5 DIY Ways to Live More Sustainably (and Save Money, Too!)

If you’ve never heard of the zero-waste movement, it might seem daunting, strange, or unbelievable. I first encountered the phrase when I read an article about Laura Singer, a woman who could fit a year’s worth of trash in a single Mason jar. I didn’t think it was possible to reduce my waste that much, but I was intrigued. It caught me off guard just how interested I was. If Laura could live waste-free in a New York City apartment, there was no reason I couldn’t do the same in my Seattle home.

After four years, I still haven’t reduced down to a single jar of trash and I’m not sure I will ever get to that point; however, I waste so much less than I used to. I keep things simple and enjoy the transition process slowly.

Beyond the satisfaction of wasting less, though, living this way offers many opportunities to save money. Buying a reusable item once and using it for many years is much cheaper than buying the same thing in its disposable form on a regular basis. These days I am also more mindful of what I buy, as most impulse purchases like chips and gadgets come in non-recyclable packaging. There’s nothing wrong with buying things that you truly want or need, but I do my best to keep things minimal when I can.

Here are five ways that I waste a bit less in my own life:

1. Make Your Own Beauty Products from Ingredients in Your Kitchen

As a young woman, I was self-conscious and awkward. I struggled to know what I wanted, so most of the time I just mimicked what other people did. Naturally, I carried this behavior over into adulthood in how I consumed products. I felt that if I didn’t buy “normal” beauty products, then I would be smelly or less professional, which I now know to be untrue.

When I began to learn about zero-waste living, I made a list of the products I bought on a regular basis and considered whether or not I actually needed them. Was I just buying them out of habit? Were they essential to my well-being? Could I obtain or create the same thing without packaging waste?

Not much changed with my daily routine when I stopped adding store-bought beauty products to my cart, except for the fact that I save a lot more money each month, create less trash, and my skin is less irritated. To make this work, I devote an hour each month to making small batches of self-care products like deodorant, toothpaste, hair gel, and facial toner. My body and my wallet have never been happier. Below is the recipe for the deodorant that I use every day and truly, my armpits have never been softer. To avoid packaging and plastics, I purchase all of my ingredients (except the essential oils) in the bulk food section at the grocery store by filling reusable containers.

Homemade Deodorant

Ingredients

  • 1 Tablespoon arrowroot powder
  • 1 Tablespoon coconut oil
  • 1 Tablespoon shea butter
  • 1 Tablespoon baking soda
  • 1-2 drops essential oil (I prefer lemongrass or lavender)

Instructions

Combine all of the ingredients in a small bowl. Next, melt everything together either by placing it over a double boiler on the stove or popping it in the microwave for a few seconds.

Once completely melted, give it a little mix, then pour the liquid into a small jar that has a lid. Let your deodorant sit in the fridge for about 20 minutes to harden.

2. Swap Paper Towels for a Stack of Kitchen Rags

According to The Atlantic magazine, Americans spend more on paper towels than all other countries combined every year. After reading a similar line in a magazine years ago, I realized that the majority of people in the world don’t consider paper towels an essential, so why did I? One of the first things I did was stop buying them completely. The transition was much less dramatic than I expected, and after all this time, I don't miss them.

I live without paper towels by using a stack of kitchen rags instead. As they get dirty, I toss them into a small bucket and wash them all when the bucket is full. I also use kitchen rags instead of a sponge.

Some folks like to create what’s called “un-paper towels,” which is essentially just a roll of absorbent towels snapped together. They can be ripped off the roll just like traditional paper towels, except they’re fully washable. Folks with kids especially favor this option.

3. Make Your Own Household Cleaners

I used to keep a pile of traditional household cleaning sprays, like my mother did before me, under my kitchen sink. I had a kitchen cleaner, a bathroom cleaner, a toilet cleaner, an oven cleaner, a furniture cleaner, and so on. Beyond the amount of plastic contained in those bottles, it was a ton of money to spend and too many bottles to cram into one cabinet. I also felt uncomfortable with the long list of warnings written on each label, especially with products like kitchen cleaner that are supposed to be sprayed on counters where food is prepped.

After doing a bit of research, I realized that there are so many ways to keep a home sanitary that don’t include those products. I tried a few DIY recipes that I found online and have never looked back. What I love the most is that I can use the same spray on my kitchen counters, yoga mat, bathtub, and beyond. It’s truly multipurpose. I also save a ton of money by no longer buying a separate bottle for each cleaning task.

My favorite DIY cleaning spray is made with vinegar and orange peels, as citrus is a natural deodorizer. The process is pretty easy, too.

Homemade Citrus Cleaner

Ingredients

  • A jar or any other sealable container
  • Citrus peels
  • White vinegar
  • Strainer
  • Clean spray bottle

Instructions

Fill a jar to the brim with citrus peels (oranges and lemons are best), then fill the jar all the way with white vinegar. Seal the lid tightly and let it sit for a minimum of two weeks. Once the peels have steeped long enough, strain the solution and fill a reusable spray bottle halfway with it. Fill the other half with water. I recommend cleaning and reusing an old spray bottle instead of buying a new one.

4. Save Veggie Scraps to Make Broth

The bulk of what I throw out is actually food waste, especially veggie scraps like carrot peels and onion skins. About once every other week, I make delicious homemade vegetable broth from scraps that otherwise would have gone straight to the bin. I use the broth most often to make rice, soup, and pho.

I keep the scraps in the freezer until I have enough to make broth. When my scrap container gets full, I dump all of the veggies in a large pot, fill it with enough water to completely cover them, and let it simmer on the stove for three to four hours. I strain out the veggies and store the broth in the fridge for about a week and a half.

5. Salvage Old Fabric to Make Produce Bags

It’s so common to accumulate thin plastic bags from the produce section; however, they’re difficult to reuse, rip easily, and almost always end up in the trash just a few hours after the store. A great alternative is to make simple cloth bags, which you can wash and reuse for many years to come. Even better, make them from reclaimed fabric, like old T-shirts and sheets, to save money and prevent more items from entering the landfill.

When I sewed my first batch of cloth bags, I used a stack of old flour sack towels that were already in my kitchen. I simply hand-sewed the edges of the towel together to make a bag shape — no drawstring or anything complex. These bags served me well for two years. Later on, I decided to make upgraded bags when my dog ripped up a sheet and I didn’t want to throw out all that fabric. It’s much better to reuse what you already have instead of spending more to buy new things; there are many zero-waste products on the internet, and while they’re certainly nice to own, they’re not necessary to get started in this lifestyle.

I am certainly not a seamstress and know very little about sewing, but it only took a few YouTube videos before I could easily make my own bags at home. If I can, you can, too. This simple swap is my biggest secret to leaving a store without any plastic packaging.

Simple Cloth Bags

Supplies

  • Fabric (see instructions for amount)
  • Scissors
  • Needle
  • Thread
  • Sewing pins (optional)
  • Iron (optional)

Instructions

Cut out a rectangular piece of fabric that is twice is long and twice as wide as you’d like your bag to be. Lay your cut fabric flat, then measure it from top to bottom to find the center point. Fold the fabric in half at the center point, ensuring that all edges are lined up. To make the sewing process easier, iron the crease and pin the edges (safety pins also work great) so your fabric stays lined up — feel free to skip this part if you don’t feel like it, as it is only helpful but not essential. Thread a needle with a long piece of thread, then hand sew the two sides of the bag, leaving the top open.

This bag is incredibly no-frills, but if you want to and are able, adding a drawstring is useful. There are many wonderful tutorials online that show you how.


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