8+ Ways to Go Zero Waste Without Spending Any Money

There are so many posts out there dedicated to all the things we can buy to be zero waste. This is not one of them. Yes, sometimes the things that we buy are helpful in reducing our waste now and in the future – such as reusable produce bags or a compost bin. Buying things can be necessary. Consumables (things like dishcloths, scrubbing brushes, handwash) run out, and need to be replaced.

But zero waste is not all about buying stuff. The zero waste lifestyle is not a consumer lifestyle. As George Monbiot said, we can consume more, or we can conserve more… but we can’t do both.

If we continue to talk about zero waste living in terms of the things we can buy, and encourage more shopping and the accumulation of stuff, we’re staying on the consumer treadmill and still using resources at an alarming rate.

Not to mention, as soon as we talk about buying stuff, zero waste appears to be only for those people not trying to stick to a budget.

The good news is, plenty of things that lead to living zero waste can be done for free! No spend required.

Here’s how you can embrace zero waste living without buying anything.

1. Glass Jars

Glass jars are your zero waste friend! And even better, they are free!

Stop recycling your glass jars, and save them for re-use. Rescue glass jars out of your friend’s recycling bin. Rescue glass jars from cafe and restaurant recycling bins (this is where I scored all of my big 2 litre glass jars). Ask on your local Buy Nothing group, or zero waste/sustainable living Facebook Group. Put an ad on Gumtree or Craigslist asking for free jars.

Once you have your glass jar collection, use them for everything! They can be taken to the bulk store to buy ingredients without packaging, if this is an option for you. They can be used for food storage – taking lunch to work, keeping cookies on the counter, organising your pantry, storing leftovers in the fridge, and even in the freezer. (Yes, you can store glass jars in the freezer. More info here.)

They can be used for preserving jams and chutneys. (Eventually the lids may need replacing, but most lids will last a few rounds. Use lids with the air lock pressy button thing to ensure they are sealed.)

They can be used on the go for takeaway smoothies or coffee.

They can be used to store non-food items, like toothbrushes or pens.

They can be used as packaging for gifts (store-bought or homemade treats, soap).

They can be used as water glasses (I have a lovely set of Bonne Maman jars, with the wide mouths, for this purpose).

Glass jars replace so many other storage containers, and there is no need to buy a single one. If a jar breaks, there is a plentiful supply of more free glass jars almost everywhere we go.

2. Line Your Bin without Buying Bin Liners

There is absolutely no need to buy bin liners. Depending on the size of your bin, what you put in it and how often you fill it, there are plenty of zero waste solutions that don’t cost a cent/penny.

When I first went plastic-free, I used old newspaper to line my bin. I received a free community newspaper, and there was a cafe down the road that offered the daily newspaper for free to its customers to read, so of course the paper got covered in coffee. (More info on lining a bin with newspaper here.)

My bin was wastepaper-sized. It is much trickier to line big bins with newspaper, and some recycling collections require the waste to be bagged (mine gets tipped into a big co-mingled recycling bin, so this isn’t an issue).

It also depends on how much wet and stinky stuff goes in your bin. If you compost your food scraps and only dry stuff is going in the bin, you could use an old jute coffee sack, old pillow case, repurposed plastic food bucket, a cardboard box or do away with any kind of liner altogether.

If you need a waterproof/plastic liner, consider what other packaging you buy that you could repurpose. Some ideas are plastic bread bags, empty potato chip packets, or pet food/litter bags. If you don’t have enough, ask your friends, family and work colleagues… or put a request on the groups mentioned above.

(If you create a lot of waste, consider separating into “wet” and “dry” – that way you can use one of the ideas above for the dry stuff, and keep the plastic liners for the wet only, to make them go further.)

Better to reuse something already in existence than create something new.

3. Eat Your Food Scraps

So much food that we throw away, we can eat. I don’t mean stuff that was edible but is now past its use-by date, I mean food that IS still perfectly edible… we just don’t know how to use it.

Using scraps that we would usually throw in the bin makes the household budget go much further.

Wash potato peelings, toss in a little oil and then bake in the oven for 10 mins or so each side until crispy. Free potato chips!

Rather than chucking the broccoli stalk, cut the outer edges off, and dice or slice the soft green core. Add to pasta, stir-fries and curries just as you could the florets.

Outer cauliflower leaves can be roasted – drizzle with olive oil, add plenty of garlic and roast until the green outers are crispy and the stems are soft. Alternatively, chop and add to curries.

