Zero Waste Shaving: Disposable vs. Durable Razors

Zero Waste Shaving: Disposable vs. Durable Razors

Have you wondered what the buzz is about straight razor shaves? Or are you looking to change your lifestyle to one that is more sustainable and zero waste?

The best place to start if you are looking to go zero waste or just live more environmentally conscious is with shaving. The great news is not only can shaving with a durable straight razor be a great step in that direction but it also provides a better shave and costs you a lot less money. So I thought this would be a great opportunity to talk about the differences between safety or straight razors versus disposable.

Confessions of a Shaving Tech Junkie

photo of classic barbershop pole

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

I have almost never been on the leading edge of technology.  When the first Nintendo console hit American markets, my family got an Atari.  When the Super Nintendo hit stores, we got the Nintendo. With movies going from VHS to DVD to Blu-Ray, with music going from cassettes to CD’s to digital players, model updates or new technologies for smartphones, cars, or personal computers, I have always been at least a generation behind the curve.  

The one exception was razors.  As razors went from two blades to three, then four, then five, adding features like vibration, moisturizing strips, or small electric shavers in the handle, I was always right there buying the new gimmick.  

In part it’s because I have sensitive skin, and I bought into the notion that more blades meant a better shave with less irritation; but also I was very poor in my twenties, and it was usually cheaper in the short run to buy a new razor that came with a cartridge or two than it was to buy a pack of cartridges for my existing razor.  

I had so many razors that when I could actually buy cartridges I often forgot exactly which brand I was currently favoring (although any blades I picked up would fit one of the handles I had at home).

Then one day I finally investigated a lifelong curiosity and treated myself to a straight razor shave at a barber shop.  Being the chatterbox that I am, I asked a lot of questions about how it’s done during the process. Between the experience of the shave, the results, and cost analysis later, I came to turn my whole shaving philosophy around, and a month later I bought my first straight razor.

The Truth About Disposable Razors

photo of close up on 5 razor disposable

Photo by stevepb on Pixabay

Shaving with modern razors is really expensive.  Unless you have both incredibly soft hair and tough skin, shaving with the super-cheap two-blade 5-for-$10 disposable razors is only slightly less unpleasant than shaving with 40-grit sandpaper.  While you can pick up the fanciest new razor from one of the major producers for under $10, the cartridges are where the real expense comes in.

There are subscription services, shave clubs, and bulk purchases online that can reduce your cost per blade, but whenever it came time to cough up for a new box of cartridges I always got sticker-shock sickness from seeing exactly how much money I was going to have to lay out.

Coming up with an objective cost benefit analysis for razors isn’t easy.  The number of shaves you get from each blade depends on a lot of variables: the condition of your skin, the density and coarseness of your hair, how much of your body you are shaving, the quality of your water, and your personal process for shaving all play a part in how much life you get from a cartridge.  

However, few seem to dispute that, considering the expense, those things never seem to last as long as we think they should. With no way to really test the condition of the blades (those indicator strips have always seemed pretty useless to me), I learned by trial and error about how many shaves I could expect to get from a cartridge before a shave got both unproductive and unpleasant.

Being a modern American balding male, I also shave my head, which really burns through blades.  Where I might get as many as 10 shaves for my face (especially since I usually have some kind of facial hair, so the volume of skin I’m shaving is pretty low), I learned never to use a cartridge on my head more than 3 times before replacing – otherwise I might as well save some money and use steel wool.

That’s the economics.  

On the environmental side, disposable razors are problematic.  While the plastics used in almost all disposable razors are in fact recyclable, no city that I’ve been able to find can actually recycle the handles or cartridges because of the metal components.  The blades themselves and other metal parts are impossible to separate from the plastic in any large-scale way, and the blades present a potential hazard to waste management workers. Even when throwing the cartridges in the trash you should wrap them in cardboard and tape it shut to make sure no one can get injured by exposed blades.  

If you’re not willing to let go of disposable razors but want to make it as green as possible you can disassemble the things yourself, storing all the little metal parts separately to be taken to a scrap metal company when you have enough saved up to make it worth a trip. That’s a lot of hassle though, a lot of extra time invested to get the materials into the recycling process, which itself is not the most efficient or effective way trying to reduce your footprint.  You can do a lot more for the environment, and actually get a better shave, by investing in durable razors.

Durable Razor Options

There are two kinds of durable razors: straight razors and safety razors.  

photo of straight razor with shaving brush
straight razor with brush

A straight razor has a single blade housed in a handle, and the blade is sharpened each time before use.  While not infinitely durable, a straight razor that is well cared-for will last longer than you will.

Straight razors intimidate some people, and, in truth, it takes some practice to master.  I don’t have the steadiest hands, and have been known to be a bit accident prone, but the fact is that in the three years since I started using a straight razor I have never cut myself, and haven’t had any razor burn after I figured out the correct angle to shave at and the best way to hone the blade.  

I bought a moderately-priced model for about $150, which turned out to be less than what I spent on replacement cartridges in a single year. There are options out there for as low as $40, but you’ll be better off in the end spending a little more for something that will give you the right experience and keep you using it – it will still be cheaper than disposables.

A safety razor is a durable metal handle with a replaceable single blade.  It’s easier to use than a straight razor, requiring far less practice to master, and the blades are far easier to separate, clean, and recycle than any disposable cartridge.  

The buy-in for safety razors is a bit cheaper than straight razors, anywhere from $20 to $150 for a handle, and the blades themselves are generally in the ballpark of $1 each.  One great thing about safety razors is that the blades are almost universally interchangeable; buy whatever handle you like, and virtually any blade from any company will fit, rather than each being manufactured in a proprietary way so that you have to buy both handle and blade from the same company, as you do with disposables.

Technically, one could include a good electric razor in this category.  The blades can be sharpened or replaced, and replaced blades could be recycled in the same way as old safety razor blades.  Despite advertising claims, though, I don’t think anyone would agree that an electric razor shaves as close as a blade, so the quality of the shave is not the same.  Also, they all contain plastic components that you could only recycle if you disassembled the entire thing to separate the plastic, metal, and electronics, and, of course, they require electricity.  So an electric razor has advantages over disposables, but is nowhere near as good an option as manual straight or safety razor.

But What About the Shave?

photo of a man shaving with a safety razor

Photo by Patrick Coddou on Unsplash

There is no way to objectively qualitatively measure what kind of razor produces a superior shave – it’s entirely a matter of personal preference. From even cursory reading online though, I found that I am not alone in preferring durable razors to disposables.

Many have had the same experience I have: fewer cuts and less razor burn.  When you factor in the long-term cost reduction and the warm tingly feeling of adding shaving to the list of things you’re doing that are less harmful for the world around you, durable razors are the clear winner if you can scrape together the cash to pay your shaving costs up front.

Yes, there are some downsides.  

Shaving with a durable razor takes longer, especially in the beginning.  The straight razor, in particular, takes some getting used to, and even when you’ve gotten down all the tricks there is more prep and clean-up than your fancy 5-blade vibrating doohickey.  The expense, while far cheaper in the long run, is all up front (which is hard for some) and impatient shavers can struggle with the slower pace.

But, if you’re willing to change things up a bit, you can get a superior shave, save a lot of money, and take pride in adding another truly sustainable practice to your life.

Have you used a straight razor or safety razor before?

I would love to hear what you think!

In the near future I’ll write about how to round out your zero-waste shaving by addressing the products and accessories, and talk about shaving methods and practices, particularly with durable razors.

I hope you have found this post helpful. If you have any questions about this topic or would like to talk about your experience with durable razors, please leave me a comment below. I hope to hear from you soon!

Happy Shaving!

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