Splurge or Splat: 7 “Zero-Waste” Alternatives and If They’re Really Worth It

Plastic-free July just ended, so today, we’ll be reviewing 10 “zero-waste” alternatives, and whether they’re really worth it. 

Ever since sustainability influencer Laura Singer was featured in this video titled “How To Fit Two Years Of Trash In a Mason Jar,” the zero-waste lifestyle has become increasingly  popular. As a result, for-profit companies have rushed to appeal to consumers eager to change their lifestyles; hence an entire market of “zero-waste” products has been born. 

In 2018, the reusable water bottle market was valued at more than $8 billion. The industry is projected to grow to $10.4 billion by 2025. Likewise, the global eco-fiber market (think bamboo and organic cotton) is anticipated to reach $93 billion dollars by 2025 and the green packaging market (e.g. tupperware and recyclable packaging) is expected to reach $215 by 2021. As zero-waste chef Anne-Marie Bonneau put it: “We’re such a consumer society, we think, ‘Oh I have this problem, what can I buy to solve it?’ Instead of just being resourceful and looking around.”1

But the truth is that zero-waste products still have an environmental impact. From manufacturing to packaging to shipping, these consumer goods still have a carbon footprint. A study conducted by Humboldt State University found that a plastic straw is responsible for using 23.7 kJ of energy and 1.46g of CO2, while a single stainless steel straw uses 2420 kJ of energy and 217g of CO2.2

Not to mention, the media often equates going zero-waste with spending boatloads of money on marketed “sustainable products.” Zero-waste products can be expensive, making the marketed lifestyle very unsustainable for most. And, while trends like Plastic-Free July can help give people the support they need to start reducing their waste, trying to buy into a sustainable lifestyle overnight ignores the first two Rs of sustainability: reduce and reuse. Here at Project Planet, we encourage everyone to do what they can to live a sustainable lifestyle and reduce consumption first. 

So, without further ado, here are 10 zero-waste swaps and whether they’re really worth it. 

Metal Straws

Image via Unsplash by Mollie Sivaram

Metal straws have become a staple in many zero-waste households, but they’re not really necessary in order to live zero-waste. If you can, it’s better to just not use a straw! I purchased my own set of metal straws a little over a year ago, and I use them every morning to drink my coffee, as well as for the occasional Starbucks or boba tea run. At most restaurants, however, I prefer not to use a straw at all and drink straight from the cup. 

Other more sustainable alternatives to disposable straws are acrylic, glass, bamboo, or reusable plastic straws. However, the most sustainable option is to just go without a straw at all! 

Tote Bags 

Image via Unsplash by Lex Sirikiat

There are a wide variety of cloth bags, netted bags, and mesh produce bags available to purchase, but you don’t need them to be sustainable! My family has accumulated many reusable cloth bags from gifts, grocery stores, etc., and we always use those to shop. You can even make your own tote bag from an old t-shirt or piece of fabric. Cloth bags are definitely a more sustainable alternative to plastic backs, but look at home before going out and purchasing one. If you can’t find any, a second-hand store is your best bet. As long as the bags are reusable, they’re sustainable! 

Bamboo Utensils 

Image via Unsplash by Tiko Giorgadze

I’ll be honest, bamboo utensils really aren’t necessary for a sustainable kitchen. Chances are, you’re already using reusable metal silverware and glass eatery at home – and those are 100% zero-waste! While it’s true that bamboo utensils may be more sustainable to manufacture, using what you have is much better than buying something new. 

Reusable Water Bottle 

Image via Unsplash by averie woodard

Reusable water bottles are a yes! Despite all the low-waste alternatives, plastic bottles are a huge source of plastic pollution. Worldwide, a million plastic bottles are bought every minute, and the number is expected to increase by 20% in 2021.3 If you use disposable water bottles or cups frequently, then getting a reusable water bottle will help eliminate plastic waste and help you stay hydrated. 

There’s no need to buy a fancy or expensive water bottle if you don’t want to— most people already have a water bottle at home, or you can even drink out of a jar, mug, or glass. It’s okay if the water bottle is made out of plastic as long as you’re not throwing it away. Although it remains controversial, some studies show that BPA, an additive in some plastics,  can negatively impact your health.4 Regardless, there are many plastic and non-plastic reusable water bottles that are BPA-free. 

Shampoo Bars 

Image via Unsplash by Heather Ford

Shampoo bars are a great alternative to bottled shampoo because they eliminate harmful plastic packaging. While shampoo bars do appear to be more expensive than bottled shampoo, they do last a lot longer. Based on my experience, one shampoo bar can last about a year! However, it is important to consider that shampoo and conditioner bars might not work well with all hair types- specifically oily or textured hair. Even if you can’t use shampoo bars, opting for body wash and hand soap bars can help reduce plastic in the bathroom. 

Menstrual Cup

Image via Pixabay

If they work for your body, reusable period products are definitely a more sustainable alternative than a disposable pad or tampon. On average, a single person who regularly menstruates will use 5-15 thousand pads and tampons in their lifetime, most of which end up in landfills along with their packaging.5 Although it’s a big expense upfront, choosing reusable period products is also more economical in the long run, since they last for several years. 

There are many options besides menstrual cups, too. Cotton pads and period panties are also popular sustainable alternatives, so you can try to find what works for you!

 Tupperware Containers 

Image via Unsplash by Ella Olsson

If you haven’t made the switch to reusable food storage yet, we highly recommend that you do! It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, and oftentimes, you already have reusable food storage in your home. Saving reusable takeout containers and reusing food packaging (pickle jars, for example) can help reduce waste and save money on tupperware. Unlike disposable ziploc bags, you only have to buy tupperware once, so reusable options can be more savings-friendly in the future. That being said, it’s definitely not necessary to buy expensive “zero-waste” products from stores. 

TLDR; before buying into the next “zero-waste” or “eco-friendly” trend, look around to see what you have at home. The most sustainable option is always to use what you have first, and then purchase eco-friendly alternatives to disposable products. And, plastic isn’t always bad – it often takes less energy to produce plastic items than glass/metal alternatives, so as long as you’re reusing your plastic tupperware, water bottle, etc., then it won’t have the same effect as single-use disposable plastics.

Footnotes

1 Toussaint, Kristin. “Metal straws, mason jars, bamboo forks: do you have to buy more stuff to go zero waste?” Vox, 14 May 2019. https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/5/14/18563375/zero-waste-products-straws-jars-tote-bags

2 “HSU Straw Analysis.” Appropedia, 2018. https://www.appropedia.org/HSU_straw_analysis

3 Laville, Sandra, Matthew Taylor. “A million bottles a minute: world’s plastic binge ‘as dangerous as climate change’.” The Guardian, 28 June 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jun/28/a-million-a-minute-worlds-plastic-bottle-binge-as-dangerous-as-climate-change

4 Petre, Alina, MS, RD. “What Is BPA and Why Is It Bad for You?” Healthline, 17 December 2018. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/what-is-bpa#1.  

5 Borunda, Alejandra. “How tampons and pads became so unsustainable.” Environment | The Story of Plastic, National Geographic, 6 September 2019. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/09/how-tampons-pads-became-unsustainable-story-of-plastic/

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