My zero waste life: why being more green can save you money

Kate Hughes

This week, UK lawmakers declared a climate emergency, the first of its kind in the world.

But millions of Brits didn’t need to be told – we already knew.

Weeks of highly visible protests, years of campaigning and one perfectly timed and difficult-to-watch Attenborough documentary have finally brought the crisis to the front of our collective consciousness, and our collective conscience.

But it’s one thing to sit back and blame politicians for being so wrapped up in Brexit and the impact on their own careers that they were letting an extinction event slide. It’s entirely another to make significant and dramatic changes in our own lives while we wait for the national hard-hitting and all-encompassing policy that must immediately follow this week’s declaration.

And action always comes up against one barrier – cost. Or the perception of it. A more environmentally aware lifestyle has to be more expensive, right?

Nope. And I know because, just like so many others, I’ve tried to fundamentally and permanently changed mine and my family’s.

I don’t have all the answers by a long shot, and we have been told we’re “regressing just to prove a point”. But in the spirit of dispelling a few myths and breaking down a few barriers, here’s how our finances stack up.

Zero waste

This week, the Office for National Statistics revealed that the UK spends £11.5bn a year on solid waste management. That gobbles up more than three quarters of the country’s total environmental protection budget. And yet the amount of waste produced per household is increasing by a massive 30 per cent every year.

Our family of four, including two small children, tries to operate on a zero-waste basis. That means we aim to send nothing to landfill – we don’t have a bin in the house.

We don’t use single-use plastic and try not to bring re-useable plastic into our home either, including synthetic fibres in clothing. There are exceptions, and those include the PC I’m using now, two mobile phones, the plastic housing of the electrical items in our home such as the fridge and lamps, and the plastic components of our car.

We’re now trying to reduce the amount we recycle because of the energy and resources required to process those materials. I say we’re “aiming” for zero waste because absolute zero waste is almost impossible. But we’ve got the throwaways down to things such as paint chippings and other remnants from previous home maintenance.

The same rules apply in all circumstances – when we’re out with family or friends, on holiday, at work and everything in between. It often means taking bags, containers, cups and utensils with us when we leave the house.

Food, drink and toiletries

We buy our food, drinks and toiletries in glass, cardboard or cotton containers that are brought with us from home when we shop.

We refill glass containers for things such as shampoo, have rediscovered soap rather than shower gel and make our cleaning products from vinegar, water and orange peel. (We were really surprised by how well that works.) Our recycled toilet paper is delivered to our home in cardboard boxes that are reused and recycled.

Toothpaste was a compromise for us and we still buy it in “normal” packaging. The tubes are accepted by a local charity that recycles them for cash. My make-up comes in cork or cardboard from a UK manufacturer.

Overnight, the decision to send nothing to landfill meant we moved from spending money in supermarkets with whole aisles of goods entirely wrapped in plastic to buying in bulk from small independent stores we can walk to.

Because we make all our food from scratch, we now have no dependence on food that uses palm oil and we know exactly what’s in it all. There’s no getting away from the fact that it’s time consuming and we’ve had to be a lot more organised, but luckily we like cooking.

Other downsides include the reduction in the range of fruit and vegetables we can get our hands on – at least in winter and spring. I have never been so delighted to find a bulk bin of frozen peas to fill up from in February.

Our diet has naturally drifted towards plants and we’ve gone with it. I’d always been vegetarian, deciding to include fish around pregnancy and breastfeeding. But my husband comes from a very carnivorous farming family and yet he doesn’t miss it. We have both shed a few pounds, too.

Family life

Our kids – by pure luck, if I’m honest – go to a school that also has a zero-to-landfill policy, a policy championed by the pupils.

We try not to accept things like party bags filled with fun but flimsy plastic bits and pieces. Gifts to others are usually experience-based vouchers rather than yet another toy, scarf or “smelly set”. This reduces the need for wrapping paper. We encourage the kids to make cards because its hard to find greetings cards that don’t come in plastic and we use paper-based tape if we do send physical gifts.

I do sometimes worry about the social impact of our choices on our kids and we struggle to know how to manage that. We are painfully aware that this was our decision, not theirs.

The people around us – family, friends, school and work – know about our preferences and try hard to remember them, but when plastic toys or synthetic dressing-up clothes are given to the children, they choose how to deal with it. Sometimes they keep them, sometimes they ask for them to be returned.

When my daughter got invited to her first fancy dress party I made her superhero costume rather than buying a polyester outfit from a supermarket. I can’t sew for toffee so it was a big deal for me, but it was also free.

