What disposable items can I ditch to save money?
You’d never take money out of your wallet and throw it straight into a trash can. But if you’re like most people, you probably spend money every day on things that end up in the trash. Commonplace goods like soda and water bottles, food storage bags, coffee filters, and paper towels add up to hundreds of dollars of your hard-earned money going straight into the waste bin.
But disposable products do more than cost you money. They also have a cost for the planet. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2017, the United States produced over 137 million tons of containers and packaging waste and nondurable goods. These materials take natural resources, energy, and water to make, and most of them end up in landfills.
If you want to be part of the solution to our growing waste problem — and keep some extra cash in your wallet — 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 goods that do the same job for less money. In other cases, you can turn disposable products into reusable ones by cleaning them and using them again. And once in a while, you can do without something disposable entirely, which saves you even more money.
Start by ditching the most wasteful disposables to impact your budget positively.
1. Water Bottles
According to the International Bottled Water Association, Americans bought 14.4 billion gallons of bottled water in 2019. That’s nearly 44 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 it took 17 million barrels of oil to produce all the water bottles Americans used in one year. That’s enough to fuel a million cars for a year. And the amount of bottled water we drink has only increased since then.
Pumping, processing, transporting, and refrigerating all that bottled water uses still more energy. And on top of that, most single-use bottles end 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, including those by ABC News, Boston University, and the Orlando Sentinel, 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 tastes bad, a water filter can help. A Pur filter pitcher and a set of three replacement filters can give you 160 gallons of clean water for about $50, or $0.30 per gallon. Visit the Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database to see what pollutants are in your water and find 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 or flexible water bottle (the HydraPak Stash is an excellent choice) for around $20 or a lightweight, BPA-free plastic bottle for about $10. Cheaper still, buy a $2 glass bottle of juice, drink it, 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 International Bottled Water Association’s statistics, Americans consumed an average of 37 gallons of soda each in 2019.
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 harder to calculate because it depends on what you buy. Cans usually cost less than bottles, and large bottles cost less than smaller ones. According to HangoverPrices, a pricing resource for restaurateurs and bar owners, single-serve bottles are the biggest rip-off at around $2 each, or $1.20 per 12-ounce serving — and they cause all the same problems for the environment 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, the American Samoa Power Authority notes that one large bottle creates less plastic waste than three or four small ones.
- Choose Cans. Cans of soda cost about half as much as single-serve plastic bottles, about $6 for 12, or $0.50 per serving. They’re also a greener choice because they’re much easier to recycle. According to the Aluminum Association, over 70% of beverage cans are made of recycled aluminum, and over 45% of them go on to be recycled again.
- Make Your Own. You can eliminate packaging waste with a home soda maker. However, you won’t save as much money. With the popular SodaStream (which has an upfront cost of around $200), it costs about $15 for 60 liters’ worth of CO2 and $6 for 12 liters’ worth of flavored syrup. That works out to $0.75 per liter — a bit less than Coke, but more than store-brand soda in 2-liter bottles.
- Don’t Drink Soda. The most radical option is to stop drinking soda or at least drink less of it. If you can replace just one $2 bottle of soda per week with plain tap water, you 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. While exact prices vary by region, a roundup of several popular individually packaged snacks and meals shows costs can add up.
- Chips (Vending Machine): $1.50 for 1.5 ounces
- Chips (Grocery Store, Single-Serve Bags): $0.50 for 1 ounce
- Cookies (Vending Machine): $1.50 for 2 ounces
- Cookies (Grocery Store, Single-Serve Packs): $0.63 for 1 ounce
- Peanut Butter Crackers (Grocery Store, 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 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 into reusable containers at home. For example, a 10-ounce bag of chips costs about $2.50, or $0.25 per ounce — one-quarter the price of chips from a vending machine — and gives you only one bag to throw out instead of 10.
If you’re willing to do just a little more work, you can save even more by making your snacks at home. For instance, instead of buying that microwave mug cake, use your microwave to make a mug cake from scratch with about $0.30 worth of ingredients for a basic chocolate mug cake. It cuts your cost by 90% and eliminates all that extra packaging since you’re using ingredients you already have on hand.
