Meet the Zero Waste Family

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Bea Johnson, The Zero Waste Home

The family of four has produced only this handful of trash since October. Photo: Alexis Petru, Earth911

The average American throws out about 1,000 pounds of garbage every year, according to the U.S. EPA.

The Johnson family in California has created only one handful of trash in six months.

This family of four aims to reach zero waste – producing no trash going to landfill – or as close to it as possible. And they’re already pretty close.

SEE: Slideshow of Zero Waste Family

The Johnsons, who live just north of San Francisco in Mill Valley, aren’t just simply recycling their way to reach zero waste.

“Recycling is a last resort,” says Béa Johnson, who led her family’s waste reduction efforts and chronicles her experience in the blog, The Zero Waste Home.

Johnson is referring to the fact that while recycling is better for the environment than extracting and manufacturing raw materials, it still uses energy and creates pollution.

To make her home zero waste, Johnson relied on the three Rs of the recycling hierarchy in their order: reduce, reuse and recycle. Johnson even added her own R to the front of the hierarchy: refuse.

Why the Johnsons Went Zero Waste

Three years ago, the Johnsons decided to adopt a simpler lifestyle with less stuff and more meaning.

They moved out of their 3,000 square-foot house in a pedestrian- and bicycle-unfriendly suburb east of San Francisco and bought their current 1,400 square-foot home near downtown Mill Valley, where they can walk to shops and restaurants. They purged their belongings, keeping only the necessities.

“We started eating less meat and driving our cars less. And then I attacked our waste. I started shopping in bulk, but realized I could go further,” Johnson says.

READ: Reduce Your Food Waste in 10 Minutes

How It Works

Bea Johnson, The Zero Waste Home

Johnson buys nuts, nut butters, dried fruits and other snacks in bulk in reusable cloth bags and transfers them to glass jars when she gets home. She also stores her homemade preserves in glass jars. Photo: Alexis Petru, Earth911

Johnson buys everything she can in bulk – from grains, snacks and tea, to lotions, shampoo and Castile soap. She brings her own reusable containers to the store to transport items home: cloth bags for dry goods, glass jars for wet items like meat and cheese and refillable bottles for bath products. She takes fresh loaves of bread from the bakery home in pillowcases.

Forgoing canned food, she makes her own condiments like horseradish and mustard and annually cans her own preserves. She uses vinegar to make her own cleaning products and mixes baking soda and the sweetening herb stevia to make the family’s toothpaste.

READ: Save Your Food: Canning and Freezing 101

If she can’t find a zero-waste or recyclable alternative for a product, Johnson makes sure to contact the company to ask that they green their operations: from the plastic strip in the Netflix envelope, to the 3-D glasses and plastic wrapper her son recently brought home from the movies.

But the Johnsons’ report card isn’t spotless. They haven’t been able to ditch their two cars for longer trips, and Johnson knows carbon offsets don’t really make up for the family’s annual trips to France to visit her family. But reducing waste was a way to live a more sustainable life that worked for them.

Misconceptions of the Zero Waste Home

Publishing their journey to zero waste on her blog has attracted both supporters and “haters,” as Johnson calls them, who have several misconceptions about her family’s lifestyle.

Johnson understands the confusion surrounding her family’s way of life.

“Five years ago, if someone told me they had a zero waste lifestyle, I would have thought, ‘are they nuts? Does it take them all day to do those things?’” she says.

Bea Johnson, The Zero Waste Home

Johnson purchases dry goods like grains and flour in bulk in reusable cloth bags and stores them in glass jars in the cupboard. Photo: Alexis Petru, Earth911

Misconception #1: It takes too much time

Many of the family’s critics assume Johnson’s zero-waste lifestyle is a full-time effort. But Johnson, who works three part-time jobs, says going zero waste isn’t as time-consuming as people think. With all the systems in place, the Johnson family has zero waste on autopilot, she says.

Johnson says people forget that dealing with trash takes time: sorting through junk mail and removing and discarding or recycling packaging from new purchases.

“Now that we’re not burdened by stuff, we have more time do things we truly enjoy. I have more time to play with my kids,” Johnson says.

READ: Tackling the Barriers to Being Green – Time

Misconception #2: It’s too expensive

The family actually saves money by buying in bulk, avoiding packaged and processed foods and reducing their overall purchasing, Johnson says.

“People think we must be rich, but we’ve had a rough time the last two years, like everyone else, with both of us [her husband and herself] working for startups,” she says.

READ: Tackling the Barriers to Being Green – Money

Misconception #3: They feel deprived

Critics worry that the Johnsons, especially the kids, are missing out on the joy of life. “We don’t feel deprived,” Johnson says. “Our standard of living has increased.”

The Johnsons encourage family members to give their sons, ages 9 and 11, gifts of experiences, rather than just toys for presents. The boys are allowed as many toys as can fit into four bins.

When Johnson asked her sons what they wanted for Christmas last year, one of them responded, “I have too many Legos. No more Legos.”

3 Tips for Going Zero Waste

Johnson understands that her family’s routine will not work for everyone. You have to strike a balance and find what works for you, she says. Johnson gave her top three tips to help Earth911 readers go beyond recycling:

1. Graduate from just bringing your own shopping bags to the grocery store, Johnson says, and use reusable bags to buy produce as well.

2. Think twice before buying plastic products, and make sure you buy only what you really need. “Shopping is voting,” Johnson says.

3. Refuse junk mail through sites like dmachoice.org and catalogchoice.org.

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