13 ways to use less plastic AND save cash

Update 10 May 2019: We first published this blog in January 2018, but have just updated it. If you've come here from the weekly email, many of the easy ways to save cash and go green are below, but also see Get paid to walk, Free water gadgets, Get paid to recycle, Best before and use-by dates, Five ways to make your car more fuel-efficient, Seven driving tips to cut emissions and the Sneaky ways to save forum thread.

Plastic waste continues to make headlines, with Scotland planning to charge a 20p deposit for plastic bottles and Morrisons doubling the price of reusable plastic bags. And it's with good reason – shockingly, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicts there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.

As a result, there's a real focus now on how individuals can cut plastic use, but doing so isn't always straightforward – particularly if you want to save money, too. While logically you might expect items with less plastic packaging to be cheaper, that isn't necessarily the case. Packaging's used to protect and preserve products, which can make them cheaper to transport and last longer – and so cheaper for consumers.

There's also the question of whether more packaging in some cases means LESS waste overall by extending shelf life. Measuring the overall environmental impact of an item is no simple calculation – for example, is it better for the environment to buy a plastic-free product shipped from further away, or a locally-made product that uses plastic? Without in-depth analysis, it's a tough call – and that's not where MSE's expertise lies.

That said, there ARE a host of quick, relatively painless steps you can take now to ditch plastic and save money...

1. SOME fruit and veg is cheaper without plastic… but you'll need to check

When we visited six supermarkets near MSE Towers in January 2018 to compare prices, we found that in many cases the items packed in plastic were cheaper. But it varied by supermarket and item, so in some cases you WILL be able to save money and cut plastic use.

In Waitrose, it was easy – bananas, courgettes and Royal Gala apples were all cheaper loose than packaged, while mushrooms were the same price. Elsewhere, it was a mixed picture – loose broccoli was cheaper than packaged in Sainsbury's (£1.45/kg vs £2/kg) and Morrisons (55p/kg vs £1.58/kg), but loose bananas were pricier in Tesco, Sainsbury's and Morrisons. In Lidl, we price-checked peppers, oranges and avocados – all three were cheaper packaged.

The rule, then, is to check before you fill your trolley. In some cases, loose fruit and veg may be cheaper and it's a win-win – elsewhere, you may have to choose between cheap and plastic-free. For full details, see our Buying fruit & veg in plastic packaging blog.

Update 10 May 2019: Although the principle above still applies, some supermarkets have moved towards reducing plastic waste, such as Morrisons, which has introduced brown paper bags for fruit and veg, and a 'bring your own container' option at its butchers and fishmongers. Waitrose also allows customers to use their own containers for cold deli items.

2. Refill your water bottle for FREE

According to plastic recycling charity Recoup Recycling, the UK uses 36 million plastic bottles EVERY DAY – it's fair to say they're a significant source of plastic waste. So why not see if you can refill for free rather than buy another bottle?

  • The free Refill app lists businesses which participate in the Refill scheme – and while the app itself has mixed reviews, it can be handy. It lists over 14,000 businesses – cafés, restaurants, shops, hotels and more – which will let you fill up your own bottle or flask even if you're not a customer, across 100-odd parts of the UK where the Refill scheme operates.

    You can also use the app overseas now, with Refill 'stations' cropping up in Europe, the US and even as far afield as Australia, India and Singapore.
  • You can now refill your water bottle for free in places like Costa and Premier Inn without needing to be a customer. This is part of a Water UK campaign that aims to enable people to refill for free in tens of thousands of places in England by 2021 – see the You'll soon be able to refill your water bottle for free MSE News story for full details.

  • Many airports now have water fountains after security where you can fill up a water bottle. This means you avoid the rip-off prices charged for bottled water in departure lounges and on planes, as well as reduce the amount of plastic waste you produce. We've full info on where to find 'em in Overseas Travel Tips.

Reusable water bottles start from about £2. With a standard 500ml branded water bottle usually costing around 50p, that means you should have paid for your reusable bottle within four uses.

3. Buy refills of coffee, soap, herbs and spices etc

Simple but effective. Buying refills of products such as air fresheners, coffee granules, handwash and herbs and spices saves money as well as cutting down on plastic waste in terms of lids, bottles and so on, as our table shows. (Some refills will still result in plastic waste, so it's worth comparing how recyclable the packaging is compared with that of the original product before purchase.)