Making your snacks and meals also allows you to make healthier choices. Options for healthy homemade snacks include fresh fruit, air-popped popcorn, veggies with hummus, and hard-boiled eggs. For healthy dinners on a budget, try 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. But disposable plastic 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.
But 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 12 reusable plastic containers with lids in various sizes for around $4.
If you’re concerned about the health risks of plastic, opt for Pyrex bowls with lids, which are about $35 for a set of six, or simple glass canning jars that cost $1 to $3 each, depending on size and brand. Or if you want something more packable, choose reusable cloth snack bags.
When taking lunch to work or school, try a lunch box or reusable bag. Nowadays, lunchboxes aren’t always the little cartoon-covered cases you took to school as a kid. There are many adult-friendly options, from simple insulated bags to metal tiffin boxes with stacking sections. Simpler still, you can tote your lunch in a canvas sack or even a repurposed shopping bag.
For parties, picnics, and lunches on the go, many people rely on disposable tableware. Paper plates, disposable cups, and plastic utensils certainly make cleanup easier, but that convenience comes at a cost. For example, look at Party City’s prices for disposable picnicware:
- Plates: Around $5 for a pack of 50 paper plates; disposable plastic plates are a little pricier at $8 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 51 guests costs $14
- Napkins: A pack of 125 lunch-size napkins costs $4; larger dinner napkins are $4 for 50
At those prices, a party with 50 guests would require about $30 worth of tableware that would go straight into the trash after the party was over. And if you use paper napkins at every meal, as many people do, you’ll pay around $35 per person per year for three napkins per day.
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. They’ll save you money at every meal while making your dinner table look much classier.
Using cloth napkins means you 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 costs 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 trickier. Real plates, glasses, and silverware cost more, weigh more, and are more likely to break. Plus, they 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 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 and Pods
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. But if they’re bleached with chlorine, the EPA warns that the process can release harmful chemicals, such as dioxin, into the environment. Dioxin builds up in the food chain and can cause numerous health problems, including cancer. Plus, unless you have a home compost bin, the paper filters end up in landfills.
Single-serve coffee brewers like the Keurig produce even more waste. According to the Chicago Tribune, about 10.5 billion K-cups were sold in 2015. Although they now make the cups 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. Each cup of coffee you brew with them can cost up to 10 times as much as a cup from a drip machine.
If you have a drip coffee maker, invest in a reusable mesh filter for $6 to $15. These aren’t much harder to use than a paper filter. You simply dump the grounds after brewing and run it through the dishwasher. If you drink coffee every day, it can pay for itself in just a few months.
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 My K-Cup for Keurig brewers allows you to use your Keurig with regular ground coffee, cutting the cost per cup by as much as 90%. It sells online for between $10 and $20.
A final alternative is to switch to a French press. 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 connoisseurs swear it produces a better-tasting cup of joe.
Americans go through millions of 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. But 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 varies widely. If you choose a generic brand, like Amazon Basics, and buy in bulk, it can be as little as $0.45 per AA battery. If you pick a name brand, like Duracell, and buy just four at a time, you could pay $2 or more per AA battery, depending on type and retailer.
Rechargeable batteries are a much better value than disposable ones. A set of four rechargeable AA batteries and a charger costs around $15, 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. And it keeps up to 500 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 BabyGearLab, a new baby uses around 2,500 diapers in the first year. Each diaper costs at least $0.15, and high-end brands can cost as much as $0.51 per diaper. Add around $0.04 each for baby wipes, and the cost is anywhere between $475 and $1,375 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 about the chemicals in disposable diapers. Most brands contain many chemicals that could be harmful to a baby’s health, such as chlorine, phthalates, fragrances, and dyes.
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. It costs 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 a baby’s first three years. By contrast, the best-value pick for disposable diapers would cost four times as much.
Of course, cloth diapers have some environmental costs of their own, primarily because of all the water and energy used to wash them. A 2008 study by the United Kingdom Environment Agency found that the environmental costs of disposable and reusable diapers were about the same, on average.
But you can reduce the impact of cloth diapers by washing them in cold or warm water and line-drying them. If you reuse cloth diapers for a second baby, that cuts their ecological footprint and cost even more.
