Back in 2014 I read the book Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson. If you haven’t heard of it she’s known for making her home and life as close to zero-waste as possible. She thought up ways to reduce how much trash she and her family produced in one year down to an amount that fits into a mason jar.
Her mantra is the 5 Rs: “Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot.” To do this she approaches every item and habit in daily life with the goal of eliminating the amount of trash that item or action might produce.
For example, grocery shopping. She goes beyond reusable shopping bags. She only buys food without packaging. When she buys cheese, she takes a mason jar to the cheese counter and asks them to cut however much cheese she needs and put it in the jar. No plastic wrap. She gets weird looks from the staff sometimes but she is hardcore and doesn’t care.
There are many other examples of how Johnson eliminated trash from her home. Some of it was by making household products from scratch instead of buying them. Some was by keeping a decluttered and minimalist home thereby reducing the amount of stuff and things she bought.
It’s a fascinating read and it had a big impact on me. Once you read her book you can’t help but see all the ways we produce trash in our daily life without even thinking about it. I wanted to live a zero-waste lifestyle, right away!
MY FAILED FORAY INTO A ZERO-WASTE LIFESTYLE
I tried to do too much at once and got overwhelmed. I became paralyzed in my daily life just trying to make decisions about what to buy and where to buy it or what not to buy.
It was also time consuming. I was driving to three different grocery stores because one store had refillable dish soap while the other store had refillable olive oil. The constraint on my time was stressing me out.
Every food product we normally purchased that resulted in trash I was now considering making from scratch at home. Could I make the ketchup instead of buying ketchup in a plastic bottle?
I mean all of these things ARE possible to do but not all of them all at once. For Johnson this was a year long project and basically her job. I was trying to do all this around my full-time job and parenting a grade schooler. Anyway, I kind of gave up. I held on to some of the easy habits like using reusable grocery bags and metal straws but our trash output was NOT reduced down to a mason jar.
EPIPHANY: WHAT’S GOOD FOR THE PLANET CAN BE GOOD FOR MY WALLET TOO
Fast forward to January of this year when I found the Financial Independence movement. In my quest to reduce expenses, save money, and get out of debt I was super focused on slashing what we spent on groceries. This led to looking for ways to make household products instead of buying them.
So here I am trying to make stuff from scratch and realizing hey wait a minute, when you make stuff instead of buy it not only do you save money, it can also reduce the amount of trash you produce! That’s when it dawned on my thick skull that the principles of FI and zero-waste can support each other.
So as not to get overwhelmed with doing too much at once and also not waste any product we already had on hand, I waited until the product was completely used up and kept the container it came in if it could be used to hold the DIY replacement.
There are lots of DIY recipes for household products out there on the inter webs. I keep a Pinterest board called “zero waste home” to collect ideas to try.
Here are some ways that I experimented with making products instead of buying them. Some worked great and are my new go-to DIY products and some not so much.
CITRUS PEEL AND VINEGAR SURFACE CLEANER:
I waited until the bottle of surface cleaner I had on hand was all used up and saved the plastic spray bottle. I googled “zero-waste surface cleaner” and found this recipe but there are many variations on this out there. This recipe uses white vinegar, water, and citrus peels.
I modified it by using equal parts water and vinegar and adding some essential oil. I used lemon and orange peels. After letting it sit overnight I strained it using a pasta strainer and coffee filter into the plastic spray bottle I saved.
It cleans pretty good. It does have a strong vinegar smell to it though with barely any citrus odor. I don’t mind it but both Root Jr. and Mr. Root make comments about it when I use it. Personally the odor doesn’t bother me and it doesn’t linger long. We’re using it up but when it’s gone I think I’ll try another recipe.
Maybe something with more essential oils and less vinegar so I don’t have to hear comments from the boys.
The spray I used to buy was Method brand. It costs $3.29 – $3.99 depending on where you buy it. A 32oz bottle of white vinegar is $.89. I used 8oz for one batch of spray. We ate the orange and used the peels.
The lemon peels were left over from a lemon used in a recipe we made for dinner.
By making it I save a few bucks. Not buying it from the store also reduces the amount of plastic packaging I would normally consume. In Austin this type of plastic is recyclable but there is more plastic on this planet than recycling can keep up with.