Save onion skins, the top green parts of leeks, carrot shavings, zucchini tips and other veggies scraps for making stock. Pop into a glass jar, freeze, and when the jar is full boil it up to make a veggie broth. (The same can be done with animal bones to make meat/fish stock).

Keep your apple cores and peels and make into your own apple cider vinegar – the only other thing you need is a tablespoon or so of sugar. Can be used in cooking, as a digestive tonic, for hair washing (yep, that’s a thing – and will save you buying conditioner) and even cleaning.

4. Compost your food waste (for free)

Setting up a compost bin, worm farm or bokashi system can cost money, but it doesn’t have to. The bins and buckets required for these things are often given away for free, second-hand. Keep you eye out on Gumtree or Craigslist, and especially if you have verge collections locally.

Failing that, it is possible to make these things with repurposed materials and minimal effort. Worm farms can be made from repurposed polystyrene boxes (ask your local supermarket for theirs) – here’s a step-by-step guide on making a polystyrene box worm farm.

Most community gardens or people with worm farms will give you a handful of composting worms for free to get you going.

A bokashi system can be made using two repurposed white builder/food buckets placed one inside the other, with holes cut into the inner one to create drainage.

If doing it yourself is just a step too far, find somewhere local that will take your food scraps for you. Community compost hubs and community gardens are everywhere, and so are willing backyard composters. The best place to find somewhere local to you is sharewaste.com.

5. Cleaning Cloths / Wipes

There’s no need to buy cleaning cloths, wipes, rags, paper towel or tissues. We can simply repurpose old fabric that we would previously have recycled as rags. Old towels, bedding, T-shirts, work shirts… even underpants, if you’re not faint-hearted.

Typically natural fibres work better over completely plastic polyester fabric.

Chop old clothing into squares to use as cleaning cloths, handkerchiefs (you can store them in a glass jar on the coffee table!) and reusable “unpaper” towel. Cut into strips to make rags.

Using sharp scissors will help prevent the fabric fraying, crimping shears will help even more and if you can sew the edges up, that’s the best solution to make them last.

Obviously, the better we are at sewing the better these things will look. Aesthetics matter to some. And whilst a few of of us might revel in the rebellious act of using old underpants to do the dishes, it might be a step too far for others.

Look at where you use disposable paper products, look at the fabric you have on hand, and do what works best for you.

6. Borrow before Buying

We often don’t need the thing that we buy, we need to result that it offers. We don’t need a drill, we need a hole in the wall. We don’t need a blender, we need to puree vegetables for a one-off recipe.

Informally, you can ask friends, family, colleagues or neighbours if they can lend you the thing that you need.

More formally, you may have access to libraries. Books, toys, music, movies, games and tools can all be borrowed this way.

I’ve just set up a local Community Dishes library for people to borrow crockery and cutlery, to save them buying new stuff at the blue-and-yellow furniture store or using disposables. There may be something similar in your area. Libraries of Things are popping up in more places, too.

7. Find for Free

If we need the thing, we still don’t have to buy it new, or even second-hand. We can find it for free. We can ask friends, family, neighbours or colleagues, we can look for ads on online classifieds, we can put requests in Buy Nothing groups, and we can trawl verge pickups looking for the item.

Second-hand means no packaging, it also means keeping existing items in circulation and reduces demand for new products, saving resources. Second-hand doesn’t always mean cheap. Second-hand and free – well, that’s within everyone’s budget.

People often have things languishing in the back of the cupboard, and are keen for someone to take it off their hands. I’ve scored a clothes drying rack, an electric fry pan, heaps of lemons, a computer monitor and an almost new pair of trainers from my local Buy Nothing group, all for free.

8. Reusables for On the Go

Rather than buying a water bottle, upcycle an old glass passata bottle, or a VOSS glass water bottle.

Rather than buying a reusable coffee cup, use a glass jar. Make a heat band using elastic bands, or those silicone charity fundraising bracelets. Or, if you’re crafty, sew or knit a band.

Rather than buying a reusable lunchbox, use a glass jar or tea towel to wrap food, or make a sandwich wrap from fabric if you can sew.

Rather than buying a set of to-go cutlery, take your kitchen cutlery out with you. You can make a wrap to keep it neat, or wrap it in some cloth.

