How One Woman Created a Zero-Waste Home


zero waste homeFive 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.

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.

  • Tania

    I’ll definitely be checking out your blog. I found this inspiring and interesting. I’m pretty good about eliminating paper and I’ve moved to eating more veggies from the home garden but I’ve still got a long way to go.

  • tahoebeauty

    How does using jars for products that are sold by weight work? Do you end up paying for the weight of the jar also? I love this idea but not knowing how to get around that has kept me from trying it out.

    • Veronica

      Where I shop you just have them weigh the jar before filling it and they will write the weight of the jar on a sticker and put it on the lid. That way when you are paying they can subtract out the weight of the jar.

    • Julie G

      Veronica’s right. It’s called a tare (the weight of the empty container).

  • Aimee Fahey

    Great stuff. Re: butter, the paper covering can be shredded and composted. Unfortunately butter boxes are non-recyclable as they’re woven with plastic. However I’ve realized since I went gluten free, I barely use butter!!