It’s better to reduce the amount of it purchased in the first place. Reusing the plastic bottle left over from the Method spray also saves a bottle from being added to the recycling heap.
SPRAY STARCH FOR IRONING:
When we were Pre-FI I used to take Mr. Root’s shirts to the dry cleaners along with an occasional item of my own. It wasn’t much because neither of us wear those types of items often. I mostly did it because I didn’t want to iron anything.
Once I found FI I declared that dry-cleaning was an expense that would be forever slashed! We would wash and iron those darn shirts ourselves. Not only did this cut expenses but it reduced the plastic bags and wire hangers we brought into our home. Plus it eliminated the toxic chemicals on our clothes that dry cleaners use.
One thing I do like about dry-cleaned clothes is the crisp look and feel. At home this can only be achieved with ironing and spray starch. I had made peace with the fact that I was willing to iron them myself but I didn’t want to buy a can of toxic expensive spray starch from the store. That would defeat the purpose of the whole endeavor.
So I googled DIY recipes for spray starch and found a recipe that works like a charm! It’s just water, corn starch, and some lavender essential oil that leaves a nice fresh scent. It’s just the right amount of crispness, not too starchy, so the shirts still feel soft. The mixture settles and separates between uses but you just give it a shake and it mixes back up again. I’m quite happy with this recipe and would definitely use it again.
I don’t know exactly how much we spent annually on dry-cleaning. I do know that a can of spray starch can cost from $5 -$15 depending on what brand. The DIY starch costs pennies to make! This definitely saves us money and is better for the planet.
This is an idea I got from Johnson’s book. It didn’t occur to me to try it back when I first read the book. It seemed so radical at the time. But my new FI Mindset and my reawakened enthusiasm for zero-waste made me feel brave. There are many DIY toothpaste and toothpowder recipes out there. But I found Johnson’s to be the simplest and cheapest.
It’s just baking soda and stevia powder. I add a few drops of peppermint extract to mine. I store it in a metal shaker. I make enough to last about two weeks. I’ve found that making too large of a batch results in it getting caked up and hard. If the peppermint flavor fades I just add a few more drops.
To use it I just wet my toothbrush and dip it in. If this grosses you out you can shake it onto your brush instead but be sure to do it over your sink so you don’t get powder everywhere. To be honest it’s a very different toothbrushing experience than using traditional store-bought tooth paste.
It doesn’t foam up the way regular toothpaste does so you kind of have to adjust your toothbrushing style a bit. It doesn’t leave as minty of a feel either. But it works just fine. I have had at least two dental check ups and haven’t heard any complaints from my dentist. Root Jr. and Mr. Root tried it but said no thanks. But for me I say if Bea can do it so can I.
I used to buy Toms of Maine or whatever hippie-eco brand I could find which costs from $4-$6 a tube. So I’m saving a little dough and reducing the amount of plastic tubes I buy that can’t be recycled.
This is another idea I got from Johsnon’s book and I used her recipe. Again there are many DIY recipes but this one is quite simple using just water, lemon, and vodka.
I used up the hairspray I had on hand and kept the bottle. I poured the DIY hairspray in it. It sprays on easily and doesn’t have much of scent.
My hair has fly aways so I use hairspray to tame them. This recipes works fine for that. It’s very light and not very sticky. If you need more of an AquaNet effect this will not do the trick. Honestly I could use something a wee bit stickier. Once this batch is used up I might try tweaking it with more lemon because I assume that’s what provides the stickiness?
I used to buy Giovanni LA Spritz brand because of it’s non-aerosol earth and animal friendliness, although it comes in a plastic bottle but I haven’t found any brands of hairspray in more eco-friendly packaging. All the more reason to make your own!
These brands tend to cost more than regular brands so quite often trying to shop earth-friendly costs more. A bottle costs $7-8 bucks but this DIY spray costs pennies!
I have to admit I was a little hesitant at trying out DIY laundry detergent. I was afraid to mess up our HE appliances. I also doubted that any homemade mixture would adequately clean our clothes. But I hated that even the eco-friendly brands I bought came in plastic bottles. And again, because I preferred the eco-friendly brands I was spending more money than if I just bought a bargain brand.
