The zero-waste home

Peek inside a Northern California home that has all the trappings of a normal life-except garbage.

On trash day in Mill Valley, California, the Johnson home has no garbage. Nothing. There is a hefty compost bin and a teeny recycling bin-one that Béa Johnson is embarrassed exists at all. "So much recycling really goes to waste, so you need to try to reduce that too."Garbage, though, is something that happens rarely in this modern, minimalistically decorated house. That's by day-to-day intention-to live simpler and lighter on the planet. Their quest started three years ago when Béa and husband Scott downsized from a 3,000-square-foot home to their current 1,400 square feet. But it had been on Béa's mind ever since she'd nannied for a family that lost everything in a fire. Béa decided she wanted to truly love and use and know everything she kept in her home. "Even down to the vegetable peeler," she says.

The kitchen looks eerily unlived in, yet Béa cooks every day.

What's missing?

  • Packaging in the pantry: The Johnsons go to the grocery store with their own jars and buy bulk snacks and other pantry supplies. "Some of the kids' friends came over recently and said, 'You have no food here,' " says Béa. "They didn't recognize this as food since there weren't any boxes."
  • Packaging in the fridge: The family shops with glass jars, fabric bags, and canvas totes, and returns containers for a deposit. Even cheese and meat go in jars. Cheese is purchased when it is cut, to avoid plastic wrap.
  • Packaging in the freezer: Béa buys loaves of bread by the dozen from her grocer, carrying them in a pillowcase, which she then transfers to her freezer.
  • Cluttered drawers: Cooking equipment is kept to a minimum and is multipurpose, like a cheese grater dou­bling as a zester.
  • Paper towels: Clean up is done with microfiber cloths. "People are really attached to paper towels," Béa says. "But they're the easiest thing to give up."
Try it
  • The natural-foods aisle is great for dry-good staples and refillable shampoo, conditioner, and Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap.
  • To use glass jars, ensure that your store has a scale to measure their tare (empty) weight.


The living room has only what they need: a sofa, a video player, blankets, and pillows.

What's missing?
  • A single-use couch: The sectional couch here expands to a queen bed; pieces separate for extra seats; and a mirror-top tray turns seating into a table. To buy something similar, Google "adjustable sectional sofa."
  • Books: All come from the library.
  • Photos, art: Memories get stale when photos are displayed for too long, Béa says. To keep the past fresh, albums come out yearly around the holidays. As for art, she hasn't found anything she likes and can afford, although Béa sees the living room wall as an ever-changing art piece.


In the playroom there are four bins of toys. The rule is simple: If the boys want something new to them, it needs to fit in the bins.

What's missing?
  • Lots of toys: If the boys outgrow something, it's donated, sold, or re-gifted. Béa and Scott encourage friends and family to give gifts of expe­rience rather than things. This year, their 10-year-old's birthday gifts included a weekend of skiing and gift certificates to a climbing gym and the local ice cream shop.



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