Waste Not, Want Not: How Disposable Products Are Hurting More Than Our Landfills

The cost of disposables

When it comes to disposable products, we’re all guilty of being wasteful. The cost of convenience is a hefty one: According to The Center for Sustainability & Commerce, the average person in the U.S. generates 4.3 pounds of trash per day, and about 55 percent of the 220 million tons of generated waste each year ends up in one of our 3,500 landfills. Take into account the operational costs to produce something, plus getting it on the shelves of a store.

And if we dig a little deeper, we find that when our brains are on cruise control and we’re spending money on throwaway items, there’s another delicate relationship that’s being disrupted, and that’s with our money. When we spend money on bottled water, paper napkins, even on our cell phones and electronics, we adopt the mindset that our money is disposable, and it’s perfectly okay to squander our hard-earned cash on single-use items.

“We only need to think back to our grandparents’ generation of ‘Make Do and Mend’ to realize just how wasteful we are,” says Rachelle Strauss of the U.K.-based Zero Waste Week. “Not only are we wasting resources, but we’re wasting a huge amount of money, too.”

So how much are we spending exactly? In the U.S. alone, we spend $12.8 billion on shaving and related accessories, with men spending an average of $225 a year and women $200. With paper towels, we toss about 3,000 tons a year, and the average family uses two rolls a week. And how much do we spend on bottled water? $4 billion.

Some of us may think of money as an infinite resource, and we try to make as much of it as possible. The truth is there’s a cost to everything. When you work, you exchange a set amount of money for your time.

What if we shifted our thinking to spending on things that last? This goes beyond physical items, to experiences that will enrich our lives and bring us greater joy. Plus, by being more careful with how we spend our money, we can save more, work less, and have time to pursue what’s valuable to us. Whether it’s volunteering, playing music, or traveling, we’ll have the means to do it.

Here are some simple ways you can start to change your spending habits and have a better relationship with your money and the environment:

At Home

  • Swap out paper towels for cloth napkins.
  • Think twice before throwing out that perfectly good container. You could use it to store leftovers.
  • Instead of single-serving packages of snacks such as applesauce, yogurt, and crackers, buy a large size and divvy it up yourself.
  • Use reusable bakeware instead of cupcake liners.
  • Opt for rechargeable batteries. They cost a little more upfront, but will save you in the long run.
  • Use a water filter instead of bottled water.
  • For storing leftovers, swap aluminum foil, cling wrap, and plastic baggies for sturdy glass or plastic storage containers.

Eating Out:

  • Bring a set of reusable tableware that includes a knife, fork, and spoon. You can cobble together a set from your kitchen drawer or spring for a fancy bamboo set.
  • If you’re taking home leftovers at a restaurant, skip the to-go box and bring your own Tupperware. There are accordion-style containers that flatten and make it easy to carry around.
  • Instead of using paper napkins at the restaurant, bring your own cloth towel.
    Bring a reusable mug to the coffee shop. Most places will give you a slight discount.

Throwing a Party:

  • Give your party an eco-twist. Nix those plastic party cups and plastic forks and use your own tableware. If you’re short on supplies, don’t be shy about asking your friends to bring their own bottle, plates, and utensils.
  • Host a stuff swap, where you can barter items you don’t need. Anything left over can be donated.

Shopping

  • Bring reusable bags. Most markets may give you a little discount.
  • If available, purchase dry food stored in those large bins.
  • Host a “Fashion Swap” party with your friends. Each person brings a few items from their closet that they no longer wear, giving their pieces a new home with a friend.

Strauss also suggests doing an audit of everything you throw away for a week. Then pick one item you’ll try and divert from landfill. And ask yourself the question: When you throw something away, where is “away”? “It’s not some magical place where things disappear,” Strauss explains, “it’s a landfill site, an incinerator, the bottom of the ocean, or a ship to China…”

By being more aware of how much we waste on a daily basis, we can change the way we think about our spending habits and in turn our relationship with money. In turn we’ll be able to focus on buying things that really matter to us.