Originals vs refills price comparison
Product Original cost Refill cost Percentage saving
Ambi Pur 3volution Plug-In air freshener £9.06 (20ml) £5.00 (20ml) 45% per item
Bacofoil EasyCut cling film £4.06 (10m) £2.65 (10m) 35% per item
Duck Fresh Discs toilet freshener £3.25 (six discs) £4.62 (12 discs) 29% per disc
Carex Complete Moisture handwash £1.02 (250ml) £1.50 (500ml) 26% per 100ml
Kenco Smooth instant coffee £5.83 (200g) £4.00 (150g) 9% per 100g
Schwartz Oregano £1.60 (7g) £1.54 (7g) 4% per item
Canderel sweetener tablets £2.95 (300 tablets) £4.89 (500 tablets) 1% per 100 tablets
Prices are an average of those found on Mysupermarket on 10 May 2019.

4. Don't just reuse plastic bags – sell 'em and MAKE 5p

Since England became the last country in the UK to adopt the 5p charge for single-use carrier bags in 2015, it's a MoneySaving no-brainer to reuse old plastic bags or take your own bags with you to the shops.

But unlikely as it may sound, Morrisons and Ocado will actually pay you to take used plastic bags off your hands when you shop online.

Both pay you 5p for each bag you hand to the driver when your order is delivered:

  • In the case of Morrisons, the total value of the bags is deducted from the cost of your current order, but you can only return Morrisons bags, and bags from your current order can't be returned until the next one.

  • Ocado also deducts the total value from the cost of your current order, but the major difference is it will accept bags from any supermarket (up to a maximum of 99 per order).

Returned bags are recycled into new ones – plastic waste reduced and money saved in one fell swoop.

5. Get a REAL bag for life

One consequence of the new plastic bag charge has been that many major supermarkets have introduced sturdier carrier bags meant for repeated use that usually cost about 10p.

Reusable shopping bags – often known as 'bags for life' – have been around for a while, of course. But nowadays some supermarkets have taken it a step further and are selling real 'bags for life' – ie, bags which they'll replace for free if damaged or broken. Supermarkets which do this include:

  • Co-op (10p, 15p in Northern Ireland)
  • Sainsbury's (5p or 10p depending on size)
  • Tesco (10p)

To get a broken or damaged bag replaced, simply take it to your nearest relevant store.

6. Get up to 50p off your hot drink with a reusable cup

Pret a Manger last year doubled the discount it offers on takeaway drinks served to customers who bring along their own reusable cup from 25p to 50p. Café chains Paul and Leon offer 50p and 45p off respectively, Starbucks 30p, Costa and M&S cafés 25p, while Greggs offers 20p off and Caffè Nero double loyalty stamps. Many other coffee shops and cafés also offer discounts.

This is an obvious win in terms of plastic waste saved (from lids and the cups themselves, which fuse card with plastic). And you can get your own reusable cup (these need to have a lid, be clean and be able to fit into a coffee maker) from as little as £1, meaning it would only take two Pret drinks or Starbucks, Costa or M&S café drinks for you to make your money back – every use after that represents money saved.

For full info, see our Pay £1, get up to 50p off most Costa, Pret & Starbucks drinks EVERY time blog.

7. Replace cling film with reusable wraps

Beeswax and soy wax wraps – reusable, biodegradable alternatives to cling film – are now widely available. Made from cotton, wax and resin, these wraps can be moulded around containers and food itself to keep it fresh, then washed, dried and reused. They last for up to a year and, once they're spent, some can be composted.

Wraps cost from around £4 each or £10 per pack of three, so they're not cheap. Yet depending on how much cling film you get through, they could help you save. With cling film typically costing £2-£4 a roll, depending on brand a small pack could quickly pay for itself when you consider you'll get a year's use from each wrap (and some beeswax wraps can be used for longer if you get a refresher block).

Alternatively, you could try using Tupperware instead. Plastic, resealable takeaway containers are ideal for storing leftover food, and are largely dishwasher safe, so they're OK to reuse.

8. Go large in the supermarket to save on packaging and price

Economies of scale rarely lie – generally, the more you buy of something, the less it will cost you per unit.

So, if you can afford to buy and have the space to store larger packs of staples like washing powder, toilet roll, washing-up liquid, kitchen roll, batteries, plasters and canned foods, doing so will almost always save you money. (Always check the unit price on the supermarket price label though, and compare with other sizes.)

Buying bigger packs more often than not will mean you wind up throwing less plastic packaging in the bin.

9. Switch shower gel and handwash for bars of soap

Another easy win. Bars of soap generally last longer and so work out cheaper (eg, two Dove Beauty Cream Bars will cost you about £1.40, a single bottle of Radox Feel Revived shower gel will cost you around £1.16 and a single bottle of Carex Complete Moisture handwash around £1.02) AND they generally use far less plastic packaging.

10. Reuse before you recycle

The more plastic you can reuse around your home and garden, the less goes to waste:

  • Use smaller plastic bottles as cane toppers on your vegetable garden – as well as making the tops safer, they help keep birds away and can be used to support netting.

  • Keep the mesh bags that some fruit and veg come in and reuse them when buying loose fruit and veg.

  • Save up yogurt pots and other small plastic pots to start growing fruit and veg in before moving them to your garden – MSE Rhiannon's growing lettuce this way.

  • Tubs containing the likes of margarine and ice cream can be reused as dividers in drawers and cupboards.

  • Jars with plastic lids can be used to put refills of herbs and spices in, or to hold nails, screws, bolts etc.

You can find loads of other ideas on the Reuse, Recycle and Save Money forum thread – and you can add your own, too.

11. Ditch the straw

OK, so this is more about cutting plastic use than saving cash. But as a single-use item, plastic drinking straws are a significant contributor to plastic waste – millions are thrown away every day and each one takes hundreds of years to break down.

While refusing a straw when ordering a drink in a café, restaurant, bar or pub won't save you money, it'll instantly reduce the amount of plastic waste you produce without affecting the quality of what you're buying or costing you anything extra. Many places also now offer biodegradable alternatives if you ask.

If you use plastic drinking straws at home, or your kids do, consider simply ditching them entirely. If you do use them, look for a biodegradable or reusable alternative, though they're likely to be pricier – a pack of 10 reusable straws costs £1.79 incl delivery, or 18p each, from Amazon*, while disposable plastic straws often costs less than 1p each.

For full info on ditching straws, see MSE Sarah's blog on the cheapest alternatives.

12. Push towards plastic-free with these tips for the truly dedicated

We've tried to keep these ideas as simple and accessible as possible to encourage people to get involved, but if you've done everything here and want to push on towards a plastic-free or even waste-free way of life, there's plenty more you can do:

  • Make your own bread, pizza bases, yogurt etc – each thing you make means less plastic packaging to dispose of.

  • Make 'fakeaways', ie, replicate takeaway food by making it at home – as well as doing away with the associated plastic, it'll undoubtedly be cheaper in the long run (recipes from BBC Food, Jamie Oliver etc are available online).

  • Make your own body lotion, toothpaste and scrubs – less packaging, less questionable chemicals and a sense of achievement all in one go.

  • Instead of getting your plastic bag for life replaced when it wears out, replace it with a tote bag you've made from an old T-shirt.

For many, many more ideas, see the Old Style MoneySaving and Crafting discussion boards on our forum – where you can also add your own.

13. And finally… recycle, recycle, recycle

Not just because it's the right thing to do, but because it could soon be a MoneySaving measure – in October 2017, Environment Secretary Michael Gove announced the Government is considering a countrywide deposit 'reward and return' scheme for plastic bottles to help improve recycling rates. This could see a small charge added to the cost of drinks, which would then be refunded when empty bottles are returned.

Update 10 May 2019: The Government announced in March 2018 it was introducing a deposit return scheme "subject to consultation", but this is still to be launched – see the Plastic bottle deposit scheme MSE News story for full details. And in May 2019, Scotland announced plans to charge a 20p deposit on bottles and cans to encourage recycling.

It's also worth noting that some local authorities issue fixed penalty notices to residents for not putting the right rubbish in the right bin, resulting in a £60 fine – and that definitely ISN'T MoneySaving.