There you have it – a few ideas to get you started living zero waste, no spend required. Don’t buy in to the idea (see what I did there?!) that zero waste means spending money. Sure, there are nice things to buy, and many of them are useful. But zero waste living can still be pursued whilst spending nothing at all.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you do any of these things? All of these things? Are you new to zero waste/plastic-free and overwhelmed at all the stuff you think you need to buy? Are you a pro at using second-hand and free solutions? What no-spend zero waste tips would you add? Any other thoughts? Please leave a comment below!

8+ Ways to Go Zero Waste Without Spending Any Money8+ Ways to Go Zero Waste Without Spending Any Money8+ Ways to Go Zero Waste Without Spending Any Money8+ Ways to Go Zero Waste Without Spending Any Money8+ Ways to Go Zero Waste Without Spending Any Money8+ Ways to Go Zero Waste Without Spending Any Money
64 replies
  1. Bronwen Cavallo
    Bronwen Cavallo says:

    The left over cotton yarn in my stash is making pretty cool dishcloths at the moment. The more fun stitches yoyu kinit in, the better they scrub the plates!

  2. Heidi Hough
    Heidi Hough says:

    I already use old towels and clothes for cloths to clean the floor and car and other dirty jobs but I hadn’t thought of using old shirts cut up instead of paper towels. I love Bronwen’s idea of knitting dishcloths. I should’ve thought of that myself – it’s how a learnt to knit many years ago with my grandma!

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Textiles are such a huge contribution to landfill and yet there are so many ways we can repurpose them around the home, it is such a missed opportunity I think, Heidi! And funny you say that, I thought that is exactly what I shall make when I teach myself to knit/crochet! ;)

    • Varada
      Varada says:

      One other option is to cut up fabric scraps to make pillow stuffing instead of but pillow and cushions with artificial non-biodegradable filling.

  3. Antonella
    Antonella says:

    Ottimi consigli! Io uso e riuso per la spesa anche piccoli contenitori di plastica (small plastic boxes) ereditati da precedenti acquisti, dove si può mettere formaggio, ricotta o altri prodotti freschi che altrimenti sono venduti in vaschette usa-e-getta. In macchina tengo sempre un po’ di borse di stoffa per la spesa, le altre le ho a casa. Per il vetro, va benissimo come suggerisce Lindsay, ma (secondo me) attenzione ai coperchi perché sono di metallo e facilmente deperibili; si rischia di far andare a male il cibo, se non si fa attenzione.

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Okay Antonella, I had to get Google Translate to help me out with this one! Here’s the translation for anyone else wondering: Excellent advice! I also use and reuse small plastic containers (small plastic boxes) inherited from previous purchases, where you can put cheese, ricotta or other fresh products that are otherwise sold in disposable containers. In the car I always keep some bags of cloth for shopping, the others I have at home. For glass, it is fine as Lindsay suggests, but (in my opinion) pay attention to the lids because they are metal and easily perishable; you risk to make food bad, if you are not careful.

      Yeah the lids do expire in time, particularly if storing pickles/chutneys/wet or salty things. So dry pasta – they last for years. Salt – they rust in no time. The good news is there are as many jar lids in the world as there are jars – plus it’s possible to purchase new ones if required.

      • Antonella
        Antonella says:

        Many thanks, Lindsay. (Grazie mille). Yes, I use Google translator too, but I think I can say better my thoughts in my mother tongue (Sì, anch’io uso Google traduttore, ma penso di potermi esprimere meglio nella mia lingua madre). I hope you do not mind my choice (spero che la mia scelta non ti dispiaccia). I’ve been following you for a few years (ti seguo già da qualche anno) and I admire your commitment (e ammiro il tuo impegno).
        Unfortunately I think that here in Italy it is more difficult to put into practice the good rules of civil life (purtroppo credo che qui in Italia sia più difficile mettere in pratica le buone regole del vivere civile). Sometimes rummaged in the street trash to divide the waste each in his dumpster (A volte rovisto nella spazzatura di strada per dividere i rifiuti ognuno nel suo cassonetto), and sometimes even municipal operators do not carry waste to the correct disposal site (e a volte nemmeno gli operatori del Comune portano i rifiuti nel luogo corretto di smaltimento).
        Mi fa piacere sapere che esistono persone come te.
        Un caro saluto e alla prossima occasione!

        • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
          Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

          Hi Antonella! For sure, write in whatever language works best for you – Google Translate will help me at my end! I sometimes wish if all the countries could put together all the good things in terms of reducing waste, the results would be epic! Everywhere does some things well but other things alarmingly badly!

