Meet the Zero-Waste Family

Landmark custom net-zero home is solar powered

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 R’s 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

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.

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 and

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  1. wow, a lifestyle to mimic, i’m very proud of this family. i try, but come nowhere near. i do skip the plastic produce bags at the grocery store. just put the produce directly into your cart and then directly into the shopping bag. you have to wash it anyway.

  2. I have a friend who performed a courageous act of protest. As she stood in line at her local Target, she removed all the outside packaging and left it for the store to dispose of. Just one example, who needs the box in which the toothpaste is packaged? Why do we pay for packaging and then have to pay to recycle it? There are so many ways – major and minor – that we all can do to conserve energy and reduce the size of our landfills if we just think about it.

  3. Perhaps we need to start with defining what we mean by “waste”. Every organism produces waste-i.e. supstances that are no longer usable by that organism. In most of nature, waste products of one organism are usable by another (CO2 given off by O2 breathing animals is used by plants; O2 given off by plants is used by animals; animal excretions utilized by plants, insects, etc.). Humans have managed to produce waste products for which no niche user has yet evolved. THESE are the waste products we need to concentrate on reducing and eliminating. I think this confuses a lot of people because they don’t understand the difference.

  4. This is awesome! Definitely what I am trying to work towards. I love “shopping is voting” I have been thinking like that for a while, and it makes a difference. Consumers have all the power.

  5. This is a truly inspiring story! Here’s a big e-toast to a family that shows how easy it is to be good to the earth by simply thinking about the three R’s, or should I say four? Love “Refuse”. Thanks for sharing!!

  6. If more people did this, then there wouldnt be the trash all over the place that there is now. I have been wandering the streets in Portage Cty.(Oh) picking up cans(since snow melted) & it is amazing what all is throne out the windows. Many times you dont even find things until you step on them and/or kick them. The amount of plastic(petro chemical) is incredible. Gas/diesel is only a part of our addiction to oil! I used to drive straight truck by the Cincinati land fill which looked like a mountain& trash trucks looked like sm.ants. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”

  7. So I’m confused by how she brings the stuff she buys home. Does she unpackaged it at the store…because that wouldn’t really be reducing waste – it just reduces what she has in her own trash at home. If it is really just that there was no packaging to begin with – Where do you buy bulk that has no packaging?

  8. I love this article. The Johnson family is so inspiring! Above and beyond the great tips to help one to live ‘green’, the two things that resonate with me are:

    – The 4th ‘R’: Refuse. Why accept something you don’t need, and will have to be responsible for properly discarding. I often tell folks very nicely to “Save it for your children”.
    – The notion that “Shopping is voting”. It’s so true. We can put irresponsible companies our of business, or persuade them to act more consciously. I like that Mrs. Johnson contacted companies and voiced her concerns and recommendations.

  9. This makes me think twice. I actually grew up in the country side where there was not a garbage truck to pick up our waste and probably not one until now either. When I think about it now I can still do it by exactly doing how it used to be before. Am in my 50’s and there will still be time to redo what we did by using no plastics as much as I can and composting our own garbage (should not be much). My groceries are now in my own canvass bags that I have quite a few (our grocery store gives us 6 cents back rebate for every reusable bag I bring quite an incentive). The only thing that I can not figure out is about the bottled water and to try cloth diaper for my grand children. ????????? Thank you for this article and thanks to the Johnson’s too. Love it.

  10. I will reiterate the rest of the groups comments here in that the Johnson Family are so inspiring!! I am trying to follow suit to the best of my ability. I have to keep reminding myself that going zero-waste does take time, this won’t happen over night. My new years goal was to go chemical free in my house, and reduce the packaged materials I buy. So far, so good. I am currently chemical-free and have significantly minimized the plastic-packaged goods. Health and Beauty products I find to be the most difficult to minimize. Hopefully by the end of 2011 I will be almost zero-waste. =)

    To Stephanie:
    In my town we have a local food co-op where several goods are not packaged and are in large bins along walls, etc. These types of stores can be difficult to find, especially if you live in a small town (as I do – I have definitely lucked out!). If you shop at a chain store, get fresh meats and cheese and ask for the goods to be placed in your personal container. Another option is local farmers. The last couple of places I’ve lived there are farmers that organize a program where you pay so much money a month and every week you get a fresh bag of veggies/grains/cheeses/soaps (whatever that local farmers specialty may be). This is a GREAT option! I frequent our farmers market (bike there every week, even in the rain/cold!) and can get most of my package-free goods there as well!

  11. How do they avoid bulk packaging when buying in bulk? toilet paper for example from Costco, tons of packaging! Do they do seminars or workshops? I would love to learn more!

  12. I agree with Stephanie . Not everything comes in bulk. So I don’t see how they do all this. I see two egg cartons in the first photo. How do you recycle that? And that would still be a lot of cartons per year. I doubt you could mulch all that and the inks on the carton can get into the ground system. I see pepperidge farms cookies int the next picture. How do you get those in bulk when I know those type of cookies come in some packaging?

    Pictures speak a thousand words. Just making an observation . Thanks

  13. If you have a local food co-op then you likely have access to package free staples like flour, nuts and maybe pastas. Most Whole Foods offer a large selection of bulk bin items.

  14. Paper egg cartons are one of the things made from recycled paper. This make a market for recycling old paper. When or if buying a plastic item ask if it contains post consumer material for the same reason.

  15. You should try to get you a show on planet green. They need something beter than what they hape. Most of their stories they have sre not even obout helping the planet.
    go to the news media if you have to. We realy do need help.

  16. Love this, bring’s me Hope!
    About the egg cartons, she said that she reuses the same cartons, she takes them with her to the farmers market and fills them there. And the cookies could have easily been bought at a bakery or been homemade.

  17. Here in Ontario, because of health regulations, we can no longer reuse egg cartons to take home fresh eggs from the weekly farmers’ market.

  18. @ Stephanie: “buying in bulk” doesn’t only mean buying at Costco or Sam’s club. Have you ever been to a Whole Foods, Sprouts, Henry’s or Sun Harvest? The “bulk” section is where you get a bag and fill it with loose product (like the produce section). For instance, beans, nuts, granola, and other dried goods. And you can buy meat from the meat counter in any store, or you can go straight to a butcher and ask that he or she put the meat directly into your own bag- no different than telling the cashier that you brought your own bags :)

  19. I think it can be very hard for some families to do this but I applaud any efforts a family can make. I live overseas so I have no access to Whole Foods or any other shiny, bulk health food stores. I do try my best to reduce waste by using cloth diapers, reusable shopping bags, no bags for produce, etc. In response to the question abt the egg crates: I actually buy from a local, tiny health food store that sells some of their eggs in crates like that. Once you use the eggs, you bring back the crates, they refill them AND give you some money back! Score!
    To the person who said her friend stood at Target & emptied her packaging & left it there! Geeze! What kind of statement is that? If she doesn’t like the packaging, buy different products! She wasn’t showing Target or anyone else any kind of political statement. She was just showing how rude she was to the poor clean up guy who STILL had to THROW the packaging away. I agree w the statement that when you buy you vote.

  20. to thoughlessmom cloth diapers are sooo different from what they used to be. The diaper is now tucked into a cover with velcro or snap closures that is shaped just like a disposable diaper. NO MORE PINS! There are many other differences as well-do a few searches online you will be SHOCKED by how far they have come.

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