I researched different recipes and came across this one which I am quite happy with. It uses bar soap, washing soda, borax, and essential oil. I didn’t even know washing soda was a thing. I happened to have a giant box of borax on hand thanks to Root Jr.’s long forgotten slime-making phase.
The good thing about washing soda and borax is that they are cheap and come in cardboard recyclable boxes.
I like Dr. Bronners castile soap. It’s cheap and comes in paper recyclable packaging.
Making this laundry powder is much easier if you have a food-processor on hand for grating the soap (which I do because of my obsession with food). It takes about 15 minutes to make. I make a double batch at a time. I store it in a plastic container and it lasts for a good while.
I use a giant serving spoon to add one scoop per load. I put the powder in the same part of the washer I would normally add liquid detergent to.
It does a great job at cleaning our clothes. It doesn’t have a very strong scent like if you used Tide or something similar but it does smell clean. Our washer doesn’t seem to mind it one bit. I’m quite happy with this swap too.
We go through quite a bit of tissues at our house. Not just for runny noses but I use them every day for stuff like make up removal. Tissues aren’t super pricy but when you put together the cost savings over time in addition to the other DIY swaps it does make a positive impact on the grocery bill.
Additionally there’s the environmental impact. Tissues are made from pulp that is made from trees. There’s also the chemicals used to bleach them that are not eco-friendly. Eco-friendly brands are available but those can be pricier.
Then of course there’s the trash they produce. You can recycle the cardboard boxes they come in if you’re careful to remove the plastic film insert but the tissues can’t be recycled.
While roaming around zero-waste blogs and Instagram accounts I saw yet another idea that never occurred to me: replacing tissues with reusable hankies.
This too seemed radical. But if you think about it, tissues are a fairly modern invention. Single use items in general are modern day conveniences that previous generations got by without. My mamie (French for grandma) didn’t have tissue boxes sprinkled around her house. Back in her day people used hankies and washed them.
So I gave it a go. I pulled out a soft, old, cotton pillow case that we no longer use and cut it up into tissue-sized squares. I folded them up and plopped them into a mason jar. I put the mason jar in an office desk organizer basket. After one use I toss the dirty tissue into the basket. When the pile grows I toss them into the wash with a load of laundry.
If I have a cold I wash them separately in hot water just to be safe and not gross anyone out.
There are many other cute ideas for how to store them like this one for example.
I still need to sew the edges of my tissues so the edges don’t look all frayed. This task is on my to-do list since I do have a sewing machine and would enjoy having them look a little more dainty.
Using sheets or pillowcases you already own is nice because it’s a way to “up-cycle” something that might have otherwise ended up in the landfill. Also it costs ZERO dollars.
I still have a box of eco-friendly tissues in the guest bath because I’m not quite ready to radicalize my house guests or force my radical ways on the boys in my house. At some point I plan to make cuter, daintier tissue set ups for all our bathrooms to at least give users the choice and maybe spark some conversation.
I have tried a couple of things with dish soap. After using the last of our Method liquid dish soap that comes in a plastic bottle I tried using a dish soap bar. I put the bar in a soap dish on the kitchen sink ledge and then just rubbed the sponge, cloth, or scrub brush on the soap to get them soapy enough to do dishes.
It has a light lemon scent. It cleaned pretty well but it doesn’t get sudsy. Also you can’t squeeze soap liquid into a big dirty sauce pan that needs soaking. Mr. Root noted that while it’s nice for washing hands too it’s hard to grab out of the soap dish because it gets kind of stuck hard on there.
On a scale of 1 – 5 with 5 being the highest I’d give this dish washing experience a 3.5.
Once the bar was all used up I tried making some liquid dish soap. The recipe I tried calls for a 1 tbsp of grated bar soap (I added two), some borax, and water. You mix it all up and let it sit over night. I guess the borax is some kind of activator because the next day it was kind of gelatinous.
I added some lavender essential oil and shook it up. It got pretty sudsy and I had to let it settle before I could pour it into a pump bottle I had. Mr. Root said it looked like a beer with a big foamy head that had to settle before you can drink it.
