How Expensive is Traveling Plastic-Free?

If you know me personally, you might be aware of the fact that I like saving money. If I can buy the same thing for cheaper, why pay an unnecessary markup on the same product? Or why take the taxi, if public transport can get you to the same destination, just much cheaper? To be honest, I would rather save that money and use it for something that I enjoy in the future. And what I enjoy most is traveling. So for me, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to save 15 minutes by taking the taxi, if that means you cannot go on your next dream trip to the alps!

Naturally, I used to be a very big sceptic of eco-friendly replacement products. Those products usually cost two to ten times as much. And who knows how long I would end up using them? Unfortunately, I also have the habit of growing tired of something quite quickly. All in all, not the best prerequisites for buying more sustainable products. As I studied sustainability and became more aware of the problems associated with disposable plastic products, it started bugging me more and more that I didn’t invest in more sustainable products.

Lately, the market for plastic alternatives started growing immensely. I recently went on a ‘Vegan Festival’ where, next to all the amazing vegan food, they had many vendors selling sustainable alternatives for pretty much everything. With all those beautiful products out there, I couldn’t get around buying a couple for myself. I came home loaded with what would probably best be described as the ultimate starter kit for living a plastic free life: bamboo toothbrushes, soaps, shopping bags, reusable makeup removers.. and the list goes on.

Doing the Math

I was beyond excited to start using all those amazing products. Because I didn’t want to waste the products that I might already have at home, I’m still waiting to try all of them. Switching to those plastic-free alternatives kept me wondering. Is it really that much more expensive to switch to the more sustainable alternatives? Or maybe I just wanted to justify all the money that I spent. In any case, since I am a math nerd at heart, I started crunching the numbers.

I wrote down a list of the most used disposable plastic items. Most items on the list were products that I would use both at home and while traveling. In the end, the two biggest segments were products related to eating and drinking, and products related to personal hygiene. For example, toothbrushes, makeup removers and shampoo were some items related to personal hygiene. Water bottles, To-Go cups and plastic cutlery all made it on the list as well.

I then found sustainable, mostly plastic-free alternatives for each product on my list (check out my evaluation of common plastic substitutes here). For both lists, the disposable items and the sustainable products, I looked up average prices of each item. I also estimated how often these products were usually used until they were thrown away. In the end, I ended up with the cost per day of each product. I wanted to compare the cost of switching to sustainable alternatives for my next trip. And when I looked at the numbers, I couldn’t believe what I found!

Good for Your Wallet and the Planet

When I started my calculations, I was expecting to find the eco-friendly products to cost a little more. I was prepared to justify the additional cost by the fact that I was doing something good for the planet. Once I finished crunching the numbers, however, I was astonished that the sustainable alternatives were not only cheaper, they were much cheaper! If you take a three week holiday as an example, my calculations show that going plastic-free only costs you a third of the money!

To understand how that is possible with the rather expensive one-off costs, you have to understand the underlying assumptions. Disposable products are just that: Disposable. Their alternatives, however, are meant to last for a long time. Their cost should be treated as an investment and not directly compared to the one-off cost of single-use products.

Take a water bottle, for example. Supposing your goal is to stay hydrated, you would have to drink at least one bottle of water a day. If you buy it in the supermarket, that’s one plastic bottle per day. If you start using a reusable water bottle, on the other hand, you buy it once and use it until it breaks. Let’s assume it lasts for two years and you always fill it up with tap water. All of a sudden, your water doesn’t cost 1€ a day anymore, but 0.03€. What’s more, you didn’t only save one plastic bottle from potentially ending up in the ocean, you also saved the emissions from the transport to the supermarket.

The water bottle is not the only example though. There are other products which let you save just as much. A reusable shopping bag, for example, or reusable makeup removers. All those products that you buy once and then use until they fall apart. Makeup remover pads, for instance, were quite expensive when I bought 10 of them for about 15€. Comparing it to the regular ones from the drug store, however, means I save one cent every time I use them.

not more expensive to travel plastic-free
Assumptions: Bag fees of 0.20€ in supermarkets

You Can’t Save Money Everywhere

To be fair, not all items on my list showed those amazing stats. You can basically divide products into two groups: Those eco-warriors that I mentioned above, and the ones with marginally higher cost. Because, yes, those do exist as well, I’m not gonna lie to you.

Let’s talk about those that are marginally more expensive. Some of these are products that you get for free in the plastic version. Straws, To-Go cups or plastic cutlery are all handed to you at no cost when you buy a coffee or takeaway food. When you buy an eco-friendly version for yourself, you do have that initial investment, however. So is it worth it? Well considering you use your reusable coffee cup for about two years, it only costs you 0.02€ per day. That does seem like an okay price to pay considering you are saving up to 730 cups to be thrown away.

But what about those products where you do have to pay for the plastic version? Are they really that much cheaper than the sustainable alternative? Examples could be using a soap instead of regular shampoo, using beeswax food wraps or bamboo toothbrushes. They usually last for about the same amount of time than their plastic alternative. This means that the higher costs don’t translate into savings the more you use them. Comparing them on a day by day basis, however, shows how little they actually cost more.

Take a bamboo toothbrush as an example. The cost of a plastic toothbrush is about 1.50€. Bamboo ones are usually sold for around 3€ per toothbrush. You’ll probably use the toothbrush for the same amount of time, so doubling the price does make a difference. Let’s break it down to daily cost. It turns out, switching to a bamboo toothbrush only costs you an additional cent! Considering bamboo is an easily renewable resource and it is a lot more gentle on our planet than plastic, one cent seems like a low price to pay.

only slightly more expensive to travel plastic-free
Assumption: Free to-go cup when buying coffee in a cafe

Taking the Right Perspective

In the end, the truly big savings from the sustainable alternatives where mostly driven by one product: A reusable water bottle. Leaving the water bottle out of the equation, the cost for both products balanced each other out and ended up at approximately the same price point. If you are after saving money, switching to a reusable water bottle instead of buying a plastic bottle every time is a big winner.

If you are after saving the planet as well, don’t rule out products that seem more expensive from the outset. Instead of comparing the one-off cost of these items, you should treat them as an investment. An investment for the future of our planet. You will often find that the cost are actually cheaper in the long run. And if not, they are usually only one to three cents more expensive per day. In my point of view that is quite a low price to pay for the future of our home!

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