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The High Cost Of Low-Waste Living

"Why aiming for perfection is not always realistic or sustainable.

Michael Raines, Carol Yepes, Lauren Burke, Paul Taylor/Getty Images, Tatjana Zlatkovic, Lucas Ottone/Stoocksy

In 2019, in what many young environmentalists are now calling the heyday of the zero-waste movement, I challenged myself to avoid single-use and even most recyclable plastic for the month of April. I documented the process on my social media, celebrating small wins like a lid-less Starbucks order and publicly raked myself over the coals at every plastic indulgence. Once I could see it, I couldn’t unsee it. I was striving towards plastic “abstinence” and waste-less perfection, scoffing at others who hadn’t yet reached this enlightenment.

Nearly three years later, I’m in a pretty good groove and absolutely love supporting my go-to brands that help me live my life as waste-lessly as possible. After each refill purchase or on-going subscription of these products, I never balked at the price. This is just how much it costs to do the right thing, I’d shrug to myself. Studying my personal budget, I came to realize that while I was so busy saving the planet, I wasn’t really saving money.

Over the past year, I’ve spent approximately $2074.85 on plastic free day-to-day essentials, including paper products, cleaning supplies, personal hygiene and beauty. I filled a cart online with my former go-to items I bought each month before I banned plastics and, when accumulated over 12 months, it’s about $800 less than after I made the swaps. This total doesn’t even touch on food, but in my last bulk food haul, the bill came out to $110.86, so I am pretty much par for the course.

Let me break this down. From July 2021 to July 2022, these are the categories of plastic-free living supplies I consumed for my household made up of my fiancé and I:

  • Paper products (bamboo paper toilet paper and paper towels): $365.01
  • Household (refillable hand soap, dish wash, cleaning spray, laundry detergent, compost bags, compost pickup service): $717.47
  • Personal hygiene and beauty (makeup, moisturizers, cleansers, bar shampoo, sunscreen, deodorant, dental care, menstrual care): $834.27
  • Low-waste gifts (spreading the gospel of my new ways): $158.10

But, like any spending, it’s all relative, right? My beauty bill may not be as high compared to someone who enjoys wearing makeup or indulging in a luxury skin care routine on a regular basis, both of which I trimmed down in my new lifestyle.

Yet, when I quickly searched “how long does a tube of toothpaste last,” I felt a sting of shame thinking about how this compares to my more sustainable option. The average size of a tube of toothpaste is 5oz and allegedly lasts one person about three months. A two-pack of 4.8oz tubes of Colgate toothpaste at Target is priced at $6.99. Between a couple, that two-pack would last three months. My “four-month supply” pack of delightfully foamy Huppy toothpaste tablets costs $32.00. In a first-time order, one pack of 62 tablets arrives in a compostable pouch (of which I compost) accompanied by a free aluminum container to store the tabs. But now that I’m sitting here with a calculator, my fiancé and I use the same tin two to three times a day, so let’s say that’s four to six tablets used a day, comes out to one pack used every 10 to15 days. A four-month supply lasts our household a little over a month. I’m not sure how I never realized that until now, but here we are.

Despite the fact that in 2018 the EPA reported that only 8.7% of US plastics actually were recycled, Colgate announced the rollout of its first-ever “groundbreaking recyclable toothpaste” in February of this year. This inadvertently drew attention to the fact that no plastic toothpaste tubes have ever had a second life. According to Colgate, globally, “20 billion toothpaste tubes a year are tossed in the trash.” I guess what they say about not being able to put the toothpaste back in the tube holds true.

While Colgate and the other leading toothpaste vendors have been doling out straight-up trash, I’ve taken it upon myself to spend about $32 a month to avoid my household’s eight toothpaste tubes a year. Clearly, not everyone is financially equipped (or foolish enough?) to make this kind of sacrifice. As an upper middle-class white woman I am more than aware of my privilege, especially in this kind of consumption. I am also bewildered. Besides me, who exactly are these products for?

I asked Leah Thomas, author and founder of the Intersectional Environmentalist platform to spell out some hard truths for me. “There is a lot of guilt that comes into play and I think it affects people with different incomes very differently,” she says. “When we are talking about wealthier folks who buy into this, I think they have the guilt already from maybe understanding that they are a little privileged in the first place.” Admittedly, I got a little flushed at this point in our interview, since I didn’t even realize how much I was spending on toothpaste. “Like, If I have the money already and I can afford it, then maybe I should buy these really expensive products if that brings me closer to saving the planet. Then people who are lower income also are like, Oh wait, if I can’t buy these products, am I not closer to saving the planet? Do I have to be wealthy in order to buy the things that are better for the planet?

Based on my tally above, the answer seems like a glaring yes. Sophia Li, a climate activist and journalist, calls BS. “It’s something you can’t buy into. So many of the communities that are the most sustainable are low-income communities, first-generation communities, immigrant communities because they see sustainability as a necessity.” She recalls the habits of her immigrant parents and growing up where the whole of any resource was never wasted and repurposed plastic ice cream tubs became storage for arts and crafts supplies. “To buy something in order to be sustainable is a whole oxymoron in itself. We can’t consume our way into a sustainable future.”