    • Makenzie
      Makenzie says:

      Great advice! I also use and reuse for shopping small plastic boxes inherited from previous purchases, where you can put cheese, ricotta or other fresh products that are otherwise sold in disposable trays. In the car I always keep some cloth bags for shopping, the others I have at home. For glass, that’s fine as Lindsay suggests, but (in my opinion) beware of the lids because they are metal and easily perishable; you risk spoiling your food if you are not careful.

      is what she said

  4. K
    K says:

    My resolution is to buy produce that is lightly bruised or second best. So much is wasted because people only take the best. I know one swipe with a peeler will make most into A grade and save the waste. Look at Drawdown or any sustainability plan and see what a big problem food waste is.

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Hi K, yes you are so right, and it is a bit of a conscious thing to actually try to not automatically take the “best looking” even though a surface blemish on an item we peel is a total non-issue. If I buy tomatoes knowing I’m going to blend them and make tomato sauce, I try to choose the softer ones. If an avocado has a surface blemish, I’ll choose that. A lonely banana, gets added to my basket. But if I’m not careful I’ll find myself swaying back towards the pretty stuff… A good challenge, good luck with it :)

  5. Lauren Ann Read Koslow
    Lauren Ann Read Koslow says:

    I’ve always wondered why one-person bamboo utensil sets are a thing. I’ve always brought my own silverware!

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Hi Lauren, hah, funnily enough I actually have a set! They were purchased for me as a birthday present in 2012, about 5 months after I went plastic-free. I guess at the time zero waste was not so much on my radar, it was back in the days when I still “did” birthday gifts (these days I ask not to receive gifts) and it seemed like a good plastic-free solution. I have them so I use them, and they are handy on flights because they are not metal and camping because they are light. But if I had my time again I’d sew a cutlery wrap, and put the stuff in the kitchen drawer in it – or get a spare set from the charity shop. In fact, when I give talks and workshops I often talk about this – it is a good example, I think!

  6. Ariane Lariviere
    Ariane Lariviere says:

    Wow that’s awesome! I just realized I started the zeeo-waste lifestyle way before I thought I did. When my boyfriend and I moved 5 years ago and since then, we haven’t bought many new things. We got couchs, shelves, tables and chairs, etc. From friends and family.

    I always thought it feels so much better to bring all the items in your home to the very end of their lives, than to throw stuff away just to spend money on the exact same thing (purpose-wise).

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Hi Ariane! Ah, I love second-hand furniture. And yes, I’ve never understood needing to replace things for “new colour schemes” – I have zero sense of style! But saying that, if things need changing around and freshening up, nothing wrong with letting items go so long as we find new homes for them. It’s when it all ends up on the verge or in landfill when it is perfectly good still to use that it breaks my heart :(

  7. sarahn
    sarahn says:

    I’ll totally confess I love to buy me the latest zero waste gadgets – I allow myself an annual shop at Biome, online and get it sent. Cause yep, aesthetics matter to me. But I also have cut mens’ boxers for rags, and still use them, even though that man is gone from my life!

    In 2018 I: got a worm farm and used it; bought who gives a crap for tp and tissues. I ‘gifted’ my parents stainless steel pegs (I use wood, as I’m an indoor drying gal) and cardboard stemmed cotton buds. Bought myself 5 matching glass spray bottles for vinegar, vodka, DIY spray starch.

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Love your perspective, Sarah! I totally agree that aesthetics matter sometimes – more to some than others. Im sure I’ve mentioned before that I have two big stainless steel Klean Kanteen growlers to collect the water that runs whilst the hot tap is getting hot (my hot water tank is on the roof, so it is about 6 litres of water every time. I used to use old wine bottles, but I needed about 10, and they totally cluttered the area around the sink, and looked so messy it drove me nuts! In the end I replaced them with the growlers. But I wanted to rather than needed to, and I’d never say they were a “zero waste essential”! The wine bottles worked just fine! I think with all things, it’s balance. So long as people new to zero waste don’t think such purchases are compulsory!

