Zero waste lifestyle: How one family learned to live with less

Why We Wrote This

Many of the conveniences of modern life leave a lasting impact on the environment. Bea Johnson has found that her family’s efforts to shun excess has brought them a different kind of reward.

Jacqui J. Sze/Courtesy of Bea Johnson
Bea Johnson’s family of four produces just a pint-sized jar of trash in a year.

When Bea Johnson’s family moved into a small apartment with just the necessities for a year in 2006, they gained a new perspective on stuff. “When we got everything out of storage, we found that 80 percent of that stuff we hadn’t even missed,” she says. “So we let go of it.” That discovery prompted her to eschew all excess. She parlayed her blog about her family’s newfound lifestyle into a bestselling book, “Zero Waste Home.” This interview has been condensed for clarity. 

How has zero waste changed your life?

Even though we started for environmental reasons, over time we’ve uncovered amazing advantages. We have way less stuff that collects dust in the house, so it can be more easily cleaned. We’re way healthier than before. When you buy your food exclusively unpackaged, you don’t really have access to junk food. With this lifestyle, we’re saving 40% of our overall budget because we consume way, way, way less. To me, the best advantage of this lifestyle is the simple life. We’ve discovered a life that is based on being instead of having. And that, to us, is what makes life richer.

What are the biggest misconceptions about zero waste?

Twelve years ago, if I had heard about a zero waste family, I would’ve thought “this is just for hippies.” But no. You can stick [to] your sense of aesthetics.

People also tend to think that it takes more time. We’ve been able to achieve this zero waste lifestyle without making all these products. [For example,] I don’t make my own toothpaste. We use baking soda, which we buy unpackaged, and we just sprinkle it on a wooden toothbrush. It’s something super simple that’s the way our grandparents used to do it.

How does one live without waste?

The five R’s: No. 1 is to refuse the things that you do not need, whether it be a plastic bag, a business card, straws. The second rule is to reduce. That means [letting] go of all the things that we do not truly use or need in our home. The third rule is to reuse. That means replacing disposables with reusables, so swapping paper towels for rags, tissues for handkerchiefs, disposable razors for reusable ones. The second aspect of reusing is to buy secondhand if you do need to buy something. The fourth rule is to recycle, but it is to recycle only what you cannot refuse, reduce, or reuse. At the end of the day, zero waste does not encourage you to recycle more, but less by preventing waste from coming into your home in the first place. The fifth rule is to rot, and that means composting.

Do you really produce no trash at all?

We produce one jar of trash per year. What’s left are the items we are not able to refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, or rot. For example, it’s the stickers from fruit and veggies, and my husband’s contact lenses. Right now in the jar we have a piece of duct tape that was stuck to someone’s shoe when they came in.

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