Tell that to one of these brands. “Just having the option to live a low-waste lifestyle shouldn’t be a privilege,” says Jasmine Goodwin, marketing communications manager at Dropps, a low-impact, plant-based cleaning company, specializing in plastic-free laundry and dishwasher pods that just so happened to have 1553.48% growth in 2020 and took the 289th spot on the Inc. 5000 list that year. “We really try to be as customer-driven as possible and understand that sustainability is supposed to be an approachable concept.” Compared to the 42 Tide pods in a plastic tub at Target for $12.99 (about 30 cents a pod), Dropps’ 64 pods in a cardboard box for $19.99 come close (31 cents a pod). Not a bad switch. Goodwin emphasizes the democracy of the brand’s product as key to the brand’s success. “It’s a product for everyone, everyone does laundry. Just because [plastic-free] is a niche mindset and approach to the way we create our product, we all do laundry.”

Scale seems to help, but not just with profits, it also aids in making an attainable product. Tiffany Buzzatto, beauty industry veteran and founder of skin care line Dew Mighty, sought out to make a lower impact and plastic-less face serum. The brand’s hero product, the Bloom bar, is a 10.5 gram solid face serum square, somewhat of a skin care “concentrate.” Its high-potency, waterless formula condenses vitamin C, jojoba, and squalene, which if applied twice daily, should last about two months. It’s sold with a reusable tin container at $52 and $42.75 for a subscription refill. It allegedly replaces at least two bottles of competitor liquid serum, which became a major selling point for Buzzatto. In terms of pricing the product, she compared how other brands priced individual items and looked at the costs of how to make this one in a fair and equitable way in California. She did this without sacrificing her standards or the price point, kept low by large orders she had no choice but to fill, leading with her confidence in the product. “I realized if I can get the value to be how long it lasts and how many ways you can use it, think of how many more products you can replace. That’s what we’re ultimately trying to help people with in starting their journey.”

Comparatively, a bottle of Glossier’s “Super Bounce” serum (which lists its first ingredient as water), is priced at $29. According to a review posted in May of this year, the reviewer was halfway through a bottle in less than a month and encouraged readers to “buy two bottles at a time.” Buzzatto’s hyper consumerism theory still stands, especially those swayed by marketing. “If people really understood the cost of fair trade, what a brand is trying to mark up, or how much of that cost is actually packaging, they might not look at their $200 face cream the same again.”

While consumerism is a bigger beast to take on, baby steps and being gentle in the approach is key to the future of this movement. According to Isaias Hernandez, environmental educator and content creator, “so much of the zero-waste movement started to get hyper-focused on the individual rather than the whole system, that I think a lot of people forgot that zero-waste was meant to hold corporations accountable to actually adopt sustainable business models in their practices.” Hi, it’s me — the bougie tooth-tab loving millennial. Hernandez reminded me that the more widely accepted, Gen Z-approved term is “low-waste,” as this generation understands plastic is unavoidable. Instead of “losing yourself in the process” (me again) Hernandez suggests others start by trying a grocery shopping challenge called the 80/20 rule. “Get 80% of your things with plastic and 20% plastic-free. It’s a really good mental way to build eco-friendly resilience living.”

After our call, I was breathing a little easier. The likelihood of being canceled by the youth if someone sees me with a lid suddenly seemed much lower. As a 35-year old, I will admit that this does matter to me. Does this mean I can cut myself a little slack and not hold myself to these insane standards while draining my bank account? This graciousness offered by the younger generation is a noticeable change in attitude among the environmentally focused community. Thomas sees this reflected in her feed as well. “In the last couple of years there has been such a harsh backlash to elitism and wealth inequality that a lot of narratives of people of color or even people of lower income are kind of taking back the narrative on social media.” With the more democratic and praised authenticity that came along with Tiktok’s rise in popularity, perfection is no longer inspiring. “I think people are looking for more relatable sustainability content. I think these super aspirational accounts make people feel bad and I think people are tired of feeling terrible in the world we’re living now that already has so many crises.”

That feeling bad isn’t also about what we try to control ourselves. The Clean Air Task Force just released a report based on data from the EPA that four major companies are the main source of carbon and methane emissions: Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips, Hilcorp, and Occidental Petroleum. But does that mean I should abandon my efforts and blame corporations for our planet’s demise as well as my savings account’s? Li says it’s not that simple. “It’s really easy in the climate movement to point fingers. The oil companies are pointing fingers at individual footprints and individuals are pointing fingers at corporations. There is an old Chinese saying that, you point your finger at someone and at least three fingers are pointing back at you.”

Striving for perfection as a conscious consumer is a zero sum game. “We ourselves aren’t going to be perfect because we live in these imperfect systems. If you don’t understand the nuance [of sustainability] you can’t really have that hope.” Hope, like spending, is also relative. My hope is that we consumers can all meet in the middle. Instead of comparing notes on who is doing it best, let’s aim to be a little gentler and celebrate eco-focused brands and individuals who lead with good intentions, without making anyone feel left behind. As for my toothpaste and other refills? I feel silly to stay set in my new ways after exposing the numbers, but in the same way I got myself into this mess, I won’t beat myself up all over again. I feel fortunate to be able to support these brands instead of corporations and to do what I can, even if that’s a plastic slip-up here and there.