(Side note: I had a pump bottle leftover from my first foray into zero-waste land. It’s got a “shampoo” label on it. I had to drive to a store way out of my way just to buy bulk shampoo and conditioner. I made that trip maybe twice before I gave up because it was too inconvenient.)
It was nice to able to squirt liquid soap directly into a pot or onto a sponge but it lacked cleaning power. This is not surprising given that it had just two tablespoons of grated bar soap in it. Also it got more and more gelatinous over time so we had to shake it up so that it was liquid enough to pump.
We tried it for about a week but at my next grocery shop I gave in and bought a plastic bottle of eco-friendly liquid dish soap. The store-bought soap smells good, gets very sudsy, and cleans really well. There’s just no comparison.
I can recycle the plastic bottle it comes in but I’d rather not have to purchase the plastic in the first place. I’ll keep searching for different DIY liquid dish soap recipes. If you know of any please share in the comments!
OTHER ECO HACKS THAT AREN’T REALLY DIY BUT COOL NONETHELESS
We haven’t cut out paper towels but I have implemented cloth napkins to cut back on paper towel use. I have a set of a dozen cloth napkins that we didn’t really use much. I folded them all and put them in a bowl right under the paper towel holder. Now every time I reach for a paper towel I pause to ask if I can just use a cloth napkin for this instead?
We used to tear off a paper towel to use as napkins for every meal. Now we mostly use the cloth napkins. I also use them for little clean ups, wipes, and spills instead of just automatically reaching for the paper towels. We buy less paper towels which saves us money. Since they have the same type of environmental impact as tissues it’s a little easier on the planet too.
Hopefully over time the family we’ll get used to using less paper towels and we can cut them out completely at some point. Maybe?
TOILET PAPER ROLLS AND DRYER LINT
You might have seen this around on the inter webs already. We save our toilet paper rolls and stuff them with the lint from the clothes dryer filter. Once a roll is all stuffed we save them in our basket next to fireplace to use as fire starters. Brilliant n’est-ce pas?
FRUGALITY AND ZERO-WASTE CAN BE BEST FRIENDS
I think the key with my experience in trying frugal DIY zero-waste this year in comparison to my failed zero-waste foray from years ago is in the change in mindset I had since finding FI.
Approaching it through the lens of frugality made me mindful to use up the household products we already had on hand before replacing them with alternatives. Turns out we had quite a back stock of products to use before replacements were needed. This meant that I didn’t run out of everything all at once.
In turn I wasn’t frantically trying to do everything all at once and shop my way to zero-waste. Instead when we were low on one item that was my cue to try a replacement just for that one item so I didn’t feel overwhelmed trying to make all of the things.
This approach set a cycle so that I’m not spending every free spare moment I have making products from scratch. One weekend I might take 15 minutes to make the laundry soap and two weekends later I’ll make a batch of tooth powder. These batches last a while so overall it doesn’t take much extra time.
Additionally, the epiphany I had that the principles of FI and sustainability can compliment each other made finding frugal, eco-friendly alternatives that much more meaningful to me.
What’s good for my wallet can also be good for the planet and vice versa. That being said I recognize that it can be challenging to balance frugality with making choices that are eco-friendly. Many of the most affordable household products are indeed not the best choice for the planet. And many products that are good for the planet aren’t that great for your wallet.
I try to do what I can, when I can, being mindful not to beat myself up if I’m not measuring up to some self-imposed standard of frugality or zero-waste lifestyle.
I aim for lower-waste when I can and try not too get militant about what I will or won’t buy. We live in a culture where we are bombarded with ads selling us single use items that we “NEED” and we are just used to having in our lives. We are used to convenience and changing lifelong habits can be difficult.
Remaining flexible also keeps me and my family sane. Root Jr. still gets to use Sparkleberry Crest toothpaste and we still have a plastic tub of Oxiclean powder in the laundry for Mr. Roots really grundy work clothes. But I believe every little bit counts in trying to lessen the impact on the planet and cutting pennies off our grocery bills.
Johnson’s 5 Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot, can be good for you wallet too. Those saved pennies are used to pay off our debt getting us that much closer to Financial Independence.
TELL MY ABOUT YOUR HACKS
Do you have any DIY recipes or zero/lower-waste hacks to share? Tell me about them in the comments! Seriously, I need a liquid dish soap recipe!
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