  8. Minna
    Minna says:

    Old underwear is my favorite dust cloth (the fabric is always nice and soft)! It never occurred to me that others might be weirded out by that! :)

  9. Debbie Gannaway
    Debbie Gannaway says:

    Love this post. Have always used old towels, sheets, shirts, even flannel nightgown for rags. Socks are great for dusting, and polishing, just put it on like a glove!
    Old tooth brushes never get thrown out. My gramma had large tins for each of the following: buttons, string, rubber bands, empty spools of thread, straight pins and safety pins. I can’t claim all that, but I have buttons, pins and twisted ties! Thanks

      • twinkletoes2day
        twinkletoes2day says:

        Hi =) You could sew your buttons together, not in a pile, but in several rows and make them into a bug curtain for your house door or a window =)

        I am in the UK (Scotland to be precise) I loved your post and all the different ideas you have plus all the comments here too. I use socks for dusting and old towels for cleaning, but am conscious of the micro fibres they give off when washed :(
        I have so many glass jars, but no uses for all of them. I think I will sort them and post them on a local FB Buy/Swap/Sell page if anyone else would like some.

  10. colleen
    colleen says:

    I loved reading this thread and all the ideas. Just one caution. When canning I don’t reuse seals that have already been opened. All your hard word and produce is wasted if & when they don’t repeal properly. I have picked up many mason jars over the years but I buy new seals when I am canning. It’s safer than reusing the commercial ones that don’t fit the ring and seal Mason combination.
    I too need to restart crotchetiness. I just cut for rags an old T-shirt but I have many rags and I see I should have cut it into strips and crotcheted a wash cloth.

    • Lindsay (Treading My Own Path)
      Lindsay (Treading My Own Path) says:

      Hi Colleen, yes I totally agree about that. I was kind of lumping pickling and preserving and canning all together, and of course pickles high in vinegar and salt and sugar are much lower risk than canned fruit, for example. Hopefully anyone wanting to get really into canning will do their research first! :)

  11. Jane Allan
    Jane Allan says:

    Love this post. Now I wonder how I can recommend it to a few people in my life who constantly let me know how’green’ they are because of the purchases they have made. I gifted a couple some home made shopping bags that were made from an old duvet cover. In the bags were some draw string produce bags made from old net curtains. This person proudly shared with me their new shopping bags and produce bags that they bought at the after Christmas sales. I will just continue using up what I have and rethinking items as ‘needs’ come up

  12. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    Thank you for this! I feel like so many ‘zero waste’ guides advocate going out to buy -more- stuff (keep cups, tote bags, etc.) rather than simply working through what we already have. But this I can get behind :)

  13. Lauren
    Lauren says:

    I’m so glad I found this post – bin liners have been one thing I’ve struggled to find an alternative for! Using bread bags is a brilliant idea (our rubbish has to bagged here). I love the potato peel idea too!
    One thing I started doing a while ago was cutting up my old worn-out secondhand shirts to make handkerchiefs. I take them out with me to use as napkins. Any fabric scraps left over get used as stuffing for knitted and crocheted toys for little cousins!

  14. Mandy
    Mandy says:

    I’m using oatmeal containers with a bead bag liner as my trash can. Once i got a composter set up i only have about two tiny bags of trash a week! Making progress… Thanks for all your great ideas!

  15. Julia Wilkinson (Miss)
    Julia Wilkinson (Miss) says:

    Thanks for the good article.
    I’m trying to reduce post sent to me, but if I receive a printed letter, I often save it for using the blank side. I’m planning on making my own e- cards in future with my own very short videos, but when I receive cards, I often later use one half for scribbling notes, and the picture half goes to my little nephew and niece for cutting up. If I receive a parcel, sometimes I save some of the cardboard for use as a surface for art painting; also some of the cardboard goes in my composting as my compost bin requires cardboard scraps. Also, treacle tins make good pen pots, as they’re quite decorative!

  16. Julia Wilkinson (Miss)
    Julia Wilkinson (Miss) says:

    I should add: when using cardboard as a base for acrylic art painting, it’s best to paint the cardboard first with gesso. I’ve read it’s also best, before the gesso, to paint the cardboard with PVA glue, to stop the cardboard warping.

  17. Linda Sand
    Linda Sand says:

    I cut off the pictures from greeting cards I receive and reuse them as post cards. Kids love getting mail and these postcards are easy to make. The bags inside cereal boxes are also reusable.

  18. bin rental
    bin rental says:

    Thank you for posting an awesome article. It was super helpful and really makes me want to try out your approach! I’m currently trying to reduce my waste, but it’s hard when you’re on a budget. Your advice has given me some good ideas that will help me continue reducing my waste without breaking the bank. Thank you so much for sharing all of these tips with us – they are incredibly helpful!


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