to clean than a drip machine, but many coffee snobs swear it produces a better-tasting cup of joe.
Americans go through billions of disposable batteries every year, according to the EPA. Disposing of batteries is safer than it used to be since modern alkaline batteries no longer contain toxic mercury. However, some states, such as California, still classify them as hazardous waste because they can contain heavy metals or toxic and corrosive chemicals.
The cost of batteries depends on what brand you use and how many you buy at once. If you choose a generic brand like Amazon Basics and buy in bulk, it can be as little as $0.25 per battery. If you pick a name brand like Duracell and buy just four at a time, you could pay $2 or more per battery. So if you go through just four batteries per month, they cost you anywhere from $12 to over $96 per year.
Rechargeable batteries are a much better value than disposable ones. A set of four rechargeable AA batteries and a charger costs around $20, and you can recharge them about 500 times before they wear out. That works out to around $0.05 per use, including the cost of the electricity for charging them. Over the course of just one year, those four batteries could save you between $9.60 and $93.60, while keeping 48 alkaline batteries out of the waste stream.
When your rechargeable batteries finally wear out, you can — and should — recycle them. You can drop off batteries for recycling at many large chain stores, including Staples, Home Depot, and Lowe’s. Visit Call2Recycle.org to find a drop-off location near you.
8. Disposable Diapers
According to Parents magazine, a new baby uses anywhere from 1,700 to 2,500 diapers in the first year. Each of these diapers costs at least $0.13 when bought on sale, and high-end brands can cost as much as $0.45 per diaper, according to BabyGearLab. Add around $0.03 each for baby wipes, and the cost is anywhere between $272 and $1,200 for diaper changes in the first year alone.
Disposable diapers take a toll on the environment too. Most of them end up in landfills, where they can take hundreds of years to decompose. If you toss the diapers in the trash without dumping out the poop first, it can pollute the water supply. Also, many parents worry that the chemicals in most brands of disposable diapers, such as dioxin, phthalates, fragrances, and dyes, could harm their babies’ health.
You’ll spend less in the long run by choosing cloth diapers instead of disposable ones. The upfront cost is quite a bit higher — anywhere from $4 to $26 per diaper — but just a few dozen of them should be enough to last you through your baby’s first few years. You’ll pay extra to launder the cloth diapers, but you can offset that cost by switching to cloth wipes as well.
A detailed analysis at BabyGearLab found that the “best value” for a cloth diaper system would cost around $300 over the course of a baby’s first three years. The “best value” pick for disposable diapers, by contrast, would cost four times as much.
Of course, cloth diapers have some environmental costs of their own, mostly because of all the water and energy used to wash them. A 2008 study by the UK Environment Agency found that, on average, the environmental costs of disposable and reusable diapers were about the same. However, you can reduce the impact of cloth diapers a lot by washing them in cold or warm water and line-drying them. If you reuse cloth diapers for a second baby, that will cut their ecological footprint and their cost even more.
9. Feminine Products
According to a 2016 article in Self, the average American woman spends $7 a month, or $84 per year, on disposable sanitary pads and tampons.
Like disposable diapers, these products mostly end up in landfills, along with the boxes and wrappers they come in. The cost of making them and shipping them out to stores also adds to their carbon footprint.
Many women assume they have no alternative to shelling out cash every month for tampons and pads. But there are several reusable alternatives.
For centuries before disposable products were invented, women relied on washable cloth rags to stay clean during their periods. The modern version of these is soft, reusable fabric pads that are shaped to fit your undies. For instance, you can buy a set of 10 Teamoy cloth pads in a variety of sizes, complete with a “wet bag” for storing dirty pads, for $30. All you have to do is wash them in cold water and hang them up to dry, and they’ll last for years.
A more modern alternative is a reusable menstrual cup, such as the DivaCup. Made of either latex rubber or silicone, these products provide up to 12 hours of protection. After that, you simply wash them with soap or water and reinsert them
Menstrual cups can cost anywhere from $15 to $35. A silicone one lasts around a year and can replace $84 worth of disposable tampons. A latex rubber one can last up to 10 years, replacing up to $840 worth of pads and tampons.
It wasn’t so many years ago that a cartridge razor with three blades, instead of just two, was an amazing novelty. Now it’s hard to find a razor at the drugstore with fewer than five. This proliferation of blades comes with a cost. Cartridges for the five-bladed Gilette Fusion cost around $3.67 each. If each cartridge lasts a week, that’s over $190 per year.
If you want to cut the cost of shaving and reduce waste at the same time, you have several choices:
- Electric Razor. An inexpensive electric razor costs about $25, and you’ll pay another $15 or so to replace the head every year. If your electric razor lasts five years, that works out to about $17 per year.
- Safety Razor. Many men these days are ditching their fancy cartridge razors in favor of shaving with a safety razor. You can buy a basic safety razor, which should last for years, for about $20. A pack of 100 Personna double-edged razor blades, which should be good for at least three shaves each, costs about $15. That brings your total five-year cost to around $110, or about $22 per year. Plus, some men find a safety razor reduces problems like irritation and ingrown hairs.
- Sharpening Cartridges. If you use a cartridge razor, you can make the heads last much longer by sharpening them when they get dull. The RazorPit sharpener costs about $25, and users say it allows them to get anywhere from 20 to 90 shaves out of a single cartridge. That cuts the cost of shaving to anywhere from $15 to $67 per year.
- Straight Razor. If you really want to kick it old school, try an old-fashioned straight razor. Shaving this way takes a lot longer — at least 15 minutes, according to GQ — but it’s also a “luxurious experience.” You can buy a top-rated straight razor on Gentleman’s Guru, plus all the tools to take care of it, for under $80. If you take care of your razor by keeping it dry and stropping, sharpening, and lubricating it regularly, it can last you a lifetime.
11. Mop and Sweeper Pads
Spray mops like the Swiffer make mopping a lot easier since you don’t have to haul around a big, heavy bucket. The downside is that they use disposable pads that cost between $0.23 and $0.47 apiece. If you mop your floors once a week, that’s $12 to $24 per year.
Spray mops work just as well with a reusable pad you can throw in the laundry when you’re done cleaning. You can buy reusable mop covers online or make your own out of a $1 microfiber dust cloth. These work fine for either dry or wet mopping. With some mops and sweepers, you can even pull an old sock right over the head of the mop and use that.
12. Paper Towels
If you’re like most people, you rely on paper towels for a wide variety of tasks at home. They’re useful for wiping up spills, soaking up the grease from fried foods, washing windows, and storing herbs and greens to help them last longer. Millennials even use paper towels instead of napkins at meals, as reported in the Washington Post.
The more heavily you rely on paper towels, the more they cost. A single roll of paper towels costs about $2, so one roll per week adds up to $104 per year. If you use paper towels throughout the day for drying your hands, drying dishes, and as napkins at mealtime, you could easily use two or three times that much. On top of that, there’s an ecological cost to all the wood pulp, water, and energy required to produce a roll of paper towels that just end up in the trash.
Reusable cloth rags can do pretty much anything a paper towel can do for a lot less money. You can get them for nothing by cutting up old socks and T-shirts, and each one can take the place of a dozen or more paper towels before it falls apart.
Of course, washing these rags adds to your laundry costs. If you use 120 rags per week in place of 120 paper towels, you’ll have to do an extra load of laundry every two weeks or so. Electricity maven Michael Bluejay calculates that one load of laundry washed in hot water costs $1.34 on average, so substituting rags for paper towels will cut your cost per year to around $35. However, if you wash your rags in cold water and dry them on a line, you can reduce your cost to just $12 per year.
As for the environmental costs, the Sierra Club calculates that in terms of water use, paper towels and rags are about equal. However, environmental expert Brad Gray, speaking with The Huffington Post Australia, argues that “when you take into account all the water and energy and transport costs,” rags are definitely the greener choice.
It’s been nearly 100 years since Kimberly-Clark developed the paper tissue as a tool for removing cold cream. However, it soon became much more popular for nose-blowing. By now, tissues have almost wholly supplanted cloth handkerchiefs, at least in the U.S.
A box of 120 tissues costs about $1.25. Assuming you go through about two boxes every month, that works out to $30 per year. If you’re a particularly heavy user, you could go through eight or more boxes per month, spending at least $120 per year on tissues.
Most tissues are made from virgin wood pulp, which feels softer on the nose than recycled fibers. According to Green Lifestyle magazine, a single tissue requires 2.2 liters of water and 0.013 kWh of energy to produce. It also produces 1.3 grams of waste, including the waste from the manufacturing process. Multiply that by 2,880 tissues per year, and that’s over 6,000 liters of water, 37 kWh of energy, and 3.5 kilograms of waste for a year’s worth of tissues.
Cloth handkerchiefs are still available, but most people object to them because they’re unhygienic. According to Better Homes and Gardens Australia, reusing a damp handkerchief increases the spread of germs to your hands, which in turn can transmit them to surfaces that people touch. However, since tissues are flimsy and can soak completely through with a single sneeze, they’re only a more hygienic option if you dispose of them after use and then wash your hands immediately. In practice, almost no one does this.
Cloth hankies can be just as hygienic as paper tissues as long as you don’t allow the damp or dirty areas to touch your hand. One way to do this is to keep your handkerchief folded so that it doesn’t soak through as quickly. If you have a bad cold or allergies, carry several clean hankies so that you can change to a fresh one as needed.
Alternatively, use a Hankybook — a compact package with several cloth “pages” sewn into a protective cover to keep your hands from touching germ-laden areas. Another option is LastTissue, a reusable silicone packet stuffed with six cotton hankies, with a silicone barrier to keep clean and used ones separate. Just pull a clean one out of the bottom, use it, and tuck it into the top.
You can buy 12 cloth handkerchiefs for $12.99 at Amazon. If you use one per day on average, you’ll end up doing about two extra loads of laundry per year for another $2.68. If the hankies last a year before wearing out, your cost per year will be $7.67, less than one-third of the cost of paper tissues.
According to the EPA, Americans go through 1.6 billion disposable pens a year. That’s about five pens per year for every person in the country. Disposable pens range in price from less than $0.10 each for cheap ballpoints to over $4 each for snazzy rollerball pens, so five pens a year could cost anywhere from $0.50 to $20.
If you could refill your pens with ink when they ran dry, you’d save a lot. Based on the volume of a typical ballpoint pen, you can calculate that it holds a little over 0.25 milliliters of ink, so a 75-milliliter bottle of ink that costs $5 could replace nearly 300 pens. Even if they were all $0.10 ballpoints, that would still be a savings of $25.
Unfortunately, refilling a standard disposable pen isn’t that easy to do. You can buy pens that are “refillable,” but in many cases, that means you can replace the inner workings of the pen — shaft, ink, and ball — as a unit. That doesn’t reduce waste much, and the refills can cost as much as or even more than a new pen.
However, some pens allow you to replace the ink and only the ink. These include fountain pens, which lend a touch of class but can be tricky to learn to use, and refillable rollerball pens that work just like a disposable rollerball. You can refill some pens straight from an ink bottle, while others use a cartridge system with disposable, self-contained ink cartridges. Either system creates much less waste than discarding the whole pen.
Sites like JetPens offer a variety of fountain pens and cartridge rollerball pens at prices as low as $3 each. Once you have the pen, you can refill it indefinitely. Cartridge refills cost around $0.35 each, while ink-only refills cost less than $0.10. This gives you a high-quality pen for the price of a cheap one, while also keeping waste out of the landfill.
Wasting money on disposable items is mostly a matter of habit. Many people can’t imagine giving up everyday “necessities” like bottled water or paper napkins merely because they’ve never lived without them.
But once you try simple substitutions like tap water and cloth napkins, you’ll be surprised by how easy it is to manage without things you once considered must-haves. After a while, the only change you’ll notice is that your trash bin stays empty longer, while your wallet stays fuller.
If you’re more concerned about helping the environment than saving money, you can take this idea even further. There are plenty of other disposable items you use every day that don’t directly cost you money but still waste resources, such as shopping bags, to-go cups, and drinking straws. Replacing these disposable products with reusable ones — or choosing to do without them — can help you contribute even more to the health of the planet.
Have you ditched any disposable items? How did you find suitable replacements? Which ones have saved you the most money?