Wooden toys have been around forever and the plastic toy industry is now starting to respond to consumer pressure. Last year Lego brought out its first bricks made from sugarcane and says it aims for the majority of its production to be sustainable by 2030. Which seems a long way off.

On the whole, non-plastic toys remain more expensive, but they don’t break as easily so there are fewer costs in replacing them. We don’t buy the kids masses of stuff, but when we do they are second hand whenever possible; and, like most households with small kids, drawing is done on scrap paper, though my husband and I aim at paper-free working.

We don’t print documents, we’ve cancelled all the paper statements, subscriptions and brochures that once rained onto our doormat and added our details to the Royal Mail and Direct Marketing Association’s ‘Your Choice’ scheme to stop junk mail. We refuse receipts and don’t take pamphlets. Where we do receive paper or cardboard, it is composted.

I use Ecosia as my search engine, which uses ad revenue to fund tree planting rather than profits for shareholders.

Fine, but what does it cost?

Considering my day job, one of the first things I did was fire up a new spreadsheet when we decided to up the environmental ante on our consuming to see if it would cost us more. We suspected it would.

On the whole, the cost of most dry goods is cheaper – things such as flour, rice, nuts, beans, sugar, dried fruit.

Tea and coffee are significantly more expensive to buy loose, unless you’ve been buying the posh instant stuff that comes in a can, and then you’re quids in.

Milk is delivered to our doorstep in glass bottles and that’s about 98p a litre more expensive than buying a big plastic bottle at a typical supermarket.

Cheese, which we buy from counters where it is placed straight into our containers, is typically more expensive. Bread is significantly cheaper as we make it. We also make our butter by blitzing cream in a mixer because you can’t compost normal wrappers.

Yoghurt seems impossible to buy in non-plastic without breaking the bank so we make it in a slow cooker from milk. It’s very easy. And kind of fascinating.

Surprisingly, when I tot it all up we’re still saving an average of 40 per cent on our grocery shopping each month. That’s because we just don’t buy a whole bunch of stuff we used to, like ready meals, chocolate, chips, kids’ snack bars, bread and cakes, crisps, fizzy drinks and that yoghurt.

We also buy less on the whole, plan meals and only buy the things we’re actually going to eat and use.

Clothes and possessions

Globally, we buy 60 per cent more clothing today than we did in 2000. Currently producing more than 1.2bn tonnes of CO2 a year, by 2050 the fashion industry is expected to use a quarter of the world’s carbon budget.

We need to get over the problem of only wearing an outfit 20 times, let alone once.

But two figures made me make immediate and permanent changes to the way we dress and what we buy as a household.

First, news that every single time we wash a load of synthetic clothes 700,000 pieces of microplastic are ultimately dumped into the ocean means checking the labels on any clothes, bedding and soft furnishings we’re considering buying for viscose, polyester and other synthetic material. They are present in a huge proportion of items we never expected.

Meanwhile, the synthetic clothing we still have is washed in a fine mesh bag at a low temperature to try to reduce the quantity of microplastics we are personally and directly responsible for releasing into the world’s oceans. The bag cost £35, not an insignificant amount of money but I was prepared to pay it.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers also recommends installing filters on washing machine waste pipes and relying less on tumble dryers to reduce the amount of microplastic we release into the water system.

Second, when I found out it takes 7,600 litres of water to make a single new pair of jeans I took a deep breath and significantly reduced the number of clothes we bought. We now default to buying second hand, including the kids’ school uniforms, and a lot less of it. The same goes for furniture and the other items in our home.

By chance, travelling with two under 4s for three months last year prompted us to declutter our home. And when we looked at the underlying issues of consumption it was clear we just had and bought way too much stuff.

We think we’ve recycled, donated or sold about 70 per cent of our possessions over the past year and haven’t yet needed to replace them. That includes our clothes. For example, I have around 50 things in my wardrobe, including shoes, coats and accessories, so I know what I have, and only buy more when they’re worn out. I hire clothes for special events.

Our socks now come out of the wash in pairs. I have no idea why.

Our monthly budget on clothes and shoes this time two years ago stood at £100, comparable with the national household average of £104 according to the Office for National Statistics. Last month we spend £28, all of it on second-hand items of better quality than we would have been able to justify the price of if new.

Energy

The hard-hitting BBC documentary Climate Change – The Facts showed that household energy use accounts for a huge proportion of carbon emissions. But renewable and carbon neutral domestic energy is now really easy to find and switch to.

Last year, we switched our energy provider to Bulb which provides homes with 100 per cent renewable electricity and 100 per cent carbon neutral gas. Other providers, as the saying goes, are available.

We pay £1,008 a year for dual fuel. That’s significantly less than the £1,250 average household spend on gas and electricity sourced from a range of fossil fuels and renewable sources.

Obviously, we want to pay and use as little as reasonably possible though, so we do what millions of others do. We have a smart meter (request one for free from your supplier), turn off lights, switch off appliances at the socket rather than leave them on standby and are working through a programme of better insulating our home.

Lighting accounts for 15 per cent of a typical household’s electricity bill. When we first went shopping for more efficient LED lightbulbs the cost of each one made me wince. But they can last anywhere from 25-80 per cent longer than traditional incandescents according to the US Department of Energy. And a single switched lightbulb can save you £2 on your energy bill, according to the Energy Saving Trust.

Just changing the bulbs in a home to LEDs can slash six tonnes from your carbon emissions a year. More tips on energy saving are available from the Energy Saving Trust.

Transport

We’re in the process of buying a second-hand electric car after toying a hybrid. Our plan to install a home charging point could come in at around £1,000. But the Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme (EVHS) provides funding worth up to 75 per cent of the cost of installing these points at domestic properties across the UK, so it should be closer to £250.

The RAC estimates that, depending on your electricity tariff, charger type and time of charge, you can travel 100 miles in an electric car from less than £2, compared with the best-value £12 in a petrol-powered vehicle. Our old car, used on the school/work run and for around two 50-mile journeys a month, was costing us £160 just to fill up. So the charging point should pay for itself within two months.

Electric vehicles are exempt from the £140 annual Vehicle Excise Duty and the RAC estimates servicing should be an average £300 cheaper because they have far simpler engines.

But insurance is significantly higher – as much as 45 per cent – because the technology is relatively new and repair options are limited. There’s also the small matter of the high purchase price for new cars, though you could receive a government grant worth £3,500 towards the cost of a new all-electric car.

Electric vehicles are said to currently produce around 15 per cent more carbon emissions than traditional vehicles when manufactured. However, daily use should produce zero carbon dioxide if charged from renewably sourced electricity.

Travel

With half a million people in the air around the world at any one time, flying is now responsible for 10 per cent of our contribution to global warming. One family long haul flight puts as much CO2 into the atmosphere as a UK household typically produces in a year.

The European Environment Agency reports that air pollution is responsible for more than half a million premature deaths a year in Europe alone.

My children and I haven’t taken any flights in two years and don’t plan to again. My husband’s work doesn’t make that a possibility and the best he can do is car share and offset the carbon emissions from his flights when he has no choice.

The carbon offsetting industry – whereby financial contributions are made to projects designed to reduce the equivalent of carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere – is still carting around a significant reputation problem years after it was badly damaged by some dodgy data reporting and a handful of questionable projects.

Today, as the world’s largest companies invest billions to boost their sustainability credentials, the industry is not only more sophisticated (it’s no longer just about planting trees), it’s also a lot easier for us mere mortals to calculate and offset the carbon emissions from travel and everyday activity.

Calculating carbon emissions for flights as well as everyday household and small business activities can be a simple matter of punching numbers into an emissions calculator and paying by the tonne.

There are still real caveats to consider, but firms such as Carbon Footprint Ltd, which provides carbon offsets to the UK Government, has prices ranging from £6 to around £13 per tonne of carbon dioxide, depending on the type of project you decide to go for.

Meanwhile, we’re trying to plant trees in our small garden at home. The RHS estimates that 22 million plants, including 98 hectares worth of trees, are planted by the charity and its members in the nation’s gardens each year. The smaller and younger the tree, the cheaper it is to buy.

Work in progress

Our lifestyle is becoming easier and more common every day. And we’re not based in a big city full of shops catering for the latest eco trend. We live in a typical market town miles from the nearest hipster hub.

Zero-waste stores are popping up everywhere, assistants don’t look at you funny when you hand over your own containers for food, the stigma of buying second hand is eroding and consumer access to once specialist eco products and services is opening up.

It has to. Because if climate campaigners agree on one thing, it is that we have to make dramatic, fundamental changes to the way we live and consume. And we have to make them today.

Our little household doesn’t have all the answers. We don’t even think we have most of them. But like a growing number of consumers, we believe wholeheartedly that this is the right thing – the only thing – for our family to do as a microscopic part of a global society facing an immediate and deadly threat.

And it definitely doesn’t cost us extra to be more green.