Five years ago Bea Johnson and her husband and two sons were looking for a home closer to the restaurants, shops and school in their coastal California town.
During the year they spent house hunting, the family of four moved into a small apartment, took only the possessions that were absolutely necessary and left the rest in storage.
“After living with just the necessities, we realized that we had much more time to spend with our family when we weren’t spending it caring for a large house and lots of belongings,” says Johnson.
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Then, when they did decide on a house, they chose one half the size of their previous home and simplified by selling most of their old stuff.
Around that time, Johnson and her husband began investigating environmental issues. “We read books, watched documentaries, and what we learned worried us and made us sad for our kids’ futures,” she says. “So we decided to do something about it. My husband quit his job to start a sustainability consulting company, and I tackled greening our house.”
It was then that Johnson devised a system to reduce the family’s garbage—she calls it the Zero Waste Home. She started by swapping everything disposable in their home (paper towels, water bottles, grocery bags) for reusables.
Today, she says, her family’s yearly waste can fit in a quart-size jar.
She spoke with us about how to get started, her zero-waste strategies and the one sustainable habit she's just not down with.
LearnVest: Was there something you read or saw that you modeled your Zero Waste Home after?
Johnson: No. Actually, there were no blogs or really anything about being zero waste, so I had to test everything for myself—I did a lot of Googling. Today, the zero-waste lifestyle is easy for us—we don’t even think about it. But [when we were getting started], we had to experiment to find what our limitations were.
What are the basic tenets of the zero-waste lifestyle?
What we do is based on what we call “The Five R’s,” which should be applied in order.
1. Refuse whatever we do not need. For example: junk mail and freebies.
2. Reduce what we do need by donating or selling anything that isn’t absolutely necessary for us to live comfortably.
3. Reuse by buying secondhand, swapping disposable items for reusable items, and shopping with reusable packaging.
4. Recycle. By this point, if you’ve applied the first three R’s, you should be left with very little recycling. For example, what’s left in our recycling bin are bottles of wine that friends bring over and papers sent home from our sons’ school.
5. Rot. Compost anything that can be composted.
RELATED: 6 Ways to Save Money--by Going Green
How did your sons react to the change in your lifestyle?
Our sons [ages 13 and 11] didn’t even know we were doing zero waste until we pointed it out to them. To them, what we do is totally normal. And, the kids have really enjoyed the simplicity aspect of the lifestyle. It clears their heads, keeps them focused, and they say it’s much easier to clean their rooms.
"When my husband compared bank statements from before our zero-waste lifestyle, he found we were saving 40% on annual household costs by living this way."
What is your process for grocery shopping?
For my weekly grocery run, I bring what I call my shopping kit: three totes, five glass jars (one each for meat, fish, solid cheese, grated cheese and deli meat for the kids’ lunches), two different sizes of cloth bags for dried bulk goods and mesh bags for produce.
I buy olive oil, honey, peanut butter, cereal, snacks—almost everything—from the bulk section in our grocery store where the items are unpackaged. I buy grated cheese from the salad bar and, every week, I ask for ten baguettes unpackaged from the bakery. I put them in a pillowcase and then cut them in half, freeze them and then thaw them out as we need them. The produce section is also great for unpackaged foods. The only food that my family eats with disposable packaging is butter—that’s it. We tried making our own butter, but we found that it was not a sustainable option for us.
Do you have any tips for someone who’s just starting to shop this way?
It can be a little hard at first, because people tend to want to replace the brands they’re used to—for example, Oreo cookies—with a bulk alternative. But it’s best not to try to replace brands that you’re used to having but instead embrace the products that are available to you in the bulk section.
Do you explain to the salespeople why you’re using alternative packaging?
I’ve found that the easiest explanation is simply to tell them I don’t have a trashcan. Then they don’t question it.
Do you spend more money shopping this way?
No, we’ve found that it saves money. My husband was worried that buying reusables and shopping the bulk aisle of the health food store would be financially draining, but when he compared bank statements from when we hadn’t begun our zero waste lifestyle in 2005 to 2010, he found that we were saving 40% on annual household costs by living this way. He has been fully onboard ever since.
Wow, that’s great. And what about junk mail—how do you handle that?
We’ve pretty much eradicated junk mail, though we probably get like one piece a week now and even that’s frustrating. There are different ways of doing it, but the most important thing is to go to dmachoice.org and take your name off those mailing lists. Then go to optoutprescreen.com, which is for credit card offers, and then to catalogchoice.org for catalogs. And when you’re sent something, if it’s first class, you can write on it “return to sender.” If it’s third-class mail, you have to open it and contact them directly.
You mentioned finding your family’s limits—what are those?
I tried canning and have decided that it’s something I’ll do only once a year. I can tomatoes because I've found they’re the only nonseasonal produce that I miss in the winter. I’m all about keeping things as simple as possible, so I’m not going to can 20 different things.
Also, we tried to do zero recycling, which for us meant that we had to refuse bottles of wine from friends (we get our wine bottles refilled from a local winery), and we had to make [our own recycled] paper out of all the paper that was coming in from the kids’ school. But on rainy days in the winter, it’s really hard to get the paper to dry. And when you say no to your friends who bring wine, then you’re really restricting yourself.
I’m French, so I’m not going to say no to a glass of wine, and I don’t want anything to be socially restrictive. Life to me is all about sharing experiences and spending more time with friends and family. We found that the best balance for us is to continue doing some recycling rather than go to extremes that are not sustainable in the long run.
For more tips, check out Bea Johnson's blog, or her new book, "Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste."