Sunday, February 17, 2013

Product free when you buy the package

As an ecofrugal individual, I like to reduce waste whenever I can. And since nearly a third of all trash in this country comes from product packaging, one of the main ways I try to reduce waste is to choose products with less packaging. Case in point: cleaning products. Rather than buy a separate product for every room in my house, complete with its own bottle that has to be stored and eventually disposed of, I rely on just a few staples to clean nearly everything: dish soap, baking soda, and vinegar. A vinegar-and-water solution, stored in a spray bottle, is especially handy: a squirt of this and a swipe with a rag is a quick fix for anything from grease-splattered walls in the kitchen to smudgy windows. (It can even keep your car windows from icing up if you spray it on ahead of time—and if ice has already formed, spraying it with this will help melt it faster.)

The problem is that I use this stuff so often that I find I'm always running out and having to mix up more. The squirt bottle I use is a cheapie that cost me a couple of bucks at the drugstore, and while it works fine, it only holds a little over a cup. So when I had to interrupt my cleaning of the bathroom yesterday to refill the bottle, I finally got fed up and decided it was worth spending a couple of extra bucks on a bigger bottle. And since we needed to go out anyway to get some compost, I figured it would be no trouble to add a quick stop at Target to our agenda.

Once we managed to find the cleaning supplies at the Target, I found that they only had one decent-sized squirt bottle on the shelf, and the cost was $4.79—a bit more than I'd expected. But I reminded myself that my expectations about prices are often unreasonable, since I live in a little tightwad bubble in which things are hardly ever bought new, and that it was unlikely I'd find a bottle like this for less than five bucks anywhere else. And that would have been that, except that on the way to the checkout, we passed by a rack full of Method brand cleaning supplies. This is a 21st-century brand that's marketed to eco-conscious types: nontoxic, vegetable-based cleansers, no animal testing, and 100 percent recycled packaging that actually looks decent out on the counter. Yet unlike many "green" products, it isn't really more expensive than mainstream cleaners of the same type. In fact, the shelf at the Target proclaimed that most of the Method products, ranging from glass cleaner to dish soap in all manner of colors and fragrances, were on sale at 3 for $8. And most of them were in—guess what?—squirt bottles.

So I did a quick mental calculation: "Hmm, I could buy an empty bottle for $4.79, or I could buy a bottle of cleanser for $2.67, and after I used it all up, I'd have a perfectly good reusable squirt bottle." Even if it turned out I didn't like the Method cleaner at all, I could just dump it down the sink (hey, nontoxic, right?) and have the bottle for less than I would have spent to buy an empty one. How could I go wrong?

After perusing the selection for a while, I settled on the "all-purpose" cleanser in Pink Grapefruit scent, which I figured would be closest to my trusty vinegar-and-water solution (well, maybe not for de-icing car windows). I gave it a try today, and it seems to be able to handle quick clean-ups as well as the vinegar solution, if not necessarily better—and I will admit, it does smell better. So I think we'll be perfectly content to use this stuff in place of the vinegar for the next several months, and when it's gone, the bottle can get refilled with the old standby (possibly with a bit of citrus oil added to improve the scent).

What I found most interesting about this little exercise is that, when I came to think about it, it wasn't the first time I'd bought a product mainly to get the package. I can think of two more examples just off the top of my head:
  • Last week, after waiting a couple of months in vain for Blue Bunny frozen yogurt to go on sale, we finally gave in and bought a container at full price so that I could reuse the lid for my bathroom compost bin.
  • After several months of reading the increasingly shrill warnings about the dangers of reusing plastic water and soda bottles (most of which, by the way, turn out to be based on insufficient evidence), and the repeated admonishments to go out and buy a safe, reusable bottle such as a $20 Kleen Kanteen, I decided instead to go to the store and buy a $1.29 glass bottle of Snapple. After drinking the contents, I washed out the bottle, filled it with plain tap water, and stashed it in the car, where it's continued to live (aside from the occasional re-washing) ever since.
The thing about these purchases is that, since what I'm really buying is the packaging, it's almost like getting the product itself for free. Buy a $2.66 plastic spray bottle, and get a quart of all-purpose cleaner free; buy a $1.29 glass water bottle, and get a pint of Snapple free; buy a $4.49 compost container, and get seven cups of frozen yogurt free. (Okay, maybe that last one wasn't really such a bargain, but I wasn't having any luck finding a better deal.) Of course, for someone who normally tries to reduce the amount of packaging I buy, it is a bit ironic to be buying products just for their packaging—but if the alternative is buying the package without the product, and paying more for it, that doesn't really make any more sense, does it?

Has anyone else ever done this—buying a product primarily to get the container? Can you add any more examples to my list?
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