9. Feminine Products
In 2019, menstrual cup brand Intimina commissioned a survey on the costs of menstrual products in the U.S. Conducted by OnePoll (via SWNS Digital), it found the average woman spends $13.25 per month on menstrual products like disposable sanitary pads and tampons. That’s a total of $159 per year. And like disposable diapers, these products mostly end up in landfills.
Many people 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, you relied on washable cloth rags to stay clean during your periods. The modern version of these is soft, reusable fabric pads shaped to fit your undies. Just wash them in cold water and hang them to dry, and they can last for years. A set of 10, plus a “wet bag” for storing dirty pads, costs about $25.
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 $5 to $35. A silicone cup, such as the $5 CareCup, lasts around a year (though some claim to last longer) and can replace $84 worth of disposable tampons. A latex rubber cup, such as the $35 Keeper, 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 Gillette Fusion 5 cost around $4.15 each. If each cartridge lasts a week, that’s over $215 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 it costs 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 people 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 people 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 to shave your face, according to GQ — but it’s also a “luxurious experience.” A top-rated straight razor costs around $150, but it can last you a lifetime.
11. Mop and Sweeper Pads
Spray mops like the Swiffer make mopping much 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 $0.53 each, depending on package size and pad type. If you mop your floors once per week, that’s $12 to $28 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. According to ABC, millennials even use paper towels instead of napkins at meals.
The more heavily you rely on paper towels, the more they cost. A single roll of paper towels costs about $2, depending on retailer and brand, so one roll per week adds up to $104 per year. On top of that, there’s an ecological cost for 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.
According to calculations from ClearlyEnergy, a load of laundry at home can cost anywhere from $0.51 to $1.13 with a standard-efficiency washer. That adds up to between $13.26 and $29.38 per year, cutting your savings on paper towels to between $75 and $90 per year.
But using high-efficiency equipment and cold water can boost your savings.
As for the environmental costs, the Sierra Club calculates that in terms of water use, paper towels and rags are about equal. But a detailed analysis published on StackExchange (based on life-cycle analyses from the Journal of Cleaner Production and the Smart Water Fund) finds that cloth rags are much greener in terms of energy use and carbon emissions.
It’s been nearly 100 years since Kimberly-Clark developed the paper tissue as a tool for removing cold cream. But 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 $2, depending on retailer and brand. Assuming you go through a box every month, that works out to $24 per year. If you’re a particularly heavy user, you could go through even more.
Most tissues are made from virgin wood pulp, which feels softer on the nose than recycled fibers. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), cutting trees for tissue products is a major cause of deforestation in Canada’s boreal forest. It’s destroying wildlife habitats and removing one of our planet’s best defenses against climate change.
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 one 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 is to keep your handkerchief folded to prevent it from soaking through as quickly. If you have a bad cold or allergies, carry several clean hankies so 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. It has a silicone barrier to keep clean and used ones separate.
You can buy 12 cloth handkerchiefs for $12.99 at Amazon. If you use one per day on average, plan to do about two extra loads of laundry per year, which adds $2.26 at most to their cost, according to ClearlyEnergy’s estimates. If the hankies last two years before wearing out, your cost per year will be $8.75, about one-third of the cost of paper tissues. And many handkerchiefs last much longer with proper care.
According to Pens.com, the average American goes through just over four disposable pens per year. Disposable pens range in price from less than $0.10 each for cheap ballpoints to over $4 each for snazzy rollerball pens, so if you use just over four pens per year, it could cost anywhere from $0.43 to $17.20.
If you could refill your pens with ink when they ran dry, you’d save a lot. Based on the volume of the ink reservoir in a typical ballpoint pen, you can calculate that it holds a little over 0.35 milliliters of ink (depending on brand and type), so a 75-milliliter bottle of ink that costs $5.25 could replace over 200 pens of that size. Even if they were all $0.10 ballpoints, that would still be a savings of around $15.
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 pen’s inner workings — 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.
But 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. You can refill some pens straight from an ink bottle, while others use disposable, self-contained ink cartridges. Either system creates much less waste than discarding the whole pen.
Sites like JetPens offer numerous fountain pens and cartridge rollerball pens at prices as low as $1.85 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. That 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. Many disposable products don’t cost money but still waste resources, such as shopping bags, to-go cups, and drinking straws. Replacing these with reusable goods — or choosing to do without them — can help you contribute even more to the planet’s health.