Zero Waste Home: A Family of Four Gives Up Garbage

The Johnson Family, courtesy Be a JohnsonThe Johnson Family, courtesy Be a Johnson

Bea Johnson, environmental lifestyle blogger and author of Zero Waste Home, says her family of four's household garbage output plateaued about three years ago and has stayed the same ever since: one quart per year. That's not a typo. During a phone interview, I ask her what's in her "waste jar" for 2013 and she pauses briefly as she rummages through the few debris. "A laminated fishing license, a few bits of plastic from an electrical repair, a piece of cable from my son's bike, and a lollipop stick-probably someone gave it to my son and he couldn't refuse, I understand." That's three months of garbage. It would include butter wrappers too, the one food item Johnson buys in packaging since she found it was too expensive and impractical to make, but she's saving them for an art project.

The average American produces over one thousand pounds of garbage a year, and ten years ago, Johnson, her husband, Scott, and two young sons were blithely dragging their overflowing 64-gallon trash cans to the curb in front of their sprawling suburban home just like everyone else. "As life rolled by effortlessly and afforded my Barbie-like platinum blonde hair, artificial tan, injected lips, and Botoxed forehead…" she writes, "we seemed to have it all."

2012 total garbage tally2012 total garbage tally

But, for Johnson, then 32, something was missing. "Deep down, I was terrified…life had become settled and set." She and her husband felt they were spending too much time in the SUV and wanted to trade the strip malls of their bedroom community for the cafes, bakeries, and farmers markets they had loved travelling through Europe in their twenties (Johnson grew up in Provence). In 2005, they downsized first to a tiny interim apartment and then to a 1,500 square-foot house walking distance from downtown Mill Valley, California. Getting rid of eighty percent of their belongings was a revelation: de-cluttering was freeing, they spent less time maintaining their house and their belongings and more time as a family doing the things they truly enjoyed. Gradually, they became increasingly interested in greening their lives and Johnson's goal became to have a "zero waste home." Scott was initially skeptical but two years into the project, he fully embraced it after scrutinizing their budget and discovering they had reduced their annual household costs by forty percent.

Johnson's book is full of tips to live a more eco-friendly life, and outlines the method she developed to virtually eliminate household waste. It's based on her "five Rs": Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot (compost). Refusing to bring excess junk into one's home is the most important and the easiest principle. "There is really no secret to what we do, if we refuse the things we don't need we are left with very little recycling, maybe a few sheets of paper from school and a couple of empty wine bottles," she tells Yahoo Shine. "By accepting a freebie or junk mail you are creating a demand. You are saying 'I love junk mail, send me more, or by taking a free plastic pen you are asking for more plastic pens to be produced." Other simple steps anyone can take are buying bulk food, purchasing clothing second hand, signing up for electronic bills and payments, and bringing your own containers when you get takeout food. Johnson acknowledges that she gets some funny looks when she brings a glass jar to the ice cream parlor but just shrugs it off by saying, "I don't own a trash can."

"There is really nothing I miss," she says. "Even the kids have trouble coming up with something. We have just made this lifestyle really work for us. Maybe there is something you don't want to give up at first but you find alternatives that you can embrace."